Horowitz On OTTBs Presented by Excel Equine: Grand Lily’s Retirement Plans Pay Off For Her And Her Racing Connections - Horse Racing News | Paulick Report

Horowitz On OTTBs Presented by Excel Equine: Grand Lily’s Retirement Plans Pay Off For Her And Her Racing Connections

Grand Lily and Madeline Backus soar over a cross country fence in the horse’s first USEA recognized event at the Spring Gulch Horse Trials in Colorado in August 2022. In five horse shows to start her eventing career, Grand Lily has incurred zero jumping penalties.

Racehorse trainers will be part of many decisions in their horses' careers. Dirt or turf. Sprint or route. Put on blinkers or take them off.

Trainer Linda Loftin was part of the two biggest decisions someone in racing can make for a horse's welfare when it comes to Grand Lily.

— Number one: when to retire a horse.

— Number two: what that horse should do next after racing.

In addition to being in Grand Lily's best interest in terms of her physical and mental well-being, these decisions are also poised to reap financial benefits for her owner, Dennis Ackerman.

The example of Grand Lily has the potential to expand the economy of the Thoroughbred beyond the breeding and racing industries.

“Lily,” a 2013 grey Colorado-bred mare, was Ackerman's first racehorse, bought for $3,700 at the 2014 Silver Cup Yearling Sale in Colorado. However, this isn't his first rodeo. He's a farrier and a breeder of sporthorses in Colorado. P.S. Arianna, a 2001 bay Trakehner mare that Ackerman bred, rose up the ranks in the equestrian sport of eventing to compete at the Kentucky Three-Day Event in 2017 with 21-year-old rider Madeline Backus. (Remember that name, because it will come into play later with Grand Lily.)

Considering that many Thoroughbreds bred for racing never make it to the track, let alone win, let alone earn prize money greater than their purchase price, Grand Lily was relatively successful for being Ackerman's first racehorse.

Ackerman teamed up with Loftin to train Grand Lily for a racing career. Loftin, a Colorado-native from Black Forest near Colorado Springs, left her home state in 1989 for Kentucky.

“I was just barely 22 and trying to get into trouble,” she said, with a laugh.

She studied and worked at the Kentucky Horse Park, where, among several responsibilities, she helped care for racing legends like John Henry and Forego at the Hall of Champions.

“Forego, I loved that horse, man,” Loftin said. “That's the first time I ever laid hands on a racehorse.”

The racing bug bit Loftin. She then worked as an exercise rider, as well as in sales prep for breeding farms like Lane's End and Three Chimneys. The most famous horse she says she galloped was Tejano Run, the runner-up to Thunder Gulch in the 1995 Kentucky Derby for trainer Kenny McPeek.

Loftin returned to Colorado in 2013 to be closer to her parents after the Black Forest Fire.

“I couldn't find a job,” she said. “So, I worked at a kennel, and I worked at Big R. Through Big R [in Falcon, Colo.], I started meeting people from the racetrack.”

Loftin met Ackerman through Big R. Ackerman was looking for someone to prepare his first racing filly for a career on the track.

In 2018, following two seasons in which Loftin would work with Grand Lily in the offseason before the horse would go to a trainer at the track, Loftin decided to get her trainer's license. The first horse she ran under her new stable was Grand Lily in the third race, a 5 1/2-furlong maiden for Colorado-bred fillies and mares, at Arapahoe Park on June 11, 2018. It was also the first career ride for 25-year-old apprentice Alyssa Morales, who, coincidentally, received her jockey's license after doing her practical exam before fellow riders and stewards aboard Grand Lily.

Grand Lily broke on top in a field of six and settled under Morales into company down the backstretch before taking control in the homestretch and pulling away by 2 1/2 lengths to win at 7-1 odds.

Grand Lily's maiden win at Arapahoe Park in June 2018 represented the first career victory for owner Dennis Ackerman, trainer Linda Loftin, and jockey Alyssa Morales

“She pretty much took care of me,” the jockey said. “She loaded right into the gates. Since I had already broken out of the gates with her, I was really confident that she knew what she was going to do the rest of the way.”

Grand Lily ran five more times at Arapahoe Park and at Turf Paradise in Arizona, but her best finish after breaking her maiden was fourth place beaten 9 1/4 lengths in a $10,000 claimer.

So, Loftin was part of “decision number one” for Grand Lily. She and Ackerman decided to retire the mare.

“She hated being a racehorse,” Loftin said. “She doesn't want to be a stall horse at all. She was really kind of nasty. I was lucky I got a win out of her.”

Grand Lily's temperament at the racetrack and her (lack of) effort in races were how she communicated that she was no longer suited for a racing career. Ackerman said he received a text message from Loftin about this.

“Lily just got tired of the track, and she didn't like that life,” Ackerman said. “They were down in Phoenix, and I get a text, 'That's it. Lily is done. She is tired of this life and she wants a new career.' And I said, 'OK, then that's it, we're done.' We respect that, and we'll find something else. That's the point where Linda and I come from: we both want sound, happy horses.”

Ackerman said he felt an obligation to ensure that his horse could be most effective in transitioning from racing to post-racing. He retained ownership in Grand Lily, and Loftin continued to train her. Loftin emphasized skills the mare would need for her next sport, for her next home.

“I'm good about getting nervous horses to calm down,” she said. “I teach my horses to use their whole body. It also keeps them sounder.”

This is something racing trainers can do, even while their horses are on the track. It's a small but important investment that can pay dividends for both the horses' well-being and their financial value. The former addresses a necessary issue that may be the fulcrum on which horse racing's future and social license to operate teeters. If that isn't enough motivation, and unfortunately for many in racing it isn't, the latter provides a financial incentive and grows the economy for Thoroughbreds.

Loftin first introduced Lily to dressage, considered a foundation to build upon for all equestrian sports. Some racing trainers even incorporate dressage movements into their race training to emphasize suppleness, balance, and relaxation.

“Mom and I would play with the dressage letters, and she would read the dressage [tests], and we would go and just do walk-trot dressage, teach her to bend, teach her to give,” Loftin said.

Grand Lily then went to a hunter-jumper trainer in Colorado. That gave Grand Lily a foundation in jumping, but it wasn't the right discipline just yet.

“She was too fast for hunters. They want them to go duh-dut, duh-dut, duh-dut,” said Loftin, demonstrating a metronomic cadence that makes a successful hunter, the sport where horses are judged on their ability to maintain a steady rhythm around a course of fences and on the flat. “I would go to Castle Rock with the hunter-jumper trainer and get on her every once in a while, and that's how we figured out she wasn't going to be a good hunter because she just wants to go. She wants to have a little more excitement.”

So then, Loftin was part of “decision number two” for Grand Lily. Just like a trainer may advise that a horse is more suited to running on dirt or on turf, Loftin told Ackerman that she thought Grand Lily was more suited to eventing. It's the type of decision that requires racing trainers to have some knowledge of equestrian sports outside of racing. However, that knowledge of and exposure to what could be incredibly influential in determining the right fit for a Thoroughbred post-racing, even if racing trainers don't have riding experience outside of racing, are more accessible than ever, thanks to the visibility of such a wide range of equestrian sports at the Retired Racehorse Project Thoroughbred Makeover. Or, just start by watching The Friday Show about “What Makes Up The Thoroughbred Makeover?”.

“She came back, and I'm like, 'Dennis, send her to Laura Backus. You know, you guys are good friends and you've known each other forever,'” Loftin said about having Grand Lily go to the Pendragon Stud Equestrian Center in Larkspur, Colo., where Ackerman has worked for decades as a farrier and where the Ackerman-bred P.S. Arianna was based on her journey with Laura's daughter, Madeline, en route to the Kentucky Three-Day Event.

“Her best trait,” Ackerman said about Madeline, “is to sit up there on a horse and remain quiet and relaxed and transmit quiet confidence to the horse. And then, the horse picks up on that and says, 'This is easy. She's showing me how to do this. We'll do it.'”

Eventing's combination of being rhythmic in the dressage phase, bold to the jumps on the cross country course, and steady and balanced over the fences in the stadium jumping, plus the routine of training and being turned out on the farm, suited Grand Lily to a tee.

Grand Lily after her lone racetrack victory.

“She's got really nice movement, which is why I think they originally thought she should go be a hunter,” Madeline Backus said. “But, she's just a little bit on the hotter side, which, of course, I love. She isn't that steady, quiet, almost-dull ride to the fences. She gears up and wants to do it, which isn't the hunter ride. It's exactly why she's really good for eventing because she sees a jump and goes after it, not in an anxious way but like, 'Oh, that's mine, I'm going to go do that.'”

Lily quickly blossomed into one of the most noticed rookie event horses in the United States Eventing Association's Area IX that covers the states of Colorado, Idaho, South Dakota, and Utah.

The mare and Madeline finished third of 12 in the horse's first recognized event at the Spring Gulch Horse Trials in Colorado in August 2022, two months after Backus started training Lily for eventing. She then finished first out of 30 at The Event at Archer in Wyoming and first of 16 at The Event at Skyline in Utah. She closed out her rookie year with a third out of 19 at the Tomora Horse Trials in Colorado.

In four events in 2022 at eventing's Beginner Novice level that has a maximum jump height of 2-feet-7, Grand Lily incurred zero jump or time penalties on cross country or in stadium jumping.

“She's very game, and she's also very brave,” Madeline Backus said. “She sees a jump and is like, 'You point me at it, and I will go over it.'”

Plus, Grand Lily's movement and temperament on the flat have earned her strong marks in the dressage phase.

“We kind of joke that she has a bit of fairy dust,” Madeline said, “because her dressage is still improving because she's very green with dressage, but she just goes out there and is consistent in her rhythm and the judges really like her.”

Grand Lily finished as the High Point Beginner Novice Horse in the USEA's Area IX for 2022. Ackerman and Loftin said they plan to attend the Area IX banquet on Feb. 4 where Grand Lily and Madeline Backus will be recognized, just like how the racing owner and trainer celebrated their horse's successes at the Central Colorado Eventing banquet on Jan. 21.

“She knows she's something special and expects to be treated like that, but she's also got a very kind heart,” Ackerman said of his racehorse-turned-eventer.

Lily and Madeline are spending the winter in Florida. They earned a blue ribbon in their first event there, the Rocking Horse Winter I Horse Trials Jan. 28-29. Their final score of 27.7 was best of 11 in their Beginner Novice division. They continued their streak of zero cross country or stadium jumping penalties. Grand Lily is for sale, and her value as an eventer is now more than it ever was as a racehorse. Her sale price is listed at $24,000.

“I told Madeline the reason I have Lily with her is I want a good foundation on Lily so she knows the job at hand and knows how to accept a rider,” Ackerman said. “Then, she can go off and be owned by an amateur who can make her a rest-of-life partner.”

Ackerman will reap the benefits of that. All because he and Loftin didn't actually “retire” their retired racehorse. They embraced that the Thoroughbred is an elite athlete. They found the right sport for Grand Lily to showcase her physical and mental athletic prowess. They've provided the best care they possibly could for Grand Lily. All of that means they can cash in on their winner in so many ways that will benefit the sport of horse racing and the Thoroughbred economy as a whole.

Announcing horse races inspired Jonathan Horowitz to become an advocate for off-track Thoroughbreds, as well as to learn to event on OTTBs and to expand his announcing of and writing about equine sports to horse shows around the United States. He also works for the United States Eventing Association and runs the Super G Sporthorses eventing barn with his wife, Ashley. He can be reached on Facebook and Twitter at @jjhorowitz.

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