Thoroughbred Makeover: Growing by Leaps and Bounds

Six years. That’s nearly 313 weeks and precisely 2,190 days. And when the 2019 Thoroughbred Makeover presented by Thoroughbred Charities of America begins on Oct. 2, in Lexington, Kentucky, it’s exactly the amount of time that will have passed since the inaugural Thoroughbred Makeover and National Symposium wrapped up in 2013.

Besides having moved from one iconic location to another — Pimlico Race Course, in Baltimore, Maryland, to the Kentucky Horse Park — the event has transformed markedly, from a showcase of 26 off-track-Thoroughbreds’ (OTTBs’) performance after 90 days of retraining to a competition featuring nearly 500 with 10 or fewer months of retraining.

With the Makeover, Retired Racehorse Project (RRP) launched a movement that has both increased demand for OTTBs as pleasure and sport horses and facilitated their placement after retirement from racing. This year, in its seventh iteration, organizers expect more than 4,000 Makeover attendees, who will have the opportunity to watch three days of exciting and diverse competition, learn from seminars and the Master Class and review an elite collection of OTTBs for sale in one place. Thousands more will watch the competition and seminars via livestream.

From the sheer number of attendees and competitors to the varied educational and horse-shopping opportunities, here’s how the Makeover has evolved since its inception.

Dawning at Old Hilltop

The Makeover launched to great fanfare in 2013 at Pimlico, attracting 800 Thoroughbred and sport horse enthusiasts (and many others online). On the storied track where the likes of Man o’ War, Citation and Secretariat had run, trainers demonstrated the skills their horses had amassed in the previous three months.

Here at “Old Hilltop,” people who had always admired retired racehorses found their tribe and were able to share these animals’ boundless talent with each other and general sport-horse enthusiasts. People who might have never considered the OTTB an equine partner could gather in one place to learn and talk about what these horses could do.

“It was one of those ideas that was too good to not do and do well,” says Jen Roytz, RRP executive director.

From there the event grew steadily, its stage shifting from regional to national. The tribe also grew. Moving the event to the Kentucky Horse Park in 2015 meant the RRP could expand its capacity and division offering, which attracted more riders and Thoroughbred enthusiasts who endeavored to participate or at least spectate.

“Being based in Maryland with such a deep equestrian community was the perfect place to launch the Makeover, and it started putting the off-track Thoroughbred movement in a brighter spotlight amongst those in the Thoroughbred industry,” said Roytz.

“Once we made the move to Kentucky, everything has continued to snowball in the best way possible year after year,” she adds, “from the number of horses we see compete from around the U.S. and Canada and their racing and breeding connections who come to watch them to the increased media attention the event and off-track Thoroughbreds in general have continued to receive.”

Rightfully so, because the event is compelling in its Thoroughbred aftercare significance; its first six events directly impacted the careers of more than 2,647 horses. (Not every trainer accepted to the Makeover makes it to the event — circumstances change, horses get injured, life happens. So even beyond the horses competing in Kentucky, the Makeover influences retired racers.)

“It would be safe to say that we’ll probably impact another 700 or so horses this year, all told,” says Kirsten Green, RRP director of operations. “That kind of trajectory? The remarkability of that has not changed for us. If you think back to the days at Pimlico, no pun intended, it’s a completely different animal of an event now than what it originally was.

“I think we really tried to stay true to the original core intention that Steuart (Pittman, RRP founder, former president and current board member) came up with and implemented,” she adds. “Even this year when we’ve overhauled the rules and made what feel like really significant changes, we’ve always tried to make sure we’re still true to the mission and the original format.”

More Than a Competition

Roytz says the Makeover has become a beacon not only in the Thoroughbred sport horse world but also the sport horse world at large.

“The vibe of the competition has always been camaraderie over competitiveness, but every year it’s just exponentially more so,” she says. “It’s one of those competitions where people come and make friends that they have forever.”

Over the past six years RRP has offered seminars and roundtables for attendees and competitors to learn better tactics for rehabilitating, restarting and caring for OTTBs. In 2018 organizers added a Master Class to help current and potential trainers evaluate prospects and begin training in ways that build solid foundations and partnerships.

“Although it’s super cool to compete in the Kentucky Horse Park and in the Rolex stadium, people also come to meet people and to learn from each other and to support each other,” says Roytz, “and I think there’s something really unique and special about that.”

Careers Launched, Reinvigorated

While OTTBs remain the focus, they aren’t the only ones benefiting from the Makeover. Green says some of the event’s repeat competitors have credited the Makeover with reinvigorating their business models and reigniting their passion for working with OTTBs. These trainers have used the event’s platform to grow their businesses and, in return, have become great ambassadors for RRP.

Then there are the juniors, some of whom have gained great experience and exposure training Thoroughbreds at the Makeover while continuing to give back to the organization.

Mustangs

Increasing Awareness

The Makeover can also be credited with raising racing industry awareness about the potential these athletes have for performance careers that extend years beyond their final track starts.

State and racetrack incentive awards, which have been on the rise since the announcement of the first track-based award in 2017, have contributed to this awareness. These awards generally recognize top-scoring Makeover horses acquired through certain programs or bred or run in particular states.

Incentive award expansion means Makeover trainers can be strategic about the horses they choose, setting them up to earn even more money if the competition goes well.

“With the special awards, it’s really started to evolve into a driver for how some people source their horses,” says Roytz. “So, let’s say they find a horse that’s a New-York-bred that had a longer career on the track; the horse could qualify for both the $5,000 New York-bred award and a $500 Iron Horse award (horses 10 years and older are eligible), in addition to her potential share of the $100,000 prize money.”

She explains that the racing industry is taking notice because awards have clearly translated into more horses being adopted or purchased off the track in the states, programs or at the racetracks extending them.

“They’re seeing tangible results that their investment is paying off,” she says.

The racing industry is staying informed on a more granular basis, as well. Roytz says it’s common for an OTTB’s racing connections — breeders, former owners, trainers, people who prepped the horses at the sales — to follow the Makeover journey on blogs and social media and even watch the competition.

“We send out postcards to the breeders to let them know that a horse they bred is competing in the biggest retraining competition in the world,” says Roytz. “That has really been a driver for putting us on people’s radar and bringing people out to the Makeover.”

Demand Realized

Members of the greater horse industry are getting out to the Makeover, too — some for the unique horse-shopping experience it affords. It’s one place where the goal of increasing demand for these athletes comes to fruition in palpable ways: potential OTTB owners connecting with their future mounts.

“The Marketplace has evolved into the go-to place to find a solid sport horse prospect because nowhere else in the country can you come across so many well-started horses with a solid foundation of experience and off-site travel and competition in one place,” says Roytz. “Usually if you horse-shop you have to go to this barn in this state to look at one horse and to this barn in this state to look at one or two horses. And here you’ve got 150 horses that are for sale in one place.

“For someone looking for a horse, I can’t imagine a better scenario playing out in front of them,” she adds. “They can see how they handle competition and all that comes with it. They can try them out, they can vet them.”

Looking Forward

Six years of fine-tuning have made the Makeover the premier event that it is. Even so, we’ll see some changes to format and offerings in 2019. This year the team competition graduates from pilot program to official division. After a few years’ respite from the Working Ranch division, the cows are back, and RRP has added Western Dressage to the lineup. Green is excited about the possibilities these changes offer.

“I think our representation in the Western community is getting better and better every year, which I think is a huge step for this breed,” she says. “Also, I love our Master Class, and I’m excited to put it together again this year. I think it’s a really good spinoff session that’s developed.”

Only Days 2,191 through 2,194 of the Makeover’s thriving run will tell what memories this year’s edition will bring.

“I feel like we’re really seeing the evolution of what this event can be,” says Roytz. “It’s the most unique horse show that most — if not all — of the competitors, as well as our staff and everyone else, has ever seen. But it’s expanding into so much more than that; it’s more like a meeting of the minds when it comes to everything Thoroughbred sport horse.”


Off-Track Thoroughbred Magazine Fall 2019Republished with permission of Off-Track Thoroughbred Magazine, the official publication of Retired Racehorse Project, which celebrates these extraordinary athletes and their capabilities as pleasure and sport horses. Join RRP and get the quarterly Off-Track Thoroughbred free as one of many membership benefits at retiredracehorseproject.org/join.