Horowitz On OTTBs, Presented By Excel Equine: Thanks To Genetics, Thoroughbreds Are The Ultimate Shapeshifters - Horse Racing News | Paulick Report

Horowitz On OTTBs, Presented By Excel Equine: Thanks To Genetics, Thoroughbreds Are The Ultimate Shapeshifters

Let's talk about what a Thoroughbred truly is.

A Thoroughbred is an athlete. Through centuries of crafting a vision and meticulous breeding to bring that vision to life, the Thoroughbred has become the wonder of horse lovers and sports lovers and the source of big business and cultural richness around the world.

The vision for the Thoroughbred started about 350 years ago with the goal of producing the ultimate racehorse, but the selective breeding to create horses that could excel at racing has also produced horses that can be successful at many other equine sports. That's because of what has become intrinsic to the breed beyond just physical prowess.

“The Thoroughbred looks out into the far distance,” said Chris Ryan, who has worked with Thoroughbreds at the highest levels of horse racing and eventing for more than four decades. “His horizon is way out there and he feels he can get there whenever he wishes. This gives him tremendous forward thinking. A horse thinking forward is going forward. Watch his ears!”

After finishing his education in 1976, Ryan entered the horse racing world, working with Thoroughbreds in both flat and jump racing, first for trainer Thomson Jones in the United Kingdom. He would then become head lad for trainer Jim Bolger in his native Ireland, among other roles as jockey, trainer, breeder, and sales producer. 

“A chestnut race mare, Stanerra, winner of two Group 1s, two Group 2s now upgraded to Group 1s, a Group 3, and European Champion Older Horse of her year, probably gave me the best insight into the Thoroughbred,” Ryan said. “I was on my own with her for long periods of time and got to know her so well and she me. What a privilege to be accepted by her to such a level you could tell what she was thinking while on her back and even at 200 yards distant.”

Ryan's understanding of what made Stanerra tick took the mare from winning just one of 13 starts as a 4-year-old in 1982 to winning two races in one week at Royal Ascot and then becoming the first European-trained winner of the Japan Cup in 1983.

Now, Ryan serves as a judge for the United States Eventing Association's Young Event Horse Series and Future Event Horse Series, where he evaluates the potential of horses to excel at the highest level of the equestrian sport of eventing that the website for the FEI, the international governing body for equestrian sports, dubs “the most complete combined competition discipline.”

“I love their intelligence, their beauty, their refinement, and their courage under fire,” Ryan said of the Thoroughbred. “Nature (100 percent genetics), and nurture (everything else) have given the Thoroughbred a most amazing anatomy and physique, a designer heart to lung ratio and a mind which can process data at speed which allows their engine to 'tick over' at an amazing 35 miles per hour — the Formula 1 of the equine species.”

Ryan's assessment of Thoroughbreds — now one that I'm embracing as I've gone from announcing horse races to eventing on OTTBs — is that the nature of the breed goes beyond its original intentions of racing. So, a Thoroughbred does not lose its nature once it finishes what those in horse racing perceive as its primary purpose. Nor does it take on a new identity if it goes from racing into a new sport like eventing or show jumping or barrel racing or any of the other disciplines that retired racehorses can now excel at as part of the Thoroughbred Makeover.

In fact, the qualities that the Thoroughbred possesses have inspired crossing other breeds with the Thoroughbred. For example, the Irish Sport Horse Stud Book that has excelled in eventing has developed through crossing with Thoroughbreds. 

Horses with a high percentage of Thoroughbred blood were some of the highest sellers at the recent Monart Sale and Goresbridge Go For Gold Sale for event horse prospects in Ireland.

“The Thoroughbred is the most noted Studbook improver,” said Ryan, who was the pedigree announcer for the Goresbridge Go For Gold Sale.

From the sale of eventing prospects then to the highest level of the sport, the Thoroughbred has stood out.

“We saw in the recent excellent Maryland 5 Star cross country the ease of travel of the pure Thoroughbred and those with a high Thoroughbred influence,” Ryan said. “Those that lacked found it hard work.”

The author in his role as an announcer of OTTBs at Twin Rivers

The impact of the Thoroughbred goes beyond anything Captain Robert Byerly, Thomas Darley, and Lord Godolphin could have ever envisioned when they each imported a stallion from the Middle East that would bear their name and become the three foundation stallions for the modern Thoroughbred.

So, when you see a Thoroughbred leave the starting gate or the cross country start box or the barrel racing chute, it's an opportunity to appreciate how the breed has evolved over more than three centuries to be an elite sport horse, regardless of what that sport is.

Understanding and embracing the true nature of the Thoroughbred means that events like the Retired Racehorse Project Thoroughbred Makeover, programs like The Jockey Club Thoroughbred Incentive Program, and retired racehorses competing at horse shows can be appreciated as representations of the strengths of the breed, and not just something different that happens after a racing career ends. 

My next column, a conversation with outgoing Retired Racehorse Project executive director Jen Roytz, who, like Ryan, also has both a racing and sport horse background, will explore how the nurture side of Thoroughbreds' evolution through the racetrack has also prepared the breed for success as sport horses. 

Indeed, horse racing is the catalyst for the Thoroughbred's success across the entire equine world.

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