Steuart Pittman grew up hunting and eventing on the backs of Thoroughbreds. Throughout his time in the saddle, the demand for these athletic animals in recreational riding disciplines has decreased. With a desire to see the breed return to its show-ring glory, Pittman gathered a small group of Thoroughbred enthusiasts to brainstorm ways to rekindle the desire for retired racehorses.
This group, which officially became the Retired Racehorse Project (RRP) in 2010, agrees that Thoroughbred ex-racehorses are in need of advocates in racing and recreational riding industries. Unlike other aftercare organizations, the RRP does not directly take in horses to re-home. Instead, their mission is to increase demand for Thoroughbreds through education, which they provide through public events, clinics, training publications, and online media.
Coinciding with their mission of education, the RRP encourages the racing and riding industries to work together to find second careers for off-track Thoroughbreds. To bring these worlds together, the RRP moved their signature event, the Thoroughbred Makeover, to Kentucky this year. The Thoroughbred Makeover will take place Oct. 23-25 at the Kentucky Horse Park - immediately preceding the National Horse Show, which opens Oct. 27, and the Breeders' Cup, which kicks off at Keeneland on Oct. 30. This event has already drawn attention with 350 horses from 42 states, Canada, and England prepared to make the trip to the Bluegrass.
In March, Sarah Coleman talked with Steuart Pittman about the mission of the RRP, the way the Thoroughbred breed is viewed outside of racing, and how the racing and riding industries can work together to secure the future of the Thoroughbred.
What is the philosophy behind RRP?
“RRP is about increasing demand in the riding world for Thoroughbred ex-racehorses and serving the farms, trainers, and organizations that make the transitions from racing happen.
“The philosophy is pretty American. While welfare has its place as a safety net, if we’re serious about putting people, or horses, to work -- something that both species thrive on -- we need to be smart about how we grow the private sector. Applying that philosophy to securing the futures of Thoroughbreds after they race means looking at the two million horse owners in America and how they make their buying decisions so that we, as a group trying to help the Thoroughbreds, make wise marketing decisions.
“It also means looking at how we can engage good trainers from all the riding disciplines where Thoroughbreds excel.”
Did you feel that something wasn’t working in the aftercare industry that could be improved upon with the formation of the RRP?
“Yes. What we are now calling ‘aftercare,’ to me, is one leg of a stool. It involves the very important subsidized nonprofit organizations that take in what the American Horse Council calls ‘unwanted’ horses -- horses that are not marketable because of soundness problems, temperament problems, or low demand for riding horses in the areas where they exist.
“Equally important [the second leg] is the work of preventing horses from being unwanted, or making them wanted. That is where both RRP and The Jockey Club Thoroughbred Incentive Program [TIP] have been effective. TIP offers prize money and awards at non-racing equestrian events to incentivize the ownership of Thoroughbreds. RRP does conventional marketing and educational programs.
“The third leg of the stool is helping racing owners connect with the riding market when they have a sound horse that is ready to retire. According to their website, ‘The Communication Alliance to Network Thoroughbred Ex-Racehorses (CANTER) was begun to help racehorses find new careers by connecting buyers and sellers through posting racehorses for sale on the internet.’ CANTER chapters across the country are the gold standard with this endeavor -- their volunteers spend time on the backstretch of local tracks getting to know the trainers. When a trainer is ready to sell a horse outside of racing, CANTER helps with photos, videos, and a description that goes to a highly trafficked website. To this end, RRP offers a huge ‘Horse Listings’ page that features over 200 horses for sale at any given time.
“Some tracks have a person who places horses on private farms [with or without subsidies] where they can be marketed and sold. This person could be an employee of a nonprofit created by the horsemen and/or the track, or it could be a one or more volunteers.
“All of these models serve racing owners, horses, and buyers, and they move large numbers of horses into great second careers. The RRP Resource Directory lists over 300 farms and organizations doing this work, in an attempt to help open as many lines of communication as possible between buyers and sellers.
“So what is generally termed the ‘aftercare industry’ is really more than the literal meaning of the word ‘aftercare.’ In fact, when people hear words like ‘rescue’ and ‘aftercare,’ they assume that racing left horses in poor condition. That sentiment is not good for racing and it's not good for efforts to market these athletes in other sports.”
According to the 2013 RRP survey called “Exploring the Bridge to Second Careers,” most ex-racehorses are rehomed through word of mouth. Do you feel that this is the most effective way?
“The ‘Exploring the Bridge to Second Careers’ survey got responses from 2,700 owners of 4,200 horses and showed that not only was word of mouth important, but also that direct sales from racing owners is still the most-common method for people to acquire their ex-racehorse.
“Nonprofit aftercare organizations grew as a bridge to second careers from 11 percent six years ago to 19 percent in 2013.
“I don't believe that there is one best way to transition a horse to a new home. Racing owners should be free to decide whether they want to sell directly, donate to a nonprofit, or work through an agent. What matters is that the horse gets a good education to secure its future in the riding world.”
Why are horses that come off the track not valued as highly as horses that have never run? Is there a relationship between number of starts a horse has and his perceived value as a riding horse?
“It is true that ‘unraced Thoroughbred’ is considered a positive in equine classifieds. RRP combats this perception to our 90,000 Facebook fans and in our online articles constantly. We promote the ‘war horses’ for their unflappable attitudes. We discuss the value of ‘proven soundness’ in a horse that can hold up to racing.
“The problem is that people focus on the negative. They talk about the horse their friend had that came off the track with bad ankles but not about the ones that never took a lame step. That's why marketing was invented, to affect people's perceptions.”
Do you feel you fight a stigma about injuries on OTTBs among people looking for a show-horse prospect?
“Yes. It's a bit misplaced, however. We stand a Thoroughbred stallion, Salute the Truth [The Jockey Club name is Boy Done Good], at Dodon Farm Training Center in Davidsonville, Maryland. People breed their warmblood mares to him because they are tired of the hereditary soundness problems in their bloodlines. They want a horse bred to withstand the impact of hard work [eventing]. Science has proven that bone density and ligament strength are enhanced when a horse works at an early age. That probably explains why Idle Dice, a racetrack reject from Charlestown, was still winning grand prix classes at age 21.
“We love getting people to seminars with vets who explain these facts, but we can't say it just once. That's why we are staring Off-Track Thoroughbred Magazine. We need to say it over and over and over.”
What about the stigma of OTTBs being “hot” horses?
“Well, it's true. Thoroughbreds are ‘hot-blooded’ -- but that's why they are the most responsive, trainable, athletic horses on the planet. It's their flight instinct and love of work that allows us to learn to ride with balance and tact. It also saves us when we get in trouble on the trail or the cross country course.
“Young people are a great audience for this message. Yes, you need to learn to balance over your feet and keep your hands from flailing about to ride a Thoroughbred well, but the horses will show you why it’s worth the effort.
“It is also true that the inherent bravery that inspires a Thoroughbred to go to the lead in a race is the source of its ability to settle and deal with almost any situation. We like to tell the stories of Thoroughbreds teaching kids to ride, working as therapy horses, doing police work, and other jobs not normally associated with being ‘hot.’”
How do you address educating people about the Thoroughbred breed?
“We reach huge audiences at horse expos and insist that they include us as headline features. The Most Wanted Thoroughbred Contests this year have been huge successes. Building our Facebook following to over 90,000 [followers] has allowed us to drive traffic to our online articles. Investing in good video has also been important. The 350-horse Thoroughbred Makeover and National Symposium with all the training blogs and the seminars will make a huge impact, as will Off-Track Thoroughbred Magazine.”
United States Equestrian Federation records show that Thoroughbreds have gone from being 40 percent of show horses in 1982 to just 10 percent in 2010. Why do you think there has been such a decline?
“This issue was the subject of my 2010 paper for the National Thoroughbred Racing Association Professional Education Seminar held at Keeneland Race Course. It focused on marketing efforts from other breeds and a spiraling deflation in which low prices drove good sport horse trainers away from Thoroughbreds. When the good trainers switched to warmbloods, those horses started winning at the shows. It was all about market forces and failure to market horses effectively to combat those forces.
“The good news is that [Thoroughbred proponents] can play that game, but we can only succeed if we shift the story in those circles of people from rescue and aftercare to athleticism and trainability. We have to separate the fundraising terminology from the marketing terminology.”
What can the racing industry do to better help ex-racehorses? How can the gap between the racing and riding industries be closed?
“The racing industry has far surpassed any other equine sport or breed in both its concern and its financial commitment to the welfare of its horses. More can be done, and I've outlined areas where I think the focus should shift, but we should never stop reminding the public and the non-racing horse people that racing is the leader in medication testing, veterinary research, surface improvements, and taking care of horses when they become ‘unwanted.’
“Riding people respect racing people when they learn about their good work. Racing people respect riding people when they see them do amazing things with the horses they produce.
“Bringing these two worlds together is one of the best things we can do for the horses we share.”
As RRP’s reports have mentioned, there are few incentives for owners/trainers to retire their ex-racehorses sound. Is there a way to change this?
“There are two incentives for racing owners to retire their horses sound. One is their bank accounts and the other is their hearts. Both are effective, but we can only have an impact on their bank accounts.
“Some people think it’s out of reach, but I believe we can get the demand for off-track Thoroughbreds strong enough that prices increase significantly. If people will pay $5,000 to $10,000 for a sound, good looking horse off the track, that's a good reason to sell before they hit the bottom end of the racing game. Wealthy owners might not care much about that kind of money, but the folks at the lower end do.
“If the sound horses get a bit expensive to buy, then more people will take a chance on the cheaper ones with injuries that need time to heal. How demand increases is of course the subject of this whole interview, right? It's the tagline for our organization, ‘Increasing demand for Thoroughbreds--building bridges to second careers.’”
Since ex-racehorses are typically less expensive to purchase than other riding breeds, does this encourage less suitable adopters/handlers (meaning people who are not ready to take on horse ownership)?
“I have always believed that the more you sell a horse for in the riding world, the more likely you are to get a responsible owner. That's not always true, but I do see people who would never buy a horse for more than $1,500 pretty closely aligned with the people who would never spend more than $4 for a bale of hay, never spend a dime on a riding lesson, and rarely call a vet.
“Good horse care takes more than love. At the same time, a lot of great owners buy horses cheap, and a lot of great owners adopt horses from aftercare organizations. If we get too picky about who acquires these horses, they will pile up fast.”
What was the decision behind moving the Thoroughbred Makeover event to Lexington this year?
“The RRP needed to grow, we saw Breeders' Cup as a great connection, we wanted to be closer to the middle of the country, and we had a lot of encouragement from farms and organizations in central Kentucky that made it a no-brainer.
“We are proud to have been created in Maryland, where horse people are horse people, whether from racing or riding, and where the Maryland Jockey Club, Maryland Horse Breeders Association, and Mid-Atlantic Thoroughbred magazine had the foresight to support what we do. I don't think there is another state that would have launched this organization as effectively.
“We have a huge Maryland contingent coming to the Kentucky Horse Park with us, and it is led by three-time Maryland Million Classic winner Eighttoofasttocatch, who is training for it with Rumsey and Ryan Keefe, wife and daughter of the horse's long-time trainer Tim Keefe, who is also president of Maryland Thoroughbred Horseman's Association. That's a great example of the depth of the Maryland horse world.”
What about launching the magazine?
“The magazine is a long-time RRP goal. Carolyn Karlson, our vice president, has a history in magazine publishing and pushed our board to make the funding commitment to get it launched. Blood-Horse Publications CEO Marla Bickel [now CEO of The Horse Media Group] made this possible. She brought in Stephanie Church, editor of The Horse, and we now have a team that can produce a top-quality publication. The first issue comes out in October and includes the program for the Thoroughbred Makeover. Quarterly publication begins spring 2016.
“We are building our subscriber base with an RRP Founding Member offering that has just been launched. We figure there are 150,000 owners of off-track Thoroughbreds who should get this magazine and that our readership in racing will also be huge. We know that print has been declared dead by some, but even the naysayers are looking at this concept and nodding their heads. It's a lot of work, but what isn't?”
What do you personally look for when purchasing an ex-racehorse?
“I am a three-day eventer and I am tall. I want a horse that floats across the ground and looks like it owns the place. Take a look at our stallion, Salute The Truth and you'll get the picture.”
Do you have a favorite OTTB/why is that one your favorite?
“If I didn't say it was the one that took me to advanced in eventing and spent the last 16 years breeding mares on our farm he'd probably slam me against a wall and take a chunk out of my hide. But don't tell him that I stopped breeding our own mares because I kept finding magnificent horses on the Maryland tracks that I wished I could say I bred. The good ones really are all over the place.”
To find out more about the Retired Racehorse Project and their upcoming events, visit their website RetiredRacehorseProject.org