One was an attractive roan Thoroughbred gelding with 12 race starts as a 3-year-old. He never placed higher than fourth. The lanky gelding won a touch more than $1,400 before retiring, and I met him as a fleabitten gray nine years later on a farm in Northern Virginia.
The other is a striking chestnut gelding that retired at 8 years old a bit more decorated. His first graded stakes win came when he was 5 … it would be three more years before he and I would meet. He raced with some well-known jockeys in the irons, such as Rosie Napravnik and the late Michael Baze, and he amassed 51 starts and winnings of nearly $696,000 by his retirement in July 2014.
Both Icy Edge (“Icy”) and It Happened Again (“Happy”) feature strongly in my office decor.
Photo: Stephanie L. Church/TheHorse.com
These two Thoroughbreds have very different racing backgrounds, and several decades separated their time on the track.
But they have two important things in common.
First, both of them—Icy Edge (“Icy”) and It Happened Again (“Happy”)—feature strongly in my family’s horse history and in our hearts. Second, somewhere along the way, someone made forward-thinking decisions about their racing retirement, retraining, and marketability as athletes.
While I don’t have many details on Icy’s progression from racehorse to sport horse, he was a made eventer schooling intermediate under young riders by the time we bought him at age 12. He was smart, willing, athletic, brave, and notably quirky.
Photo: Courtesy Sarah Lynn Church/TheHorse.com
The family selling him was committed to finding great owners, and I remember taking them a VHS videotape with footage of our barn and horses to get their approval.
Happy had what seemed like a small army ready to promote him for his second career. One person told another person, who told another that I was looking for a sensible, “happy” off-the-track-thoroughbred (OTTB), and within a month I had heard about Happy, flown to Arkansas, tried him, and made the phone call to purchase him.
I agreed with his racing owner that if I ever wanted to sell him that I would call her first, which was an easy promise for me to make. I know she loves Happy and wants him to always have a great owner.
I write about Happy a lot in my print magazine column, and also here. He is smart, willing, athletic, brave, and seems eager to learn. And, of course, he’s super quirky. (Quite honestly, I’ve been hard-pressed to find a memorable horse or pony that isn’t.)
A few years ago—incidentally at the Kentucky Derby--I spoke with several racing Quarter Horse owners about the versatility of their charges. When I think about Quarter Horses, I think about great, reliable all-around mounts—sort of the Honda Accord or Ford pickup of breeds, with the potential to be enjoyed by multiple people in their lifetime. This family’s racehorses became second- and third-career ranch horses, trail horses, and even children’s mounts. I talked with one couple about their currently successful racehorse that was already flagged as a roping mount.
“We off-track Thoroughbred owners are notorious for researching. As we examine our horses’ pedigrees—and, with them, histories we can sometimes trace back to their foaling stall—it’s as if their heritage becomes ours.”
Thoroughbreds are no different. They’re athletic, versatile, have tons of heart, and have just as much enjoyment potential. I’ve seen this not only in Icy and Happy but also in countless friends’ horses over the years. And while not every Thoroughbred racehorse has its own built-in grassroots marketing team the way my two did, the performance horse industry’s renewed interest in Thoroughbreds over the past few years, after a few decades of Warmbloods dominating the disciplines, means more and more Thoroughbreds are gaining such teams organically.
We off-track Thoroughbred owners are notorious for researching. As we examine our horses’ pedigrees—and, with them, histories we can sometimes trace back to their foaling stall—it’s as if their heritage becomes ours. We pore over their race records; visit their sire and dam if we can find them; follow their half-siblings in their racing and second careers; and we get a little sad when horses in their bloodline die. For instance, Happy’s sire, Proud Citizen, whom I was lucky to get to meet this past winter, is now gone, as is his broodmare sire, Quiet American.
It Happened Again, aka "Happy," and me at our first combined test this summer.
Photo: Courtesy Leslie Potter/TheHorse.com
This fanatical interest is no different when it comes to heart-horses long past … earlier this year I got to see Icy’s sire’s and grandsire’s graves at Gainesway—The Axe II and Mahmoud. It felt a little bit like standing near royalty.
The retired-racehorse owner’s fascination with pedigrees and race records is nothing new. But I see evidence of the fascination spreading in the growing popularity of OTTB-focused online gatherings (Facebook fan pages, message boards, etc.), OTTB merchandise, and Thoroughbred-focused horse shows and point programs.
I’m also noticing that many owners are looking at individuals in their racing stables with intent to sell as second-career athletes. In my area—and I live right here in the Horse Capital of the World and where the Thoroughbred Makeover will commence today—there’s a strong interest in OTTBs, especially among young adult eventers. These riders network to match prospects and buyers, while campaigning their own OTTBs at various levels within the sport. I’ve even helped connect a racing owner with a college friend to create a partnership with a young Thoroughbred.
Courageous Comet is an example of an off-Track Thoroughbred who has gone the distance as an eventer with Becky Holder.
Photo: Erica Larson, News Editor/TheHorse.com
Indeed, many of us have known and celebrated the retired racehorse for years, but no one can deny the renewed interest in the market. This excitement about and interest in OTTBs is in great part due to the Retired Racehorse Project, its Thoroughbred Makeover, and to a variety of other organizations and individuals marketing the Thoroughbred as an ideal prospect for everything from polo to working ranch. We also have retired racehorses such as Courageous Comet (who, with Becky Holder, won the 2012 American Eventing Championships and represented the United States at the 2008 Olympics) and Blackfoot Mystery (who represented Team USA in eventing this year at the Rio Olympics) to thank, helping us remember when OTTBs like Touch of Class, JJ Babu, and Keen dominated their disciplines. And let’s not forget the incentive programs and shows.
I’m delighted about this shift, because while I’ve owned, ridden, and loved a variety of horse breeds over the years, it’s the Thoroughbreds that have truly been my heart-horses … and everyone wants to see their favorite breed make a comeback and succeed.
Let’s review: One horse flopped on the racetrack. The other won a graded stakes. Both retired with soundness, athleticism, and heart, along with the potential to go far in their second careers.
Icy—my very favorite horse—evented into his 20s with my sister. He lived out his days at my parents’ place and died at age 30.
Stephanie and Happy
Photo: Stephanie L. Church/TheHorse.com
Happy is giving Icy a run for the money on that title, and I hope he’ll live just as long.
Who is your favorite OTTB, and why? If the horse is/was yours, what have you done together?