In Virginia, a little horse show becomes a celebration

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.

Thoroughbred Celebration Horse ShowsThe 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.

Thoroughbred, hunter show, Virginia Horse Center

Pickin N' Singin, a 2004 OTTB who won $604 in 5 starts, competes at a Thoroughbred Celebration Horse Show. Owned and ridden by Christina Welker of Kentucky. Champion Monmouth Hunter, Champion Santa Anita Hunter, winner of the Sandivore Memorial for the series high score Santa Anita Hunter, and winner of the Fasig-Tipton Model. Copyright Danny Young/Action Shots Photography.

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.

W.A."Jimmy" Croll, Jr.'s grandaughter, Billie Rae Croll, focuses on retraining Thoroughbred ex-racehorses. She won the award for the trainer with the most horses at the show!

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!”

What’s Next?

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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Filed under Retirement Options, Sport Horses, Success Stories, Thoroughbred Horse Shows

12 responses to “In Virginia, a little horse show becomes a celebration

  1. L.Williams

    I know I am going to register my thoroughbred, and any subsequent thoroughbreds I end up having as long as this program exists. It has been a long time coming. I just wish there were/are more offered in Northern California. Maybe I can speak with my trainer and barn owner into starting a show series, maybe something small, like 3 shows.

  2. Lois Keays

    The ex-racehorse venue of my DREAMS! It is my goal to see these types of events in Canada, too!!! I’m overjoyed to see it happening and with such an investment in education and sharing!! BRAVO!!!

  3. This is so exciting! Also, the racing industry needs to throw their weight behind this and other programs to promote OTTBs. I’m also an example of someone who became more interested in racing because of my OTTB, and if I lived closer I would love to go to “the track” on a regular basis. Miles was so obviously well cared for in his racing life that it made me rethink all my old assumptions after the Eight Belles and Barbaro tragedies. So, great news and very exciting all around!

  4. The Thoroughbred Celebration Horse Shows are fabulous. I attended the November 2011 show and was so impressed with all the OTTB’s. These talented, equine athletes were given the opportunity to transition into new careers as Hunters and Jumpers. I was in awe of their composure in the arena and their desire to navigate the course with precision. It was wonderful to see the joy and pride on their riders faces after completing the course.
    This is a special horse show and I encourage people with OTTB’s to participate. The Thoroughbred Celebration Horse Shows donate the proceeds of their silents auctions to After the Finish Line to help other Thoroughbreds transition off the track and into a new career.

    Dawn Mellen, President/Founder
    After the Finish Line

  5. L.Williams

    Le Sigh… I just checked and the deadline is long past for applying for show dates (I asked about appealing and they said no). The only California shows are in Southern California.. a good 5+ hours away from me. I’ll have to wait until next year I guess.

    • To L. Williams – Are you referring to the Del Sol Classic Horse Shows, After the Finish Line sponsors their Thoroughbred Series.

    • My guess is now is the time to plan out a really great show series for 2013… and maybe visit the Southern California shows to get some ideas and do some networking.

      • L.Williams

        Dawn – I was looking at the TIP Horse shows, which I am glad to see a lot of them are rated Hunter/Jumper shows in Southern California.

        We might be able to pull something together this year that aren’t TIP sponsored, if we can get a couple of track trainers that we work with, and get horses from to help us sponsor some prizes. I also know a lot of local tack stores are always generous.

  6. Kitster

    I am lucky enough to be only 3 hours away from this show. I took my horse to the November Show. Best Show Ever! I will never miss another one, and hopefully bring some more Tb’s with me next time.

  7. WOW, I had heard about these shows so thanks for the write-up! I am just so excited that they’re a hit and I’m hoping that TB Celebration shows become the norm across the US. How fantastic it woud be for me to have a venue like this to work toward *when* I finally get the OTTB of my dreams… In the meantime, I will admire the likes of Pickin’ and Singin’ and drool. He is gor-geous. Of course, I am completely unsurprised. Being from the generation where everyone used to ride TBs in the H/J rings as a matter of course, I don’t see why anyone is agog that OTTBs can perform like this. Must be all that “WBs are the only horses to have” brainwashing that’s gone on in the US for so long. Ridiculous!

  8. susan

    The Thoroughbred Celebration shows are THE BEST!!! Everything in the article is true and than some. I especially like the “special”awards they present. These awards go to OTTB’s for all kinds of reasons. One for the horse and rider that travelled the furthest, the oldest OTTB, the youngets OTTB, the OTTB most recently off the track, the OTTB most recently rescued and the OTTB most recently adopted from one of the sanctioned transitioning facilities. There are several more I can’t remember right now. This show gives prizes to everyone!!! Just for showing up, you get a complimentary hat or bag or other useful item. PLUS, they feed you! A free pizza party on Friday night and an exhibitors dinner on Saturday night. I have never enjoyed a horse show as much as this one. Come one, come all!!!

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