After falling off its king-of-sport pedestal, this noble breed is experiencing a resurgence in popularity.
The concept of using a retired Thoroughbred racehorse for sport is nothing new. Remember these names? Keen, an American dressage legend, helped the 1976 U.S. Olympic team secure its first dressage medal since 1948—a team bronze—and represented his country again at the 1984 games.
Bally Cor, a U.S. Eventing Association Hall of Fame inductee, put her steeplechasing genes to good use earning team and individual gold at the 1975 Pan American Games, in Mexico City, team and individual gold at the 1976 Montreal Olympics, and team bronze at the 1978 World Championships, in Lexington, Kentucky.
Then there’s Touch of Class, a U.S. Show Jumping Hall of Famer that posted the first double-clear rounds in Olympic history in 1984, earning two gold medals, and became the first nonhuman United States Olympic Committee Female Equestrian Athlete of the Year.
Top horsemen across disciplines have long considered Thoroughbreds the quintessential sport horse, due to their stamina, strength, and heart to spare. In fact, from 1960 to 1976, most U.S. Olympic show jumping and eventing team horses were Thoroughbreds. But for a time, the Thoroughbred’s popularity waned as purpose-bred Warmbloods arrived from overseas, leaving some horses with fewer post-racing options.
In 1997 news broke that Exceller, the only racehorse to best two Triple Crown winners—Seattle Slew and Affirmed—in a single race, had died in a European slaughterhouse. In 2003 reporters revealed that 1986 Kentucky Derby and 1987 Breeders’ Cup Classic winner, Ferdinand, had likely met the same fate in Japan the previous year.
These tragic events renewed a conversation about what to do with ex-racehorses. Horse industry organizations began examining options for racehorses after track and breeding shed retirement and how these animals should be cared for and managed. Interest expanded, and it wasn’t long before the industry witnessed a resurgence in the Thoroughbred’s popularity as a sport horse, aided by many organizations’ efforts to promote the breed.
From the Thoroughbred sport horse’s heyday and the so-called “Warmblood invasion” to the off-track Thoroughbred’s (OTTB) subsequent rise to prominence, here’s a look at the past, present, and future of Thoroughbreds as sport horses.
The Good Ol’ Days
Indeed, the Thoroughbred was the sport horse of choice in the United States for decades. As the aforementioned legends, along with the likes of Miss Budweiser, Idle Dice, Jet Run, Sinjon, Good Mixture, Might Tango, and many more, rose to prominence in their respective disciplines, the OTTB’s allure flourished.
It wasn’t just because of these standouts, however. Riders discovered how Thoroughbreds’ innate characteristics that made them successful racehorses also worked in their favor for other endeavors.
Thoroughbreds are bred for bravery, soundness, and athleticism, says Steuart Pittman, founder of the Retired Racehorse Project (RRP) and a three-day event rider and trainer.
“All three are required to win races,” he says. “To succeed on the track they also must be manageable when they’re super fit, even in a chaotic racetrack environment. Those qualities make them great sport horses, as well.”
Another factor that made Thoroughbreds popular was availability, says Dan Rosenberg, past-president of Thoroughbred Charities of America (TCA). He’s spent more than 40 years working in the Thoroughbred industry, most of it managing and operating the famed Three Chimneys Farm, in Lexington, Kentucky.
“When I was a boy showing hunter/jumper/equitation, everybody rode Thoroughbreds,” Rosenberg says. “So, if you had a racehorse that wasn’t very fast, someone would buy them for second careers in the show ring.”
And, like today, there were individuals who would find horses at the track and resell them to sport and recreational riders after some retraining, Pittman says. One such individual is Ira Schulman, who began buying and reselling Thoroughbreds more than 50 years ago. He is widely credited with rehoming more retired racehorses than any person or organization.
But in the late 1970s a new horse started making waves in America: the European Warmblood. When U.S. Olympians began traveling overseas, purchasing and importing Warmbloods, then quickly bringing them to the top levels of their sports, equestrians took notice.
These horses bred specifically for sports other than racing became “all the rage” in the show ring, Rosenberg says, leaving racing owners and trainers without an outlet to rehome their retired horses.
“As demand for ex-racehorses declined, their prices dropped,” Pittman says. “Horse dealers and (sport horse) trainers followed the money, shifting from Thoroughbred ex-racehorses to imports and purpose-breds.”
He adds that the European breed registries jumped at the marketing opportunity.
“They got American breeders engaged with their inspection process and networks to sell young horses,” he says, “and The Jockey Club failed to respond by promoting its own breed in the sport horse market.”
Pittman says the closest a Thoroughbred entity came to promoting the horses in sport was Kentucky attorney and horseman Ned Bonnie’s “valiant effort” establishing the Performance Horse Registry, which eventually become a multibreed registry under United States Equestrian Federation’s (USEF) purview.
“Horse welfare advocates and the Thoroughbred racing industry both became aware that a problem existed in the 1980s,” he adds. “Horse rescues, retirement facilities, and aftercare facilities stepped in where private resellers and trainers had left. Horses just like those that won Olympic medals for our country in the ’60s and ’70s were being referred to as ‘rescues.’ A new generation of horsemen was being told that these horses were inferior.”
In response, the Thoroughbred industry and others began to support aftercare, founding the Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation in 1983 and TCA in 1990.
“Our first task was to raise the alarm,” Rosenberg says. “Articles began appearing in the press about horses found in livestock auctions that were bought by people who were sending them to slaughter. While Thoroughbreds were a relatively small percentage of these horses, they got the lion’s share of the publicity. I believe that most (racing) trainers and owners were unaware that the people who promised them ‘good homes’ were actually selling them at these auctions.
“When we became aware that this was happening, we organized to educate the Thoroughbred industry about what was happening and to raise money to take care of these horses,” he says. “We have come a long, long way over the past 30-some years. Most owners and trainers and breeders are now very aware and are very supportive and very careful about planning for the retirement of their horses.”
It was during this transition that some of the organizations that are now household names formed. New Vocations Racehorse Adoption Program, for instance, was founded in 1992 with the goal of offering “retiring racehorses a safe haven, rehabilitation, and continued education through placement in experienced, caring homes,” the group’s website says.
And in 1998 the volunteer-run organization Communication Alliance to Network Thoroughbred Ex-Racehorses (CANTER) came to be. Today CANTER and its 18 regional affiliates offer two ways for trainers and owners to rehome their retiring racehorses: They can list their horses for sale on a website, or they can donate horses to CANTER, which then adopts them out to qualified individuals.
“When organizations started coming out with networking options for these racehorses, it made the racing industry a little more appealing to those people who never had any interest,” says Amy Paulus, who operates Paulus Racing and Performance Thoroughbreds, in Florence, Kentucky.
And the attention to aftercare didn’t stop there.
So What’s Changed?
Many factors have played a role in the Thoroughbred’s resurgence as a sport and pleasure mount. Some are novel, while others aren’t so far removed from what made Thoroughbreds popular initially.
Organizations like New Vocations and CANTER have been instrumental in the shift. The former has rehabilitated, retrained, and rehomed more than 6,000 Thoroughbred and Standardbred racehorses to date, and the latter has been involved in transitioning more than 25,000 OTTBs to new homes and careers. More such facilities and programs have launched across North America.
Pittman notes the growth in both the number and size of nonprofit facilities eligible for grants from organizations such as TCA and the more recently formed Thoroughbred Aftercare Alliance (TAA, in 2013). The TAA was launched initially with seed money from Breeders’ Cup, The Jockey Club, and Keeneland Association Inc., and is supported by owners, trainers, breeders, racetracks, aftercare professionals, and other industry groups.
These nonprofits collect funding ranging from small private donations to large gifts from individuals, farms, and organizations.
“The decline in market demand for Thoroughbreds increased the need for subsidized facilities,” Pittman says. “The existence of that funding created an incentive for horse farms to become charitable organizations. Today we have some fantastic aftercare facilities that rehome scores of horses each year, and others that operate in a way that is hard to distinguish from a commercial or hobby farm.”
Another factor is people: The number of private trainers and agents dedicated to finding homes for retired racehorses has also grown. Paulus, who has helped rehabilitate, retrain, and rehome retired racehorses since she was in middle school, has a unique perspective on the market. She and her family have been involved in Thoroughbred training, racing, and breeding for a combined 150 years. Demand for OTTBs increased so much that she left a traditional full-time job to dedicate all her time to rehoming ex-racehorses.
For 2017 Paulus made a goal to find a horse a home per day by year’s end. By November she’d rehomed about 400.
Paulus acknowledges that she and other individuals rehoming wouldn’t be successful without supply and says the trainers and owners she works with across the Midwest and Florida are excited to find their horses new homes when their careers on the track are over.
“I’m thankful they put so much trust in me to do right by their animals, and they are always so happy to see their racehorses excelling in new careers,” she says.
Rosenberg agrees, citing many trainers’ and owners’ proactivity and enthusiasm about racehorse aftercare.
“I don’t just believe more racing owners and trainers are taking steps to retire horses sound to give them a better shot at productive second careers,” he says. “I know it.”
And they’re setting examples by doing so publicly, be it announcing news of aftercare-focused donations or sharing success stories of their retired racers in second careers. Rosenberg says their commitments to these efforts are evident in their continued and growing funding.
Additionally, countless individuals and organizations are taking a page from the Warmblood breed registries’ book and actively promoting the Thoroughbred as a sport and recreation mount.
In founding RRP, for instance, Pittman says he wanted to rebuke that notion he’d observed that all retired Thoroughbreds are rescues with little to no value. “I wanted to bring good trainers back to these horses, increase demand for them, and restore their value both straight off the track and later in life,” he says.
He also played a leading role in developing RRP’s annual Thoroughbred Makeover, in which professionals, amateurs, and juniors select recently retired racehorses to train for no more than 10 months before competing in one of 10 disciplines for a share of cash prizes.
The Jockey Club also developed its Thoroughbred Incentive Program (TIP) to promote the retraining of Thoroughbreds in other disciplines following their racing careers. In addition to presenting awards at competitions with TIP divisions, the program offers incentives for OTTB owners involved in recreational pursuits and noncompetitive careers (such as therapy or police horses) with their mounts.
Rosenberg believes the Makeover, TIP, and other efforts to promote Thoroughbreds have started to create a demand for horses at the end of their racing careers. “I feel strongly that these efforts to market Thoroughbreds as sport horses are beginning to have the desired effect and are ultimately the solution,” he says.
And, of course, there are the OTTBs that garnered national and international attention, competing at the highest levels of their sports, against Warmbloods and other breeds—and winning. You’ll remember these names, too:
For The Moment earned multiple Olympic medals around the time Warmbloods had begun dominating the show jumping arena. He became the oldest horse to win a Grand Prix, at age 21.
Molokai made his mark on eventing as the first USEF National CCI**** Champion at the inaugural Rolex Kentucky Three-Day Event (“Mo” won second, but the winner hailed from New Zealand).
And then there was Gem Twist, who earned Olympic team and individual silver medals in show jumping in Seoul, Korea, and was the only horse to have won the American Grand Prix Association Horse of the Year title three times. The gelding is widely regarded as one of the best show jumpers in history.
Have These Efforts Helped?
In a word, immensely, say our sources.
“Demand and value have increased, especially during the months that trainers are shopping for Makeover horses,” Pittman says. “It varies geographically, and it is more apparent among sound, larger geldings, but there are also more people willing to take on the risk of a horse that needs rehab from an injury. Getting some money for a retiree isn’t important to high-end players in the racing game, but at the lower-end tracks where most horses retire, the sale price is a real incentive to retire a horse when it’s still sound.”
Paulus agrees, noting that OTTBs seem to be thriving in all disciplines, which will only boost demand further. “I talk to people daily who may not be ready to make the move to an off-track horse, but the interest in having one in the future is there,” she says. “Value has seemed to increase more than ever over the past year.”
And, of course, there’s a new generation of OTTB superstars promoting the breed’s athleticism and versatility.
Flashy and fancy Courageous Comet was a longtime fan favorite, representing the United States on both Olympic and World Equestrian Game teams.
Veteran CCI**** eventer Donner has traveled the world competing on the U.S. Eventing team.
And let’s not forget Neville Bardos, an eventer who finished seventh at the CCI**** Land Rover Burghley Horse Trials, just months after being saved from a barn fire that claimed six equine lives.
Still Work to Be Done
Progress in ensuring aftercare has been steady, but there’s still work to be done and concerns to address.
There are still perceptions among equestrians and in the general public that racing is all about the money, and the horses and their care are an afterthought. Rosenberg hopes to change this belief.
“I can categorically say that this isn’t true,” Rosenberg says. “Roughly 85% of the horses in training don’t earn enough to pay their training bills, let alone the cost of production or of acquiring them. If this was all about the money, why would so many people be willing to lose money?”
Some people also believe that racehorses are forced around the track, which Rosenberg says is also far from the truth.
“Labrador Retrievers don’t bring that stick or tennis ball back to you 5,000 times because people taught them to do it; they do it because it is natural dog behavior and one that humans selectively bred for,” he says. “The same is true with Thoroughbreds.”
Ultimately, Rosenberg says, most racing connections want their horses to succeed in whatever they do: “We want to see them be loved and well-cared-for and succeed in second careers.”
There are still questions from those outside the Thoroughbred industry as to why breeders are producing so many horses if thousands of racehorses are already looking for new homes. And what happens to the horses that don’t ever race?
Jockey Club statistics reveal the number of foals born in the United States has decreased by nearly 50% since 1990, when 40,333 foals were registered. An estimated 20,850 foals were registered in 2017.
Rosenberg, citing Jockey Club data, says 71% of all registered foals make at least one start. As for the other 29%, “there are any number of reasons a Thoroughbred might not make it to the track,” he says. “Among these are illness and/or injuries and soundness issues, lack of demonstrated ability—especially with fillies, because ‘unraced’ can be preferable to ‘nonwinner’ in valuing broodmares.
“Colts, geldings, and mares with weak pedigrees who are sound will find second careers in the sport horse world,” he says, “while there are sanctuaries that will take in injured horses not suitable for second careers.”
Pittman points out that the issue of unsound horses that won’t make suitable sport or pleasure mounts isn’t isolated to the racing industry. Still, it’s a reality that must be managed.
“Shipping horses to livestock auctions where kill buyers purchase the low-end horses is no longer considered responsible by a majority of horse owners or the general public,” he says. “As an industry, we must keep up with the times.
“In Maryland we are working on a mobile service that will assist owners in deciding whether euthanasia is the most humane option and helping them navigate the process,” Pittman says. “It will also assist in rehoming horses through a statewide network of farms.”
He also believes there are opportunities for Thoroughbred horsemen’s groups to act as liaisons, linking sellers and buyers.
“As the market for these horses grows, more buyers go straight to the backside,” he says. “CANTER volunteers have done a great job at many tracks, but with increased volume and more public scrutiny of outcomes, horsemen’s groups are in a great position to serve their members with assistance in selling their horses.”
There’s also room for more promotion of Thoroughbreds’ versatility.
“I would like to see even more emphasis on marketing the Thoroughbred as an athlete,” Rosenberg says. “They are highly intelligent, they are courageous, they have been handled every single day of their lives, they have been exposed to all sorts of stimuli, they have shipped all over the place, they are willing and eager to please, which makes them the perfect horse for almost all disciplines.”
Paulus says there are always OTTBs waiting for new homes and, so, room for individuals to get involved, be it networking between sellers and potential buyers, funding retraining organizations, or rehoming horses themselves.
There are still horses that “fall through the cracks of the marketplace,” Pittman adds. Aftercare organizations that find themselves with these horses—ones that are injured, ill, neglected, or otherwise mishandled—aren’t doing easy work, he says, and need support.
Likewise, there’s opportunity to keep horses from falling through the cracks in the first place. One way is simply through ID methods. While Thoroughbreds have long been assigned individual tattoo numbers, The Jockey Club began mandating microchips starting with the 2017 foal crop. This will make identifying horses before races easier, as well as help with traceability after retirement.
From when the Thoroughbred was undeniably king to the current season of resurging popularity among sport and recreational riders, racehorse aftercare has been—and remains—a topic of great debate and discussion. There will always be more work to do, but industry members and organizations have helped soften the landing for countless Thoroughbreds once they’ve left the track for the final time.
Our sources agree on one element that’s still driving the effort after all these years: a love for horses.
“In the end,” says Rosenberg, “we are all horse lovers and want what is best for the horse. Every person I have worked for since I was 12 years old has stressed the importance of our No. 1 priority being what is best for the horse. We recognize that taking care of retired horses is our ethical obligation, and we are working hard to do it.”