T’bred went from ugly duckling to dressage star

The Roman Knows and Kelly Vineyard are an award-winning dressage team.

The Roman Knows and Kelly Vineyard are an award-winning dressage team.

A Roman-nosed racehorse once thought to be a bit of an ugly duckling has so thoroughly transformed himself into a creature of beauty and talent in the Dressage ring, that his longtime rider swears she is forever sold on Thoroughbreds to do for her what her Dutch Warmblood never could.

Kelly Vineyard of Gainesville, Fla. says she owes everything to her short, narrow-necked OTTB.

Her aptly named gelding The Roman Knows helped pluck her from relative obscurity in Level 2 Dressage—where she was marooned for years struggling on her Dutch Warmblood— to the highest levels of a rarified sport.

Together, the pair moved swiftly up the ranks, earning USDF Bronze and Silver, and competing strongly in the Prix St. Georges.

The Roman Knows
Sire: Quinton
Dam: Miss Crystal W.
Foal date: May 10, 1994
With awards too numerous to count, but which Vineyard keeps tucked in a three-ring binder for posterity, the greatest achievement was that an equine few would look twice at rose to become the horse of a lifetime; achieving High Point wins at every level, a first-place in Prix St. George in 2006, and the USDF all-breed win in 2008.

“Before I bought Roman in 2008, I sat on many Warmbloods searching for the perfect dressage horse,” she says. “I tried tons of horses by the time I tried him. And I remember thinking that he wasn’t very impressive looking. He wasn’t the type of horse you’d look at in the paddock and say, wow! But, he had straight legs, and he was balanced, so I decided to try him.”

He had her at the first ride.

Roman did for Kelly Vineyard in the dressage ring what no Warmblood could.

Roman did for Kelly Vineyard in the dressage ring what no Warmblood could.

“I knew instantly that he was right for me,” she says. “He was so light and easy for me, so forward and so sensitive. I knew when I got on him there was something very special about him.”

By this point in Roman’s life, he was already a schoolmaster who had already earned his 2006 Prix St. George first place, but he was by no means a push-button pony all takers could ride. “A couple of others had tried him as well and he ran backwards with them,” she says. “So the people involved in his sale knew that the fact I was able to walk and trot him” was a very good sign.

As Roman eases toward retirement at 21, he presides over a barn and paddock as an accomplished athlete and a family member who agreeably teaches Vineyard’s 4-year-old to ride. A schoolmaster loved beyond measure, whose 15.3 hand frame moved flawlessly into a level she never would have imagined, was nearly overlooked as the ugly duckling when she first met him in 2008.

“I still remember when I first looked at him and thought, ewww, you want me to ride him? But after our life accomplishments together … I’m never going back to another breed. His gaits might not be quite as fancy as the others, but he had a consistency that was unmatched,” she says. “It got to the point that every time we went into the ring I knew I was going to get a ribbon.

“And because of Roman, the next horse I get will be an off-track Thoroughbred.”

She wins $200K on beloved t’bred, later buys him

Smalltownman heads to the winners’s circle with Jackie Acksel.

Smalltownman heads to the winners’s circle with Jackie Acksel.

Borrowing a friend’s old jockey saddle, Jackie Acksel, a middle-aged mother of two, swung onto the back of the luckless racehorse and folded into traffic heading toward the starting gate at Delaware Park.

Ignoring the gentle ribbing of stewards yelling, “Don’t fall off!” the one-time jockey set her legs into an unnaturally cramped angle caused by leathers that were too short, and piloted Smalltownman to the scene of his comeback.

It was August 2011 and just a month earlier, Smalltownman had put in a poor performance at Parx Racetrack in Pennsylvania. And as she watched from the sidelines as the 17.2 athlete failed to hit the board, Acksel knew he was better than what she was seeing that day; she decided to take matters into her own strong hands.

Sire: Sultry Song
Dam: Sistine Light
Foal date: March 19, 2006
Earnings: $258,722
The longtime exercise rider and former jockey, age 45 at the time, convinced Smalltownman’s connections to let her, a retiree of 15 years, return to the saddle and try piloting Smalltownman to victory.

A plan that at first blush must have seemed far-fetched soon gained ground as she argued her point: She knew the horse better than anybody; and when she exercised him on the track she got a great response. Convincing the connections at Nycoon Racing that after spending many hours in the animal’s company, grooming him, lavishing treats and attention on him, that she knew how he ticked.

Four weeks later, she was on her way.

When the gate flew open that August day, the pair got off to a solid start, but at the end, with her physical strength flagging, her legs wobbly and painful in the cramped position, the two only managed a respectable second place.

Still, it was a comeback. And from that point on, they went on to win approximately $200,000 together before he was claimed away in March 2013.

Acksel is reunited with Smalltownman.

Acksel is reunited with Smalltownman.

“I’ve won a lot of races in my life on horses that got claimed later. It never bothered me. But that day, the day Smalltown got claimed, I walked back to the jocks room, and I was crying,” she says. “He got claimed four times after we had him, and I always worried about whether he’d be OK.”

Feeling like she’d abandoned the animal who earned so much for her family and his owners, she doggedly pursued every new owner and made the same offer: if Smalltownman didn’t work out, for whatever reason, she’d buy him back.

Finally, last month, she got the call she’d been hoping for. His last owner agreed to sell him back for half of what he’d paid to buy him, and although he wasn’t actually worth that much, she willingly paid it.

“I went to see him at his barn so we could make arrangements for transportation, and as soon as I walked in he started hollering at me like he used to,” she says. “He started kissing me, and he remembered me, and everything I taught him, like how to bow.”

“Getting him back was the best thing,” Acksel says, noting that this horse had put food on their table, and gave her the courage to climb back in the jockey’s saddle. A feat that has earned him a permanent place in her family.

Author’s Note: This story was originally published on Oct. 17, 2013.

Be Bullish retires to Old Friends, group effort

Be Bullish crosses the finish line at Belmont Park. He will now enjoy retirement at Old Friends. Photo courtesy Joe Labozzetta

Be Bullish crosses the finish line at Belmont Park. He will now enjoy retirement at Old Friends. Photo courtesy Joe Labozzetta

Million-dollar earner Be Bullish was retired this week after sailing to victory for the fourth consecutive race, and then hitting the jackpot with a long-planned retirement at Old Friends.

The beautiful gray, who has knocked in 19 wins and 26 second place finishes in his mighty career, was claimed at the end of Race 3 at Belmont Park May 17 by former owner Mike Repole, and retired immediately.

“All great athletes have to retire some time and not too many great athletes get to retire at the top of their game,” Repole says in a published report by the Daily Racing Form. “That he won four in a row makes for a cooler story, but he’s got close to 90 starts, 50-percent first or second, churned out over a million bucks.”

Be Bullish
Sire: Pure Prize
Dam: Smart Holly
Foal date: Feb. 25, 2005
Earnings: $1,106,288; 87 starts
Michael Blowen, founder and president of Old Friends, says Be Bullish will travel to his Thoroughbred retirement facility’s Cabin Creek farm near the Saratoga Race Course shortly, bringing a long-planned-for retirement to fruition.

A year ago, Blowen and Be Bullish’s owners at Drawing Away Stable agreed that the multiple stakes placed gelding would be retired at Old Friends when the time came, Blowen says. “I told David Jacobson that Be Bullish was a perfect candidate for Old Friends, and they agreed,” he says. “They said then that as soon as he was done with racing that they’d send him to me.”

Some horse-welfare advocates criticized Drawing Away Stables for continuing to race the 10-year-old warhorse. Maggi Moss, a well-known racehorse owner and advocate and Gail Hirt of Beyond the Roses Equine wrote publicly of their concern that the successful racehorse may become injured during his long campaign. Hirt and others recently tried to raise funds prior to an earlier race, from which Be Bullish was ultimately scratched.

Be Bullish in the paddock. Photo by Joe Labozzetta

Be Bullish in the paddock. Photo by Joe Labozzetta

Though David Jacobson, who lost Be Bullish to Repole’s claim, publicly expressed disappointment that such a winning horse would be “taken away from the public,” Blowen says the new retiree will make lots of new friends in Saratoga, where he expects fans of the horse to lavish him with attention.

The focus in social media on Be Bullish and his long career was a spotlight that cut two ways, Blowen says.

Blowen says that while people mean well when they publicly worry about a horse, expressions of concern and negative comments, may in fact put an owner’s “back up,” resisting demands for retirement.

“Think about it. Why would I allow my horse to go to someone who thinks I’m the devil?” Blowen says. “I wouldn’t. My approach has been to not focus on the owners, but to quietly raise the money and make a proposal for retirement.”

Gail Hirt, who was among the Thoroughbred advocates who criticized Be Bullish’s connections for continuing to run the horse, disagrees.

Old Friends at Cabin Creek will be the new home to Be Bullish.

Old Friends at Cabin Creek will be the new home to Be Bullish.

“Bringing attention to these ‘War Horses’ puts pressure on the owners and trainers to get into retirement. These horses have given their all to racing, and deserve to be retired before something happens to them where they can’t live comfortable in retirement,” Hirt says. “We started to keep an eye on Be Bullish when he started showing up in claiming races last year. And we started working with Maggi Moss to try to get him. Maggi contacted Mike Repole and it happened.”

Moss, who confirms she contacted Repole about Be Bullish, says she is firmly behind the good that social media can do for a horse like this.

“Social media brings an awareness of caring about the horse and revealing the realities of horse racing,” Moss says. “I truly believe owners/trainers need to care about the bigger picture, the industry, and the horses that make up the pleasure for the owners, the betting public, and those that come to the races. The sport has lost the public due to what they believe is a disregard for the animals, may it be drugs or horses dying.” She further notes that the wear and tear on his body, after so long a career, could have injured him had he not been retired.

Regardless of the opinion of the recent social media attention spotlighting Be Bullish, Blowen, Hirt, Moss and Repole agree: Be Bullish sure did deserve this great outcome.

Says Repole, “Be Bullish is a special horse, as are all horses. As an owner I feel it should be our responsibility when we retire a horse. We should always put the horse’s best interest first. This 10-year-old true warrior shouldn’t be running for bottom claimers at 10-years-old. He deserves and has earned his retirement. I’m happy for Be Bullish and all the Be Bullish fans out there!!!