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Without The Long Format, What Will Become of Race Track Rejects?

Mike Hillman

In 2002, Secret Intention was a hot 8-year-old Thoroughbred who had just won a steeplechase, but was not fast enough to make it a career. Prior to that try at steeplechasing, his life was spent at the flat track. When I got on him, he threw me off. As I trotted him over a fence, he threw me off. He had one watch eye, four white socks and an attitude. It took me half an hour to load him. As we drove away and I listened to him kick the trailer wall, I wondered why I had bought him.

Today, he's without a doubt the finest horse I have ever owned.

How many of us have gone horse shopping and had a horse presented that "didn't have the moves for dressage," or "didn't have the jump for the show ring," or "was too hot for a hack horse," but "would make an excellent event horse."

At one time, the ranks of Eventing were filled with these dressage, hunter and hacking rejects. We knew little about their race record, nor did we care. All we knew was that they had come into our care for only a fraction of their original pre-race price, and now they were priceless.

We laughed at the head toss and the buck in dressage, knowing we would make up the points lost to those steady warmbloods with our fast and clean cross-county run. While the warmbloods huffed and puffed their way around the steeplechase, racking up penalty points like a slot-machine gone nuts, Thoroughbreds were in seventh heaven flying effortlessly over fences and around the courses.

In days of old, one didn't have to take out a second mortgage on the farm for a new mount to be competitive. Because cost was never really an issue, the ranks of the sport were open to any rider with the will to do it and the brains to follow through. You didn't have to be rich to be good. Eventing was the ultimate egalitarian equestrian sport.

For the castoffs from the tracks, Eventing was their back up career, their Plan C (steeplechasing usually the Plan B). Eventing gave a purpose to that speed. Maybe they didn't have the speed for the track, but it sure was useful in Eventing. Eventing gave these race-track rejects a second purpose, a chance for glory. It required stamina, ability, heart, and most of all brains. Sadly, those days seem to be fading.

Slowly, Eventing has been shifting to favor the warm-bloods and heavier mixed breeds. I personally never did understand the addition of the second 10 minute hold box at a three day—other than to level the cross country phases playing field for the warmbloods—to give them time to recover—something the Thoroughbreds didn't and don't need.

Having lost their natural edge on the cross country phase, dressage has become the deciding factor in many events. The outright elimination of the steeplechase phase in the Olympic format will only increase the weighting on the dressage phase, putting upward pressure on the price of success.

The recent modifications to the format of the Olympic event only further erode the Thoroughbred's chances, weighing the odds even more against our fleet-footed friend.

As dressage scores increasingly come to dominate the sport, riders will no longer head to the local race track for their next mount. Bidding wars for a horse that can win the dressage phases will start, indeed, already have started. It'll not take long for Eventers to realize that one's ranking at the end of the day is reflective of the price one paid for the horse. And many, unable to bear the increasing costs to be competitive, will choose not to participate.

Which brings me back to my loony ex-race horse—had I not come along, what would have been his fate? What will become of all the racehorses? Who's going to put up with all their shenanigans when their speed and endurance no longer give them an edge?

I was proud of our sport for being able to offer a second chance, for "recycling," for being a sport that found some-thing good in something old.

I like being part of a sport that put higher value in what was in a horse's heart, mind, and spirit, than in his pedigree. I liked being in a sport where a kid without two nickels to rub together had the same chance of winning as one born with a silver spoon in his mouth.

The race track is not going to cease producing horses, and thus there will always be race-track rejects. What will be-come of these off-casts in our increasingly disposable, throw-away world? I cast my vote in favor of keeping the steeple-chase phase, and while we're at it, let's deep six the extra 10 minute hold box, and in doing so, give a second chance to all the Secret Intentions of the world and hope to every kid, rich or poor, that they too can one day represent the U.S. at a 'real' Olympic Three Day Event.

(2/19/2014) What is not included in the story above is Archie's real story ...

Unbeknownst to us, he had a chip in his left front ankle from racing. Instead of giving him a break and taking the chip out, his owners simply injected it and keep running him until his ankle was ground to next to nothing.

Then they sold him to a steeplechase trainer - he ran once and came up crippled.

He was injected again, at which time I bought him through an intermediately who was not aware of the history of prior injections. Yes I  was told he had a chip in his ankle, but I was told it had never been an issue. As I subsequently learned, that was not the truth.

After three weeks of work he went head bobby lame. Unaware of his background, we chose to inject him. I got two events (in three weeks) out of him before he went lame again. At which point I took him VT's Equine Medical Center in Leasburg and discovered the truth about his ankle.

We did surgery on the ankle, but his prognoses was guarded at best. When he recovered I did one novice event and moved him up to Training. He won almost every event he was in - and always won the dressage! I think his five training dressage scores are still my best five ... and I've had some exceptional horses!

But his ankle just didn't hold up and at the end of the season we had to send him to surgery again, following which my wife and I opted to retire him for good. He was too nice and kind a horse to abuse.

That was 12 years ago. I think I got 8 events, if that, out of him

He was the flashiest mover, and scopest jumper I ever had. I often wonder how high he would have risen in the event world had his original owners had taken the time to put him first before profit.

While he was retired - he still had a very important job to do.

In spite of his ankle, Archie loved to jump. Where the other horse would run through a open gate, Archie would jump the three board fence next to gate. It was impossible to keep him in a pasture if he didn't want to be in it - he would simply jump out! (Katie got to watch this repeatedly when she taught me at my farm.)

So we decided to use that to our advantage.

Archie's job was to teach all the new horses how to jump. We would place them in a pasture with him and stand back and watch him jump out. Sometimes the young horses would follow, sometimes not. If they didn't, we would put him back in, again and again, until they would follow him. Everyone 'taught' by him now freely jumps our fence line.

For that alone - to say he was worth his weight in gold would be an understatement.

He was probably the happiest horse I ever new. He had the best stall manners. Of all my horses, he was the closest that ever came to being called a 'Gentleman.'

But once again he got cheated in life.  On Feb 16 he died of colic.

Even in his last moments, when he was shaking with pain, he was obedient.

He deserved a much longer life then he got.

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