The highlight for many during the Thoroughbred Classic Horse Show this past weekend was the Trainer vs. Jockey Calcutta that pitted trainers of John Sadler, Kristen Mulhall, and Janet Armstrong’s ilk against jockeys of the caliber of Aaron Gryder, Rafael Bejarano, and Kayla Stra.
And what was gleaned from this epic tussle? While many a great jock may be able to navigate their way to the winning post quicker than anyone else, navigating over a shin-high show-jumping rail is evidently not nearly so straightforward.
Held at the Los Angeles Equestrian Center in Burbank, California, and presided over in suitably droll fashion by retired Santa Anita executive Alan Balch, the show jumping challenge contained any number of committed performances. But with steering discrepancies, speedometer issues, and stirrup irons that hadn’t been lengthened from Los Alamitos that afternoon, the level of horsemanship on display was motley at best.
All gallant competitors, however, did share one common denominator: They were all riding ex-racehorses who had once graced a Californian racetrack – including the likes of Sarafan, hero of the G1 Eddie Read Handicap at Del Mar in 2002.
“And some of the horses here may be someone’s project that they’re rehabilitating or retraining from the racetrack,” said Nicole Schwartz, who not only conceived of the Thoroughbred Classic Horse Show series, but who now takes on the task of ringmaster keeping the whole circus running smooth.
Sponsored by the California Retirement Management Account (CARMA)—California’s flagship non-profit that channels funds into re-homing programs for retired racehorses—the two-day Thoroughbred Classic Horse Show comprised a laundry-list of different events, with everything from barrel-racing and pole bending to dressage classes and hunter trials.
Schwartz’s reasoning behind the event is to promote the versatility of Thoroughbreds as sporthorses to a wider audience in an age when warmbloods continue to hog much of the sporthorse limelight. Even in the two short years that the series has been active, she says her efforts have hooked a growing audience.
“We’ve got an increase in industry support and we’ve got an increase in racing support,” she said. “What we’re finding is that more people are now saying, ‘We want to get a Thoroughbred to go to the Thoroughbred Classic.’”
All organizations supported by CARMA are strongly encouraged to participate in the Thoroughbred Classic Series, said Lucinda Mandella, CARMA’s executive director and the wearer of multiple hats within the organization.
During a brief and hastily inhaled lunch on the Saturday before the fun and games began, Mandella recalled how the idea behind CARMA first came about in 2007, when Thoroughbred Owners of California (TOC) board member Madeline Auerbach and former TOC chairwoman Marsha Naify recognized an urgent need for more owners to take responsibility for their horses when it was time to open the starting gates onto a second career away from the track.
“It was really important to Madelaine,” Mandella said. “She had always historically taken care of her own horses, and she had rehomed and placed her own horses when they had finished racing. But not enough owners were doing the same.”
The way CARMA now works can be peeled down to a simple formula: Owners voluntarily contribute 0.03 percent of their prize money—which works out to 3 cents out of every dollar—which is placed into a separate account and then distributed around a number of charities that do the grunt work of rehabilitating ex-racehorses before finding them new homes.
Like any self-respecting 501(c)(3), CARMA won’t turn away individual donations. And their annual fundraiser at Del Mar is always well attended by the great and good of the sport – this year’s fundraiser alone raised approximately $74,000.
But the vast majority of their funds come through the 0.03 percent of owners’ purse contributions – a tidy sum considering roughly 80 percent of licensed owners in California participate. Mandella estimates that the money generated each year through purse contributions works out to between $350,000-380,000, while CARMA gave out more than $450,000 last year to their charity partners. “And we will give out more than that this year,” she said.
While Mandella doesn’t keep track on the exact number of horses found new homes through CARMA, she estimates that 1,200 racehorses have been rehomed since the organization started.
“I can also tell you that last year we started our own program for placing horses directly off the racetrack. And since that program started in March of 2013, we’ve re-homed over 45 horses,” she said.
CARMA’s new placement program, handsomely supported by the Stronach Group, is a service to help owners and trainers locate the right home for horses that might otherwise struggle to find new lodgings – those with injuries severe enough to force them into permanent retirement, for example. What the program essentially does is to provide a bridge between the racetracks and the aftercare programs taking in ex-racehorses.
“And the reason there’s this disconnect is that, realistically, these aftercare organizations aren’t on site. They’re not at the track every day talking to people. They don’t have significant connections,” Mandella said. “Most trainers are left to do the re-homing for their horses, but a lot of trainers are limited in their network for re-homing, too.”
At any one time, there are between 17-20 aftercare organizations on CARMA’s books, the majority of which are in California. But CARMA also distributes funds to out-of-state programs in places such as Arizona, and has recently added Old Friends in Kentucky to the roster. Basically, as long as you can prove that your organization directly helps horses that have raced in California, you’ve jumped one of the hurdles to becoming a recipient of CARMA funds.
One of the California-based organizations is the Winners Circle Ranch in Bradbury, managed by Leigh Gray – a no-nonsense sort with dreams of making it to the Olympics on the back of a CARMA horse. “This is because Thoroughbreds are by far the best three-day-event horse you can find,” she said, as to why she pays short thrift to the hype surrounding warmbloods.
When a horse first arrives at Gray’s ranch, they’re given the once-over by a veterinarian. All injuries are tended to, all illnesses are nursed. If surgery is required, owners are asked to help offset the costs. All horses, however, are given the time to do something that is quintessentially Californian: they’re given the time to find themselves.
“They get to hang out with other horses in the paddock, run around and play and do all of that fun stuff,” Gray said. “We give them 30 to 60 days off just to be horses again.”
Gray works with a squad of riders who will do any remedial work required in the saddle. Not that the majority of ex-racehorses horses need it, she said. You can take the horse out of the racetrack, but you can also take the racetrack out of the horse, apparently.
“Horses that go into racing, they’re pumped full of grain and they’re taught a whole lot of new things. Once you take that away from them though, they soon settle down,” she said.
A life of sugar-cubes, trail rides, and weekends spent wrapped in ribbons at horse shows awaits the greatest portion of CARMA horses. Some end up as companion horses, their retirement spent idling in a paddock. The very lucky few enjoy an even more stimulating second-career.
“I have a horse that will never be sound enough to ride but he’s a colt, and I had someone call me up looking for a teaser,” Gray said. “It’s a beautiful farm, and he’s going to get his own pasture. It’s a great job if you can get it.”
As for the jockey vs. trainer competition, the winning team comprising Sadler, Mulhall, Armstrong, and trainer Matt Chew may want to consider their own change of career given the drubbing they gave their competitors. Though considering the pedigree of certain members of the victorious team–with Sadler a mere stone’s throw away from making the US Olympic show jumping team not too many moons ago, and both Armstrong and Mulhall far from unfamiliar with the inside of a show-ring–the Federal Bureau of Competition may also want to conduct their own investigation into events from that night.