The bell clanged insistently, the metal starting gate snapped open, and all at once out rushed a field of hard-driving Thoroughbreds accompanied by one persnickety “creampuff” of a horse.
As the pack made its way along the Monmouth Park race course, a pretty bay named Mommie’s Luke, the creampuff in question, moved in beautiful balance; and though he had no shot at hitting the board that day, at least one onlooker beheld his future.
“There’s a children’s hunter for you!” exclaimed a friend of the racehorse’s owners.
Linda McBurney, owner of the beautiful creature who used to stamp, paw, and grind his teeth in the saddling area, recalls what a fine specimen he was when he left the starting gate.
“He came out looking lovely,” she says, chuckling. “He just didn’t have the mentality for racing. He was a little bit of a creampuff and a good racehorse needs to be more like a prizefighter.”
Her husband Pat, a race trainer at Monmouth Park who early on embraced the idea that an unhappy racehorse should be retrained for a second career, cajoled his wife into helping him out with the petite bay gelding. He had purchased Mommie’s Luke in a dispersal sale, and when it was clear the gelding disliked racing, he turned to his wife for help.
“At first I wasn’t sure. I said I was getting old to take on a young racehorse as a project,” she says. “But, I really liked (Mommie’s Luke’s) trainer, and Race name: Mommie’s Luke
Show name: Less is More
Barn name: Lester
Sire: Ameri Valay
Dam: Celestial Wings
Foal date: Feb. 7, 2001thought it would be a good excuse to hang out, and get lunch.”
Expecting little more than some good female bonding time, McBurney began driving out to her friend’s farm in Morristown, N.J., where the recalcitrant racehorse was being stabled, and gamely began lessons.
“It was November 2005 when we got started together,” she says. “I started by teaching him how to flat correctly, and he showed me he takes his work very seriously.”
But instead of misbehaving like he once did in the saddling paddock at the track—he was transformed from the teeth-gnashing steed into a virtuoso who floated over jumps.
“Contrary to the way he used to melt down at the paddock, as soon as he trotted into the ring, he breathed a huge sigh of relief,” McBurney says. “He absolutely embraced being in a ring with a bunch of jumps.”
In six months time, he was prepared to enter his first show, where he proved to be scopey and balanced. Unlike other new jumpers, who gallop straight up to the jump and pop over it, this horse, who is now named Less Is More, departs and lands well clear of the jump. His stride is so enormous that McBurney and her friend once stopped to study the hoof prints on either side of the jump, amazed that he had jumped from so far back.
And when an object looks a little spooky, he puffs himself up with courage and gets really brave, she says.
“As competitors, we always have a secret card to play. Even a slow racehorse can always go faster, and we’ve won that way,” she says. “If I give him a little cluck and give him his head, that’s when he knows we’re going to roll. That’s when he makes his stride really big—he’s tough to beat in a jump-off because of that stride.”
This is how a losing horse at the track, once tweaked and trained for something he enjoys, put the McBurneys in the money, after all.
Last year in Wellington, Fla., he was champion in the Master’s Jumper Division at WEF 8, and won the $10,000 Master’s Classic, Reserve Champion at WEF 9. He also won the $10,000 Child/Adult Jumper Classic at the HITS IV show last summer.
“I don’t know if there are that many Thoroughbreds in the divisions we’ve won in,” McBurney says. “But he embraces jumping, and he’s smart enough to use his pace to his advantage: he’s not afraid to gallop up to a big fence, and that’s his advantage over the Warmbloods.”
Not only is Less Is More winning the big classes, he is also serving as an ambassador in the big leagues.
“Even a Thoroughbred who was slow on the track will have a quicker turn of foot than the Warmblood, and this is their advantage,” she says. “And to people who say they’re spooky, I disagree: What they are is really careful.
“This horse was built for jumping. He has a strong engine in the back, and he’s quick, careful and very agile,” she adds, noting that the pair is heading back to Wellington very soon to compete against more Warmbloods in the master’s division.