There are breed clubs for every sort of horse imaginable.
Breed associations with glossy magazines, glittering ribbons, glitzy year-end awards, flourish in the United States.
Well lucky us, the Thoroughbred enthusiasts. We get the Jockey Club. They don’t even send you a bumper sticker when you register a foal with them.
But when it comes to glittering ribbons, the Jockey Club are stepping it up. The Jockey Club Thoroughbred Incentive Program is offering sponsorships for ribbons, prize money, and annual Horse of the Year awards to nationally-recognized horse shows who offer Thoroughbred classes or high-score TB awards. It’s a nice start. Although I haven’t heard a thing about a bumper sticker.
Thoroughbred-only horse shows, in the meantime, are coming into existence, providing breed shows for people like me, who were super-jealous of their friends who could go to breed shows and get tons of points.
The Virginia Horse Center, in Lexington, VA, has put together their own Thoroughbred show series with the help of numerous supporters in the racing, sport, and retirement community. The Thoroughbred Celebration Horse Shows are entering their fourth year with explosive attendance and vastly expanded class offerings. Krista L. Hodgkin of the Virginia Horse Center Foundation, the non-profit which operates Virginia Horse Center, spoke with me about the horse show series.
Why a Breed Show?
Far from saying that OTTBs can’t compete on equal footing at open shows, the Thoroughbred Celebration Horse Shows were designed specifically to help riders and horses transition from racetrack to showring, as well as display their talents. “We think that these horse shows will help transition more Thoroughbreds who aren’t fit to race anymore into new careers,” Hodgkin says.
“We hope that by creating opportunities for them, and their owners, to come together and compete, we are opening the door for more ex-racehorses to come into better situations when their racing days are over. There is so much joy in watching a young horse progress at each show with their new skills and grow in confidence over the year.”
The Thoroughbred horse show accomplishes two goals, one the result of negative press, one the result of positive: it shows off the skills of OTTBs in the horse show arena, and it puts new OTTB owners in touch with one another for networking, support, and friendship.
From a Hunter Division to a Three Day Show
It started as a class division at an open horse show.
“Chris Kelly, horse racing enthusiast and Director of Operations at the Virginia Horse Center, and Annie (Croll) Russek put their heads together to introduce an Off the Track Thoroughbred Hunter Division at a local Virginia Horse Show in 2008,” Hodgkin explains.
The OTTB division was a huge success. “The next spring, Chris and Anne dreamed big and thought that if they held an entire horse show for OTTBs at the Virginia Horse Center, they could attract more participants and have a bigger impact.”
They dreamed big, and the horses came in herds. The first show, a hunter/jumper/pleasure affair, was popular enough, but, Hodgkin says, “Word spread between our June and November shows that year. The turnout in November was overwhelming for a one-ring, two-day horse show.”
An overwhelming response for a Thoroughbred breed show! Who knew? Suddenly they were redesigning their whole model.
Part of the logistics of mapping out the show lay in the unique character of the participants: young horses who might still associate a van ride and a loudspeaker with a trip to the starting gate. Hodgkin explains, “We are constantly striving to provide the best environment possible for these horses, especially the horses who have recently come off of the track.”
It’s a tricky thing, but the Virginia Horse Center team are up to it. “I think one of the best attributes of our team is that some of racetrack knowledge, some have horse show knowledge, some have both; but we all have the horses’ best interest in the forefront of our minds when making adjustments to the time schedule,” Hodgkin says.
Three days seemed ideal, she continues, because “it would give the young horses more time to get used to their surroundings and focus on their jobs, and less on the distraction of being at a horse show.”
Three days has another benefit: the networking element. You know how you only see your best friends at horse shows? The horse show planners saw that a community of OTTB enthusiasts was coming together, and wanted to give friendships more time to form and mature. Thoroughbred Celebration Horse Shows aren’t just about chasing points: they’re literally about getting together and celebrating your favorite horses with your new best friends.
“The environment of these shows is so unique that we think they are essential to bringing together OTTB enthusiasts, and again, strengthening a network to better serve these horses,” Hodgkin explains, pointing out that while many of the horses go on to compete and win at open shows, the atmosphere at the breed show is an outstanding place to begin, build relationships, and bring along a young horse.
Horse Racing Shows Support
The supporters who have helped sponsor and spread the word about the Thoroughbred Celebration have crossed the racing/sport divisions, with sponsors such as NYRA and the Maryland Jockey Club, and a $1,000 Hunter Stake sponsored by Dawn Mellen’s After the Finish Line, a Thoroughbred rescue funding source.
“Thanks to Dawn, The Daily Racing Form featured us in 3 full page ads before our November 2011 show!” Hodgkin says. In addition to racetracks across the country, the horse shows have received support from the NTRA, the Breeders’ Cup, and Thoroughbred owners and breeders.
And just as the horse shows showcase what outstanding sporthorse prospects OTTBs are, they also shine attention on racing, a sport that many horse enthusiasts are ambivalent about. Hodgkin points this out: “We would like to see increased participation from the racing community as this is a great way to attract new fans to racing. I am the perfect example of that! Since being involved with these horse shows, I have researched my own horse’s bio and been to 6 tracks in just over a year’s time. I have a new-found passion for racing!”
Thoroughbred Celebration Horse Shows continue to grow with every year. Hodgkin says that they are already networking with “open horse shows in Virginia, Maryland, Kentucky and New York to offer Thoroughbred Hunter and Jumper qualifying classes for our stakes. We send prizes for the winners of these classes from the Thoroughbred Celebration and qualifying certificates. These catch the eye of other exhibitors, and hopefully opens up the dialogue about the ability for Thoroughbred ex-racers to learn a secondary skill.”
And down the road? Still dreaming big, she says. “We would love to work towards offering a National finals!”
2012 Thoroughbred Celebration Horse Shows will be held March 16-18, June 8-10, and November 2-4.
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