Voss: It’s Time For Us To Change Our Thinking About Thoroughbreds In Non-Race Careers - Horse Racing News | Paulick Report

Voss: It’s Time For Us To Change Our Thinking About Thoroughbreds In Non-Race Careers

I was asked a very interesting question about six months ago, and it's one that has stuck with me since. Joy Hills and Kristen Bentley were kind enough to have me as one of their guests on an episode of their Retired Racehorse Radio podcast back in March. (You can listen to the episode here or check out their complete archive here, which I enthusiastically recommend.)

They wanted to know – does the racing industry see OTTBs in sport as part of its “world”? Are they and their riders full-fledged members of the larger equestrian sports world but separate from racing? Is the universe of former racehorses its own, isolated space that doesn't fit neatly into either?

I'm fortunate to have involvement in the world of racing, the world of sporthorses, and the world of off-track Thoroughbreds (OTTBs) through my 5-year-old Underscore.

For many years, the sport looked at “aftercare” and “OTTBs” as footnotes to what we do. It was kind of us to contribute to non-profits looking to rehome horses. As increased public scrutiny has come to the sport, more stakeholders have been willing to provide lip service to the notion of supporting horses who move from racing to other careers. From my various vantage points I'd say that many stakeholders are gradually seeing the support of aftercare charitable ventures as “good public relations” at a time when racing has had so much bad PR. Owners and trainers as a whole are becoming more educated about stopping earlier on horses who clearly show limited talent or interest in racing. “One Last Race Syndrome” has gone from a phrase I first heard used by equine surgeon Dr. Patty Hogan in a 2017 continuing education seminar to a common term I hear from people all over the sport who probably don't know exactly where it came from. Certainly, we have evolved from thinking that supporting aftercare is kind to thinking it's good or maybe even (depending on who you ask) necessary.

But I'd like to propose something a little more radical than kindness or acceptance.

At this point in equine history, the Thoroughbred breed exists largely because of the racing industry. They were once the sought-after mount for gentlemen of leisure in the English countryside, but gentlemen of leisure now are not typically horsemen. Later, they were in demand in various show horse disciplines when the format of those sports rewarded the breed's greatest strengths. At some point, the Thoroughbred fell out of favor in the hunter/jumpers, dressage, and eventing. Thanks to the dedicated work of many in the aftercare realm, it's slowly making a comeback but those of us on OTTBs are still in the minority in most barns in this country.

Mostly, Thoroughbreds are still around at this point because the racing industry creates them. The sport reveres them for their heart, their versatility, and their athleticism. Racing folk can weave you a sonnet if you ask them why they find this particular breed worth the early mornings, late nights and arthritic limbs.

So why then, should those same people not equally celebrate achievements of Thoroughbreds that come in other arenas? It is that same heart, versatility, and athleticism that enables them to do more than one job in their lifetimes. Most other breeds are not known for moving between radically different sports or professions, but Thoroughbreds do it all the time. Racing can and should take appropriate credit for stewarding bloodlines that produce horses talented and sound enough to sustain the demands of a five-star cross country course or grand prix jumper ring or trio of barrels. Who cares if a horse couldn't take down a $10,000 claimer if they later end up winning a $25,000 class at a horse show? Success is still success. Thoroughbreds are still Thoroughbreds, and we are Thoroughbred people.

This attitude also turns on its head the notion that the only path Thoroughbreds should have to new jobs is through the graces of a non-profit. Non-profits are crucial and tireless in their work, but they logistically cannot and should not be required to accommodate every retiring racehorse. In fact, the increase in popularity of OTTBs as riding horses has created many reputable for-profit trainers specializing in consigning Thoroughbreds for new jobs. There is a whole economy here, and we are the root of it.

Sporthorse people who appreciate Thoroughbreds are developing their own sensibilities of which pedigrees they prefer. I've known sporthorse trainers who swear by Distorted Humor and Empire Maker, while others look for Not For Love and Two Punch. An industry so built on tracing bloodlines should find that fascinating. What are they seeing that we are not, and vice versa?

At a time when racing is searching for acceptance from the broader public, it's missing a whole category of good news when Thoroughbreds succeed at other jobs. Likewise, I'd argue it's working hard to make the general public fans of a nuanced, archaic, and often foreign sport while ignoring a whole group of people — riders of OTTBs — who are already equestrians and who already love the breed we've curated for centuries. There are opportunities here we can't afford to continue missing.

I believe we each must do what we can to change the thinking about Thoroughbreds in non-racing careers. I can't force mandatory, industry-wide aftercare funding or require a breeder to cheer their horse on in the Thoroughbred Makeover, but I can make it easier for these different worlds to learn about each other.

It is my hope that in the coming years, we at the Paulick Report will expand our coverage to include more “Thoroughbreds in sport” regardless of the sport they're participating in. This is something we already endeavor to do through our Horse Care section, but I hope to be able to do more of it. If you're a racing stakeholder who has always wanted to learn more about Thoroughbreds in other sports, bring us your questions; help us understand what you don't know. If you're someone riding an OTTB who needs to understand more about where your horse came from, tell us what resources you're missing. Click or tap the Contact option in the red bar at the top of this page to get in touch.

After all, we too are Thoroughbred people.

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