Thoroughbred Makeover Diaries Presented By Excel Equine: Riding An OTTB Isn't So Different From Playing Poker - Horse Racing News | Paulick Report
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Thoroughbred Makeover Diaries Presented By Excel Equine: Riding An OTTB Isn’t So Different From Playing Poker

In riding, as in life, the right partner sometimes comes along just as you stop looking for them. Horowitz was enthralled by Uno on their first ride together

Buying a recently-retired racehorse to retrain to be a sport horse or pleasure horse is like anteing up to play Texas hold 'em poker. The initial cost to see your hand — the antes and blinds for poker or the cost of horses at the end of their racing careers — is relatively low. The possibilities and dreams when you're first holding those two cards or starting to retrain an OTTB are always high.

“As long as I have a chip and a chair, I'm still alive in this event,” said Jack “Treetop” Straus, who discovered one chip hidden under a napkin to remain in the main event at the 1982 World Series of Poker, eventually won poker's most prestigious tournament, and inspired a motto for all players' dreams.

Like that one chip, an OTTB offers the dreams that one of the most affordable investments in the equine world can lead to future ribbons, special moments, and a potential lifelong bond between horse and human. On the path to achieving those goals, the big financial and emotional investment comes later, like in poker, after seeing your hand's value once more cards are revealed on the flop, turn, and river.

What's the best way to play an OTTB poker hand? Cue the late, great Kenny Rogers in “The Gambler”

You got to know when to hold 'em,

Know when to fold 'em,

Know when to walk away,

Know when to run.

You never count your money

When you're sittin' at the table.

There'll be time enough for countin'

When the dealin's done.

I'm relatively new to riding OTTBs, but they're the only horses I've ridden since I began my journey from broadcasting to riding in 2015. The three horses I've owned have each taught me different lessons about how Rogers' wisdom applies to training retired racehorses—and to life in general. 

You got to know when to hold 'em

“Are you sure this is the right horse for me?” I asked over and over and over again.

In 2018, I bought my first horse, a 5-year-old chestnut Thoroughbred mare who I announced when she raced at Arapahoe Park in Colorado in 2015 and 2016 and when she competed in Show Jumping and Freestyle at the Retired Racehorse Project Thoroughbred Makeover in Kentucky in 2017.

The fact that I gave Grand Moony the show name of Sorority Girl should tell you everything you need to know about what she was like to handle and ride. Or, if you're an equestrian, the fact that she's a chestnut mare already told you that.

My trainer, Ashley Horowitz, picked Grand Moony for me. She was the first to train “Moo” when she came into CANTER's retraining program right after retiring from racing. She competed with the talented and precocious filly at the Makeover. Ashley knows how to scout talent. If you need any proof of that, she married me two years later.

Ashley didn't recommend Moo as my first horse because she'd be easy. Although, I admittedly had what I later realized were unrealistic dreams of winning horse shows right away. That would be like expecting to make the final table at my first poker tournaments.

Ashley recommended Moo as my first horse because she'd make me better. Moo was tough. We had runouts at jumps when I didn't ride confidently. We had bucks when I became unbalanced.

That's why I kept asking Ashley, “Are you sure this is the right horse for me?”

Ashley always patiently said yes and that I just didn't see it yet.

Sorority Girl steals the show at Horowitz's wedding

Like inexperienced poker players, I didn't know how to assess the chances of winning with my cards. Ashley knew my first hand would get better as the metaphorical equine community cards were dealt.

Sorority Girl and I have competed together for three years. We're developing a partnership as we move up the levels in eventing, but more importantly, we're developing a special relationship. Sorority Girl even made herself the center of attention at our wedding in July. Winning our first ribbon at a recognized event was even more rewarding when it came at the same event where we suffered our first elimination one year earlier.

Know when to fold 'em

The most promising hold 'em hand can be beaten by a lesser starting hand depending on how the community cards fall and how each player chooses to play their hand.

I was really encouraged by the next equine poker hand I was dealt in OTTB Cubbie Girl North. The 2016 bay filly that I found in a CANTER listing after she retired from an unremarkable four-race career in her home state of Illinois has been the protagonist of this “Thoroughbred Makeover Diaries” series.

But Cubbie has also been an antagonist. The extreme highs and lows have come on top of each other, like when Cubbie busted my chin open and gave me seven stitches three days before we would go on to surpass Ashley's and my expectations by completing our first recognized event.

Cubbie has zero patience for gray areas when she's being ridden, but I'm still learning. I'm not a professional like Ashley and don't have the same tact and skill set for dealing with a horse that wants to become dangerous when things don't go her way. After a disagreement in dressage warm-up for our last event in October, my goal went from success to simply survival. We did survive dressage — with the second-worst score across all levels and all divisions at a show with 195 riders — and even managed to go double clear with no jumping or time faults in cross country and in stadium jumping. But our communication has broken down.

Despite my emotional connection to Cubbie, I'm open to the reality that we may not be a good match.

Ashley and a good friend, Rageena Price, are now riding Cubbie. She's becoming more agreeable, and maybe they can exorcise the darkness that has sent Cubbie into dangerous rages. Or maybe not.

Ultimately, it's important and valuable to realize that reaching our goals with our dream horse may not be in the cards. And, we have to be OK with the part of “The Gambler” that isn't so fun.

I haven't given up on Cubbie, but I'm lucky enough to be married to a trainer who I can literally hand the reins to. The mare still holds a special place in my life, and I hope our stories reconnect and our hand improves when the dealer turns over the next cards.

There'll be time enough for countin'/When the dealin's done.

I'm now at the end of my first year of retraining Cubbie, the first horse I've worked with where I've been the first person to ride her off the track. The roller coaster of our journey has provided valuable learning experiences, and I'm proud of the rider I've become.

That said, I wanted to take a break from working on project horses. Essentially, I wanted to count my money…but the dealin' wasn't done.

“You have to look at this horse,” Ashley said as she showed me a sales video for The Gray Man, a 2017 16.3 hh gray Thoroughbred.

I looked at the video. Impressive movement by a horse with an impressive story I was already familiar with. The Gray Man has the barn name of Uno because he has one eye. He lost the eye after he became tangled with some fencing when he was eight days old.

 

“Sometimes the best opportunities come when you don't expect them,” Ashley said.

Uno came to our farm on Dec. 13 for a test ride. I've never seen a cooler OTTB. Kim Wendel, an upper-level eventer, was selling Uno because she had just imported another horse from Ireland. She said Uno had been ridden six times since retiring in July following a two-race career in his home state of Indiana.

He hadn't been ridden or turned out in a week and a half before he came to our farm. The inactivity, combined with trailering to a new location, combined with being in an indoor arena for the first time in his life, made Uno justifiably nervous. Did I mention he has one eye?

Seeing how he processed his new surroundings looking in both direction with his right eye and seeking human connection for guidance made this a hand not only worth playing but one that I would kick myself if I didn't try to play.

Ashley rode Uno. I rode Uno. Rageena rode Uno. The three of us loved him. It was one ride, but we each experienced gorgeous movement and a brain that is full of curiosity, is eager to learn, and desires to please.

This is my last “Thoroughbred Makeover Diaries” in 2020, and I've truly enjoyed writing this series. Writing each article is like a therapy session where I get to process the lessons I've learned from the Thoroughbreds in my life. From my first article in January to this article in December, I couldn't have predicted what the journey would be. Of course, nothing between January and December 2020 was predictable.

Writing these articles has been personal, and I appreciate the support I've received from the many readers and subjects of these articles that have witnessed my journey. I know there are other paths in the equine world, but as I listened to Kenny Rogers sing about “the ace that [he] could keep,” I realize I've found mine.

I have a chip (well, a horse) and a chair (well, a saddle), and I'm excited for whatever cards are dealt in 2021. Happy Holidays and Happy New Year.

Horowitz will continue his Thoroughbred Makeover Diaries series through the 2021 Makeover event, thanks to ongoing support from our sponsor, Excel Equine Feeds.

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