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Retired racehorses (USA):
Thoroughbred Makeover
– A Thoroughbred Retraining Competition –

The World’s Largest Thoroughbred Retraining Competition For Retired Racehorses

I made a recent visit to Lexington, Kentucky in the United States, where the color of the autumn leaves are beautiful this time of year. I attended the Thoroughbred Makeover, which is a very unique retired racehorse retraining competition. This would be my second time attending this competition, the first time being seven years ago, when people from six countries who were involved in thoroughbred aftercare initiatives around the world attended together in 2015. Over the last seven years, the Thoroughbred Makeover competition has developed and in this article I will introduce this very impressive program.

How the Thoroughbred Makeover competition began

In 2009, Steuart Pittman, an advanced level event rider and founder of the Retired Racehorse Project (RRP), which operates the Thoroughbred Makeover, noticed that as warmbloods were growing in popularity as sport horses, the demand for retired racehorses (Thoroughbreds) as sport horses was declining. Concerned with this trend, he coordinated the Retired Racehorse Training Symposium to showcase the athleticism and versatility of the Thoroughbred as a sport horse. Although this event was for a single day, it marked the beginning of a new movement. 

From there, the event grew and modified its style and in 2013, the Thoroughbred Makeover and National Symposium was held at the Pimlico Race Course, which is known for being the racetrack of the Preakness Stakes, one of the Triple Crown races in America. At this event, 26 retired racehorses showed off the results of their three months of retraining. This event became the model for the future and current Thoroughbred Makeover competitions. 

After nine years of holding such competitions, the event has grown and this year a total of 281 horses participated in the Thoroughbred Makeover competition held at the Kentucky Horse Park in Lexington, Kentucky, which is the largest Thoroughbred breeding state in the United States. 

Why the Thoroughbred Makeover competition is one of a kind

The biggest feature that makes the Thoroughbred Makeover competition unique is that it is designed to showcase the versatility and athleticism of Thoroughbred horses. In order to really showcase their versatility, there are 10 different disciplines in the competition, including barrel racing, competitive trail, dressage, eventing, show jumping, polo, ranch work, field hunter, show hunter, and freestyle. Some participants and their horses compete in more than one discipline. 

The retired racehorses who qualify to compete in the Makeover competition are those who have been retrained for less than 10 months. In other words, the horses can only participate in the competition once in their life. 

Furthermore, all the events are scored to judge the progress of training according to the Makeover competition’s unique rules, which differ from the rules of regular competitions that one may be familiar with. 

There are over 100 pages in the Makeover rulebook and it is designed to encourage and support the retired racehorses who are just starting out in their second careers. The competitions allow participants to choose the jump heights and dressage tests in order to ensure that the horses are not overwhelmed or put under too much pressure. 

The entry rules are also unique in that all the trainers are selected in January. Those who pass the application process have until the end of July to register up to three qualified retired racehorses, and they must decide which competitions they will enter (discipline, jump heights, etc.) by early September. In accordance with these rules, the participants will go through a process of selecting their retired racehorses, rehabilitate, and retrain the horses over the course of the year. During this period, many of the participants share their progress over social media, allowing the public to learn about the process of transforming retired racehorses. 

The RRP has a strong belief that good trainers are an essential part of turning retired racehorses into good riding horses, so a part of the mission and goal of the Makeover competition is to help nurture competent trainers. 

Throughout the year, they hold seminars and discussions to provide opportunities for the trainers to learn about better training and horse care practices. 

Their ability to design such a rational yet flexible and efficient system in order to promote the use of Thoroughbred horses in their second careers is truly impressive. Even if bringing the same system to Japan may be difficult, there are many things we can learn from their program.

Jenna Denver × She’s A Bold One(4 year old mare)
Isabelle Wells × Hieronymus(5 year old gelding)
Mia Bagnato × Flashy Shaq(8 year old gelding)
Amanda Gomez × Racing Ace(4 year old gelding)

The outstanding performances of young riders

One of the things that left a big impression on me during this visit was the number of young riders who were showing outstanding performances and winning with incredible results. This was not the case seven years ago. Jenna Denver, a high school junior, and She’s A Bold One, an unraced 4 year old mare (Midshipman – Bold Contender) were named overall champions, winning the eventing division and finishing second in the dressage division. Besides Jenna, 15-year-old Isabelle Wells and her 5 year old gelding , Hieronymus (Girolamo – Pamona Ball) won the competitive trail division. In the show jumping discipline, 16 year old Mia Bagnato and her 8 year old gelding Flashy Shaq (Shackleford – Flashy Prize) came in second place. The winner of the show hunter division was 19 year old Amanda Gomez and her 4 year old gelding, Racing Ace (Upstart – Remembermefondly). Amanda’s father is Garrett Gomez, a famous American jockey who has raced in Japan. Amanda stated, “The Makeover competition holds a special place in my heart. My father has always been passionate about the aftercare of retired racehorses, and that has become ingrained in me as well.” The success of these young riders in this competition shines a bright light on the future of these events, and concurrently on the future of the retraining and second careers of retired racehorses. This also shows that RRP’s goal in nurturing good trainers who will support retired racehorses in their transition to becoming good riding horses, is certainly proving to be a success as well. The event’s finals (top 5 of each division) can be watched on RRP’s YouTube channel so be sure to check it out.
▶︎ https://youtu.be/EO-RR7BrbXM

Refining retired thoroughbred horse training

One more thing that was very different from seven years ago was the level of quality in the participating retired racehorses, including the quality of their training and of course, their condition. 

As much as I was impressed by the concept behind this event seven years ago, I was left with the impression that it was a local competition. However, in this year’s competition I was incredibly impressed by every horse that passed by my eyes. Their condition, their mannerisms, and their level of training were all of superb quality. 

The RRP’s social media channels are filled with images and videos of beautiful retired racehorses. 

In the next article, I will introduce the Arrival Exam, which all the competing horses in the Makeover competition must pass in order to participate. This inspection process has played a big role in the improvement of quality in the retired thoroughbred horses that I witnessed at the Makeover. 

Retired Racehorse Project ▶︎ https://www.therrp.org/

Written by

Yasuko Sawai

Yasuko Sawai joined Darley Japan Farm in 2006 to work as a Foaling Manager and then managed the company’s rehoming program since 2015. Since 2022, she has been involved in the operations of Old Friends Japan, a thoroughbred aftercare organization.