Some of the best riders who will compete later this month at the legendary Rolex Three Day still rhapsodize about their early days riding OTTBs, says Steuart Pittman, founder of the Retired Racehorse Training Project.
But most aren’t riding Thoroughbreds; they are riding horses cross-bred to compete at the highest level of a particular discipline. These mounts are very specifically bred for the movement necessary in their particular discipline, be it show jumping, dressage or cross-country, he says.
“Even top riders who love Thoroughbreds, like Boyd Martin, who is one of the biggest Thoroughbred advocates around, isn’t entered on one Thoroughbred at Rolex,” Pittman says.
And yet, despite the uphill battle, which pits a horse trained to race against a horse trained for sport, the Thoroughbred is still holding its own among the most elite horses, Pittman says.
As all eyes turn to Kentucky at the end of the month to focus on the fields and show grounds of the Rolex Three Day, Pittman says the numbers of Thoroughbreds taking the field are in keeping with past years.
“We have 23 Thoroughbreds competing this year, 17 of whom have raced,” says Pittman. “They’re still the number one breed, in terms of numbers at Rolex this year. And, I think it shows that they continue to rise to the top, despite having to compete against horses who are bred specifically for Eventing.”
But as great as the obstacles presented at Rolex, the battle to convince the upper echelons of the sport horse world to take a chance on an OTTB, is just as great, he says.
“People who are making decisions about horses to ride are not deciding based on publicity about Thoroughbreds. They’re just looking for the best horses they can find,” Pittman says.
He adds, “For Thoroughbreds to really increase (their numbers) at the top level of Eventing, owners need to provide Thoroughbreds to the top riders. And most owners are not working with agents who are going to the track to pick up a Thoroughbred for $1,500. In fact, some of the owners (who provide mounts to top riders) are breeders breeding for the sport, and they’re trying to create the perfect sport horse.”
Pittman researched the phenomenon of the declining Thoroughbred sport horse three years ago, and concluded that in their heyday in the 1970s, Thoroughbreds accounted for 40 percent of the sport horses. But, now they account for approximately 10 percent.
Thoroughbreds became devalued as other breeds rose in popularity, and bloodstock agents started marketing and selling the more expensive, more profitable Warmbloods, he says.
Yet, despite this ongoing trend, Pittman sees a glimmer of hope when he scans the entrants of the 2014 Rolex.
Some riders have had their careers made by a Thoroughbred. Competitors like Becky Holder, who rode OTTB Courageous Comet for many years, is storming back on her newer OTTB Can’t Fire me.
Lainey Ashker is another one to watch, Pittman says, as she returns on her OTTB Anthony Patch (Jockey Club: Alex’s Castledream), while Meghan O’Donoghue returns on her OTTB Pirate (Jockey Club: Pirate’s Gold Star).
Rider James Alliston is another one to watch —an exponent of Bruce Davidson who just wins, wins, wins. He is returning on his OTTB Parker (Jockey Club: Eastside Park).
And rider Kaitlin Spurlock will take her 17-year-old OTTB Aye’s Promenade out on the fields as well; a sturdy Thoroughbred who helps prove the argument that Thoroughbreds have staying power, Pittman says.
“These Thoroughbreds have been lasting a long time. They have proven soundness,” he says. Now the key is to win.
Many of the riders taking Thoroughbreds to Rolex have gotten to the top of the game by pulling up their own bootstraps, and not riding the intricately bred show horses of a secondary owner.
Should any of these spirited riders win on their brave Thoroughbreds, Pittman says he hopes the stories will continue to filter up to the very top of the horse-buying world. And further, that an owner who can afford any horse would pause to consider the noble off-track Thoroughbred.
Stay tuned for an upcoming article on the Retired Racehorse Thoroughbred Project’s exciting appearance at Rolex!