This story was originally written in 2017 and has been re-published with an update on Sam P. (see below).
Ten years ago, Sam P. was part of one of the best 3-year-old crops in recent history when making his way along the 2007 Kentucky Derby trail around the country. Today, ‘Sam’ is enjoying life at a slower pace as a dressage horse.
A $200,000 yearling, Sam P. broke his maiden at second asking when racing at the prestigious Saratoga meet as a 2-year-old. He competed on the Derby trail in multiple regions from then on, first racing in the Futurity Stakes at Belmont Park before winning under the twin spires in a Churchill Downs allowance as a 2-year-old. He started his 3-year-old season in the Holy Bull stakes in Florida but found his biggest successes when shipped to Santa Anita Park.
Exactly a month after the Holy Bull, Sam finished second in the Grade 2 Robert B. Lewis Stakes, his best finish in a Kentucky Derby prep. He stayed in California for the next month and ran in the Grade 1 Santa Anita Derby next out where he sealed his spot in the Kentucky Derby when finishing third to Tiago.
In a deep Kentucky Derby field won by champion Street Sense – which also included eventual two-time Horse of the Year Curlin and top-class Hard Spun – Sam P. finished ninth to end his journey on the Triple Crown trail. He stayed at Churchill for his next start where he finished third in the Northern Dancer Stakes. He would spend the next year competing in a few other graded stakes races before spending more time in allowance races until his retirement from the track in 2010.
It turned out that racing was only the first adventure in Sam’s life, as he found himself training for a second career at New Vocations Racehorse Adoption. That career change led to Laura Vorwerk entering his life four years ago.
“I saw him online [on the New Vocations website] and loved his pictures and video, and when I went to Lexington to see him in the flesh I realized that his pictures just didn't do him justice,” Vorwerk said. “He is a big horse with great conformation and movement, but his personality is the icing on the cake. He oozes charisma and is very interested in people. I could tell that he would be a neat horse to have around the barn, and as it turned out, he is also lovely to ride!”
Not surprisingly, successful racehorses can have similar attitudes to successful athletes, and Sam occasionally lets his opinions known to Vorwerk when he doesn’t agree with her plans. While the gelding likes people and is never mean, that attitude can intimidate some new acquaintances. But Vorwerk has come to an understanding with him.
“He is a supremely confident, people-oriented horse, but can definitely have a mind of his own. He has an outstanding work ethic and really loves being in a regular program, but when he doesn't get his regular turnout he can be a real handful. He is never, ever malicious but he can get rowdy, and because of his size and athletic ability he does intimidate some people,” she said. “He has mellowed out a little bit since I got him four years ago, but for the most part he's still the same horse he was when I brought him home. He and I are a good match because even though he can have a mind of his own sometimes, I rarely get rattled. We've kind of settled into an understanding and work well together.”
But their path together hasn’t always been an easy one. A few years ago Sam became hard to ride. He would be acting perfectly for Vorwerk one second, and then bolt and buck with no warning. As the problem got worse, despite changes Vorwerk made, a vet was brought in to see if a physical issue may be causing the problem.
“I took him to a vet and we found out that he had a pinched nerve in his neck which was creating some significant pain,” she explained. “It was such a relief to know that there was something wrong and that I could do something about it. Once we treated the inflammation and I started riding again he was back to being the same old dude he was before the issue started. I'm glad I stuck with it and sought out multiple opinions.”
Not surprisingly after the frustrations of dealing with physical issues, Vorwerk says her biggest accomplishment with Sam P. was a successful outing the summer after his neck issues.
“There have been so many things I've enjoyed about owning this horse, it's hard to pick one,” she said. “I would say my biggest accomplishment was taking him to the New Vocations Charity show the summer after we got his neck issues under control and having a great weekend there. I showed him at First Level for the first time and did better than I expected, so it really felt like that giant hurdle of bolting issues was finally behind us.”
The partnership took a small break when Vorwerk had a baby last year, but they’ve picked back up where they left off in recent months. Her goal for this year is to check off a bucket list item by showing him at the Kentucky Horse Park in Lexington, Ky., this summer, only about an hour down Interstate 64 from Churchill Downs.
While Vorwerk has always loved the Thoroughbred breed, Sam P. has made her a convert for life even with the challenges he’s thrown at her through the years.
“I can't say enough about [off-track Thoroughbreds],” she said. “I've always thought Thoroughbreds were classically beautiful, and Sam P. embodies everything I've always loved about the breed. He is an once-in-a-lifetime horse and I'm lucky to have him in my life.”
Update from Laura Vorwerk (March 2019):
"Sam is doing great. He actually moved home with me about two weeks ago, so instead of boarding him I can now look out my kitchen window and see him and his paint horse buddy running around in the field. It's great! My 3-year-old son is over the moon that there are horses outside now and he absolutely loves feeding them treats. I'm not riding him much right now because I had another child in May and my free time is short, but I'm hoping to get back into it this summer.
“The nice thing about Sam is that even if I don't ride him for a while I can saddle up after a hiatus and for the most part it feels like he didn't have any time off. He doesn't take much tuning up to get back to where he was before the break. He seems content with being my pleasure horse companion, so I think that's what he's going to be for the foreseeable future. Now that he's a little older he's mellowed out and doesn't seem to mind the more laid-back lifestyle."