A well-traveled racehorse, Worthy of Wings is the perfect example of all the best qualities of a warhorse-turned OTTB.
Starting her racing career in the United States in 2008 as a 3-year-old, she ran in the U.S. until the fall of 2014 when she was sent to Puerto Rico. Worthy of Wings held her own in her new location, winning every year until 2018. It was at that point that her connections decided Worthy of Wings was ready to retire after 138 starts.
That’s where the Thoroughbred Aftercare Alliance-accredited Caribbean Thoroughbred Aftercare Program (CTA) and her future adopter, Kyle Rothfus, came in.
The previous year, Rothfus had adopted Run Binky Run from the organization and showed her at the 2018 Retired Racehorse Project’s Thoroughbred Makeover. The pair had a rocky journey to the Makeover with Rothfus not able to even ride the mare until the week before they left for the Makeover in Kentucky. Still, she impressed by taking everything in stride during that time.
It was at the event when talking to CTA’s Kelley Stobie that he found his next Makeover horse: Worthy of Wings.
“Kelley mentioned a mare who had raced 138 times and was bred in Ohio and that they were having trouble finding a home for her. Warhorse mares are my favorite, and I live in Ohio, so it seemed like a no-brainer to figure out how to get her from Puerto Rico to my place for the 2019 Makeover.”
While Rothfus was hopeful Worthy would be a good candidate for the Thoroughbred Makeover, he became convinced when he saw a video of her trotting in her field. He also knew that any horse who has the warhorse title (a racehorse who has made 50 starts or more) had the mental toughness needed to handle the Makeover – especially one who made nearly 140 starts.
After her quarantine period in Puerto Rico and Miami, Rothfus picked Worthy up in Kentucky from Brook Ledge (who had donated her van trip from Florida) in November and got to work. He had less than a year to get Worthy ready for this year’s Makeover.
“The biggest challenge training for the Makeover is definitely feeling pressured,” Rothfus said. “I am known for taking lots of time on the ground and spending months just hanging out with my horses to build a relationship. That is still possible with the Makeover, but it feels like less of an option as you see other trainers progressing at a faster pace – some are even at shows by spring while I'm still waiting for winter to thaw in Northwest Ohio. If you can run your own race, that goes away.”
However, getting his mount in early November worked well for Rothfus, as Thoroughbred Makeover horses cannot be ridden more than 15 times in non-racing situations before Dec. 1 of the year before the event. That meant he could spend more time doing groundwork with his mount without feeling that he was behind schedule. He was able to get to know Worthy, especially about her mental focus – or, rather, lack of it.
“The biggest challenge I've faced with Worthy is extending her attention span,” Rothfus said. “After around 15-20 minutes of work, she tends to want to return to the barn, and that makes total sense for a warhorse. Most of them come out once a day for a breeze, and then go back to their stalls; I am asking her to do a lot more focused work for a longer period of time. Thankfully, she is a kind horse so her tantrums are minor, but we've had to be very patient about working up to training sessions that extend beyond 30 minutes.”
Rothfus expected that challenge. He says many of the warhorses he’s worked with are set in their routines and it can take a bit longer for breakthroughs to happen.
“My warhorses always seem to be better at retaining what they learn, but it can sometimes take longer to reach that first breakthrough,” he said. “They understand a routine and are very competent at a job, but they need a little extra on-the-job support and patience in the beginning to make the transition. Once the light bulb goes off, they already have all the soft skills necessary to apply what they learn into a new routine and a new job. The very fact they've had the same routine for longer than a horse who didn't race as much just means they might need longer to unlearn and relearn.”
While Worthy and Rothfus had many light-bulb moments in their training, those moments aren't what he considers their biggest accomplishment. Worthy came with a reputation of being aggressive toward other horses, so the day she could be turned out with other horses without incident was a big moment in her new life.
“The reason I view that as my biggest accomplishment is because I believe is shows how much her confidence and relaxation has improved,” he said. “Having lived through multiple hurricanes, it is very likely she had to fend for herself or lacked a sense of security without a wall between her and other horses. Now that she's able to remain relaxed around other horses even without a barrier to protect her really says a lot about her transformation. For me, training is about giving the horse a sense of confidence more than the ribbons on my wall.”
After working with multiple warhorses and seeing how professional horses such as Worthy of Wings are in learning their new career, Rothfus recommends that anyone looking for an OTTB give warhorses a close look. He says that their age and number of starts shouldn’t scare buyers away because often those qualities are big positives when trying to find a tried and true racehorse.
“They have been there and done that, and once they see you are a kind partner, they will give you everything. They have heart, and that is greater than anything else,” he said.
Worthy of Wings is one of the two oldest horses in the upcoming Makeover and she has the second-most career starts of the horses entered. She will be showing her talents in the Trail and Freelance disciplines at the Thoroughbred Makeover from Oct. 2-5 at the Kentucky Horse Park.