Horowitz On OTTBs, Presented By Excel Equine: For Many Ex-Racehorses, The Makeover Is Just The First Step - Horse Racing News | Paulick Report
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Horowitz On OTTBs, Presented By Excel Equine: For Many Ex-Racehorses, The Makeover Is Just The First Step

el Mar Belle and Amy Bowers at the Spring Gulch Horse Trials in Colorado on May 22

Amy Bowers knew she found something special when she first saw Del Mar Belle.

The bay Thoroughbred filly had raced seven times as a 3-year-old in 2018, including a win in a maiden race at Bally's Arapahoe Park, followed by an attempt against the top horses of her age in Colorado in the Encantadora Stakes.

But, with a tenth-place finish in the Encantadora, followed by a sixth-place finish in a $5,000 claiming race, it was pretty clear that Del Mar Belle wasn't on a path to match the racetrack success of her sire, Tiznow, a two-time winner of the Breeders' Cup Classic, or of her damsire, Fusaichi Pegasus, the 2000 Kentucky Derby winner.

Instead, Bowers predicted that Del Mar Belle's success would come in the equestrian sport of eventing.

“The second I met her and saw her move, I could just picture her doing the upper levels,” Bowers said. “This horse at least had the natural talent for it. You never know on the mental side until you start working with them, but I always had the long-term goal of her being an upper-level event horse.”

Horse racing fans and professionals now get exposed to eventing and other equestrian sports with more frequency. The event that has put the brightest spotlight on racehorses in equestrian sports outside of racing is the Retired Racehorse Project Thoroughbred Makeover. While it's a competition that ultimately assesses the viability of Thoroughbreds as sporthorses in ten different equestrian disciplines, it is rooted in the fact that these Thoroughbreds are still racehorses because they must have been on the track and will only have less than a year of retraining in their respective equestrian sport before competing at the Makeover.

What the competitors at the Thoroughbred Makeover can accomplish in less than a year of training off the track is truly remarkable—from jumping three-foot courses, to elegant movements like counter canters in dressage, to freestyle routines where they're ridden bareback and bridleless. However, with all the technical aspects that are necessary to excel at eventing, show jumping, dressage, polo, or any of the other Thoroughbred Makeover disciplines, it takes more than a year to truly master them.

“It's such an amazing platform to show how versatile the Thoroughbred is, but really it's just the beginning for most horses,” Bowers said. “It's a great stepping stool and great foundation to step into bigger things.”

The future that Bowers saw in Del Mar Belle and is now realizing as the striking 16.3 hh bay mare moves into the upper levels of eventing four years after running her final career race is similar to the journey racehorse owners get to experience when they see a promising yearling at Keeneland or Fasig-Tipton and years later go to the winner's circle after a stakes victory.

Bowers bought Del Mar Belle in December 2018, four months after her final race. The filly “had just hung out in a field” during those four months, Bowers said, but when turned out in an arena Bowers got to see uphill movement and a gallop that she described as “spectacular.”

Del Mar Belle was a quick learner, as many OTTBs are. She and Bowers competed at the 2019 Thoroughbred Makeover and finished 20th of 67 in eventing. Although not in the ribbons or a finish that would make headlines, it was exactly what the filly needed.

“Really, the Makeover for her was just a great stepping stone, a great progression in her training,” Bowers said. “It was a little hard because she was young for the Makeover. She was just four at the time. So, I had to go pretty conservative with her training.”

After the Makeover, the real work began. Del Mar Belle spent most of the next year in 2020 moving up from competing at the Beginner Novice level of 2-feet-7 and the Novice level of 2-feet-11 before the Makeover to the Training level of 3-feet-3. Not only are the jumps higher, but the placement of jumps and the dressage movements are much more technical.

“I feel like in the early stages, it's all about the basics, simply giving them confidence and the ideas,” Bowers said. “[After the Makeover] she had the confidence and the ability, but now it became more about the precision and where to put her body.”

There comes a point where Thoroughbreds can no longer rely just on their natural athletic ability honed on the racetrack, which, being blunt, could get them over almost any jump below three feet from a standstill. (See “Horowitz On OTTBs, Presented By Excel Equine: Looking Forward To 2022 With Hope For Ex-Racehorses.”)

In 2022, Del Mar Belle and Bowers moved up to the Preliminary level of 3-feet-7 and what is considered the upper levels of eventing recognized by the U.S. Equestrian (USEF). They also started competing in internationally-recognized events at levels offered by the Fédération Equestre International (FEI).

“The big thing is being able to balance them at any speed and also pick any speed,” she said. “Like with your canter, at the beginning, you kind of have three canters, a slow, medium, and fast. When you get to Prelim, you should probably have about 20 different canters. I would say a really mature horse should have about 50 different canters. You should be able to get to that canter within seconds of asking for it.”

At The Event at Skyline in Utah on Kentucky Derby Weekend in 2022, Del Mar Belle and Bowers won the Preliminary level, marking their first blue ribbon in 23 events over four years. They followed that up with a first-place finish in their next event, the Spring Gulch Horse Trials in Colorado.

 

Their next event will be the CCI2*-Long at The Event at Rebecca Farm in Kalispell, Montana at the end of July. The highest level of eventing is the CCI5*-Long, such as at the Kentucky Three-Day Event. So, think of their current journey as being like a baseball player moving up in the minor leagues on the way to the majors.

“We want to get back in that Rolex Arena doing a bit bigger stuff,” Bowers said.

So, while the Thoroughbred industry has embraced the concept that racehorses can go on to successful careers after racing and that the transition can happen quickly, OTTBs reaching their full potential in these new sports will take some time. If horse racing can be in it for the long run by following and celebrating the horses beyond their initial placement off the track or their first forays in a new sport at the Makeover, it will show the full scope of what racing Thoroughbreds can achieve and reveal an even bigger value that racehorses have.

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