Ten Lessons Learned From 2019 Thoroughbred Makeover

Fallon Taylor with 2019 Thoroughbred Makeover Champion Cowboy Swagger. (Melissa Bauer-Herzog/America's Best Racing)

When I arrived at the Retired Racehorse Project’s (RRP) Thoroughbred Makeover Presented by Thoroughbred Charities of America on Tuesday, Oct. 1, the Kentucky Horse Park was already buzzing that evening.

Though the event didn’t officially start until Wednesday morning, more than 450 recently retired Thoroughbreds had made their way to Lexington, Ky. After passing a mandatory wellness exam upon arrival, show-week preparations began as their riders took them to check out the grounds and prepare for the week ahead.


While many horses had been on the grounds for hours before I arrived, it was still a busy evening as competitors took advantage by getting their mounts and themselves used to sights around the areas in which they’d be showing. While watching all the activity, I realized just how different – and more relaxed – this show is compared with others.

Here are ten lessons I learned from this year’s Thoroughbred Makeover while observing the action.

1. Racing Connections Really Want to See Their Horses Succeed in Other Careers – Horse racing has gotten a lot of flack lately, but in the week before the makeover it became clear to me just how much racing connections want their horses to succeed, no matter the career. I helped RRP reach out to some racing connections in the week before the makeover. After the show, when I sent them the results and some photos of their horses, I felt like I was giving them Christmas presents with how excited they were!

2. Watching the Warm-Up Teaches You a Lot – If you don’t ride horses, watching people warm up their horses may be boring. But much like when watching horses in the post parade at the track, you learn a lot about horses and riders by watching them warm up. With these horses not allowed more than 15 non-racing-related rides before Dec. 1 of last year, they are still early in their training, so some had “baby” moments when preparing for their classes. Seeing how riders handled those moments and how kind other riders were to those who were having issues proved that, at the end of the day, the Thoroughbred world is all just one big family.

3. The Horses Aren’t the Only Ones With Second Careers – A quote by retired Grade 1-winning jockey and Thoroughbred Makeover Eventing Champion Rosie Napravnik when I interviewed her after the competition stuck out to me: “This is the horse that I hope to go up the levels on in eventing and sort of go for that second career myself. This horse is just as big a part of my second career as I am in his.”

Not everyone at the makeover is a professional or has spent time in the racing industry, but Napravnik was far from the only person there looking to jump on a new path at the show. Yes, the competition is about the horses; but as we saw throughout the week, the horses were helping the riders learn something new just as much as the riders were helping them.

Just In Flash competed in the Competitive Trail discipline. (Melissa Bauer-Herzog/America's Best Racing)

4. It’s OK to Have Fun – Yes, riders were on green (inexperienced) horses and, yes, there were some hiccups in and out of the rings, but most riders came out of the ring smiling. The makeover is the culmination of 10 months of training. Just making it to a goal this size with a horse can be challenging in itself. Riders traveled to Kentucky from all over North America and between the stall decorations — one group of stalls had live music and farm animals, while another put a swimming pool in the back of their truck … as you can imagine, both were popular! — and all the celebrations by the show rings, it was obvious they all remembered the blood, sweat, and tears it took to get here and were going to enjoy every moment of it.

5) Makeover Showcased Sportsmanship at its Finest – It isn’t hard to find good sportsmanship at any equine event but the makeover took it to a whole new level. No matter where I was on the showgrounds, I saw riders helping each other and cheering each other on. Watching the finale from the out-gate was something else. In every division, competitors from that same division and others would come watch and cheer on people that they hadn’t even met a few days before.

6) It’s All About the Training – There were some questions about the “whys” and “hows” of the makeover scoring, but the big answer for those questions was often that this is a training competition. While the horses are the stars here, the goal is to help prepare them for their second careers and the judging is on how the rider is achieving that goal rather than the end result. The judging may be different than some competitors are familiar with, but a big tip to remember is that the makeover isn’t the end-goal for these horses, it’s just another step in their training.

7) Thoroughbreds Are Versatile – This is a bit of a “duh” lesson one that was so apparent it must be mentioned. With the 10 disciplines taking place, it wasn’t unusual to see Thoroughbreds walking next to each other in different tack  or even wearing both Western and English tack throughout the week. Many of the horses were entered in more than one division with some of the disciplines they entered being extremely different from each other. For example, Fidelis entered Eventing and Ranch Work! Just being able to get a horse trained in one discipline in the 10 months available to the competitors is a challenge, but showing in two is a whole new level. Even more impressive is that six of those horses cross-entered in different divisions made it to the finale in both divisions.

8) Even Stakes Horses Need Second Careers – We often think of horses needing second careers as horses who just weren’t fast enough for the track, but that isn’t reality. While some stakes horses do well enough to earn a job as a breeding stallion or a broodmare, others don’t get chosen for that option and need a new career. The makeover is a great place to showcase just how well ultra-competitive racehorses adapt to second careers with three Kentucky Derby runners entered in the makeover (Samraat had to scratch in the days before the competition) and multiple Grade 1 winners entered, including Eclipse Award-winning steeplechaser Dawalan. One of those Grade 1 winners even won a division of the makeover with Diplomat taking home top honors in the Field Hunter Division.

Cowboy Swagger competed in the Barrels discipline and was 2019 Thoroughbred Makeover Champion. (Melissa Bauer-Herzog/America's Best Racing)

9) It’s Fun to Cheer on Your “Friends” – As a Vancouver, Wash. native, I often stop down at Oakhurst Equine in Oregon when I’m in town. Oakhurst is where Kentucky Derby winner Grindstone and fellow Derby winner Giacomo live. It is the farm that bred Grindstone’s son Cowboy Swagger, the horse who won the whole competition. In a bit of a twist of fate, I’d met “Swagger” during his early days at Oakhurst, so it was fun to not only see him do so well in Barrel Racing but also win the competition. Watching horses that you know from their racetrack days — whether from working with them or just watching them race — and seeing them do so well in their post-racing careers was a big topic of conversation.

10) We’re All Part of the Same Team – Seeing the camaraderie at the makeover and the appreciation everyone had for Thoroughbreds reminded me of a fact that sometimes gets lost in the shuffle: no matter if we’re in love with Thoroughbreds as racehorses or as showhorses, we all have the same goal in mind – to see these horses succeed. While we may have different opinions on how best to reach that goal or interest in different disciplines, no matter what part of the industry we come from, we’re all in it for the horses.

To learn more about the Retired Racehorse Project and the Thoroughbred Makeover, visit https://www.retiredracehorseproject.org. Applications open soon for the 2020 Makeo

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