Nuno Santos: Thoroughbreds are back in vogue

Ken's Kitten is a naturally gifted OTTB who has cracked in to 4-star dressage.

Ken’s Kitten is a naturally gifted OTTB who has cracked in to fourth level dressage.

To those who might denigrate the Thoroughbred’s capacity to compete in the dressage world—oh, they’re just not born for it; not “uphill” enough— exercise rider turned OTTB trainer Nuno Santos has a horse to tell you about. Actually, make that two.

A dressage rider who helped transform a nervous, somewhat flighty Thoroughbred named Ken’s Kitten into a third-level mount capable of incredible movement and scope, can hardly conceal his glee today as he speaks of Kitten’s burgeoning four-star achievements.

Ken’s Kitten
Sire: Kitten’s Joy
Dam: Cruise Line
Foal date: April 11, 2007
Sire: Tapit
Dam: Redness, by Tale of the Cat
Foal date: April 3, 2010
In only a year’s time, since Santos and Ken’s Kitten were the star attraction at Steuart Pittman’s Retired Racehorse Project Makeover show at Pimlico Race Course, the flashy OTTB has flourished into a full fledged competitor, now floating through piaffe and passage moves at a four-star level.

“He’s such a different horse now,” Santos says. “He has matured so much, and is so willing to do thing without getting nervous. He does his tempe changes, some piaffe and passage … and he has so much more expression in his movement.”

Like a proud papa, Santos says Ken’s Kitten has utterly blossomed under the tutelage of USDF silver medalist (and older brother) Carlos Santos, in California, and now stands poised to take on the Prix St. George test this year.

But Ken’s Kitten, Santos explains, was no flash in the pan, or rarity among today’s Thoroughbred.

Nuno Santos trained Ken's Kitten up through 3-star Dressage before handing over the reins to California USDF silver medalist (and his brother) Carlos Santos.

Nuno Santos trained Ken’s Kitten up through third-level dressage before handing over the reins to California USDF silver medalist (and his brother) Carlos Santos.

Thoroughbreds, he asserts, are coming back into vogue. Even in dressage. And to prove it, he is schooling a previously injured, 5-year-old stallion by Tapit for the upcoming Retired Racehorse Project’s Thoroughbred Makeover Show.

Later this month at a showground in Kentucky, Santos will ride Rapsandtaps in a demonstration highlighting the skill of the mellow Thoroughbred.

In personality, he is totally unlike his predecessor, Ken’s Kitten. Whereas Kitten was nervous and needed to be channeled, Raps is mellow and willing, with the occasional burst of quirky energy, he says.

But what they share is an ability to excel in a reach outside of horseracing, Santos says, noting that Raps comes to Dressage after recuperating from a condular fracture in his right leg. And still he is great, he says.

The two OTTBs are brilliant examples of the basic talents waiting to be unlocked in ex-racehorse Thoroughbreds, says Santos, noting that several of his riding students recently switched to riding Thoroughbreds after riding Warmbloods.

Rapsandtaps works with Nuno Santos in preparation for the Retired Racehorse Project's Thoroughbred Makeover Show at the end of the month.

Rapsandtaps works with Nuno Santos in preparation for the Retired Racehorse Project’s Thoroughbred Makeover Show at the end of the month at the Kentucky Horse Park. Photo by Lydia A. Williams

“My clients had started with Warmbloods, and don’t get me wrong, I love Warmbloods. But they realized that Thoroughbreds are so much easier. They give you energy right away, whereas with the Warmbloods you have to push and push,” he says, adding, “I think the way people look at Thoroughbreds is totally changing, because of all the organizations” working to raise awareness—the Retired Racehorse Project horse shows among them. “Thoroughbreds are getting back into vogue.”

Steuart Pittman, who pioneered the Retired Racehorse Project to remake off-track Thoroughbreds into valuable, competitive sport horses, says he is thrilled with the impact of Ken’s Kitten and soon, Rapsandtaps will display his moves at the show, which takes place at the fabled Kentucky Horse Park this month.

“Very few of the best dressage riders put time into working with Thoroughbreds, and that’s the reason that very few Thoroughbreds show at the FEI levels of dressage,” Pittman says. “Silva Martin proved with Sea Lord in 2011 is that Thoroughbreds can still show brilliance at the Grand Prix level, but that was a very rare situation where one of the most talented dressage riders in the country had a Thoroughbred sent to her as a sale prospect. The result was incredible.

“Nuno Santos is the next person who will work this kind of magic with Thoroughbreds. He has the talent, he has the feel, he knows and loves the Thoroughbred mind, and he has the connections in racing to find clients who will put their money into the long-term training that it takes to reach the top level.”

15 responses to “Nuno Santos: Thoroughbreds are back in vogue”

  1. I.A. Dantico

    wonderful story, wish more people thought like that. We had an OTTB that hated racing.. finished dead last in three starts. Someone got the bright idea to make him an eventer and he was awesome… Went to intermediate with success and spent many years at prelim doing fantastic. He could have also done higher level dressage… I do not like when Wb people diss the Tb, if it were not for the Tb there would be no Wbs! I do own a Trakehner now, but they have a closed stud book and are truly a breed, very much like the Tb.. You have go as soon as you sit in the saddle….he is sensitive and emotional but he gives us his heart every day… He alos puts up with us learning on him…with a smile!

  2. Paul Marchand

    Everyone should fall in love with a horse, one that just gets to you. Mine is a rescue Thoroughbred named Dominique. I don’t want to know where she came from. She is openly explosive, but when you ask for something you get it -now! She expects aids to be delicate, precise, and absolutely clear. She gets fed up with me easily; but if there ever was a breed that would lay down their heart in front of you and give their all, Thoroughbreds are that breed. She may kill me, but I will die in love.

  3. Gdauverd

    Never went out of style here 🙂 keep up the great work!

  4. Jan Herrick

    Love the OTTB’s Once they give you their hearts, they have no limits. I have Devil’s Lightening, a Devil His Due son, now, three beautiful pure gaits, oversteps a foot at the walk, and extremely level- headed. Starting his foxhunting career.

  5. tbdancer

    The warmblood would not exist without the infusion of “hot” blood–Arabian and Thoroughbred, to name but two. I laugh at those who claim TBs aren’t good for [fill in the blank]. My experience with OTTBs is that they will give their “all” at whatever job they are asked to do. Some enjoy one job more than others, but they have “hearts full of ‘try'” and are just wonderful partners.

  6. K.Pratt

    Our boy Ben (recently deceased from old age 30+ years) was already retired from racing when we got him. He had then been retrained for the lower jumper levels but either did not like the work or the rider, as he was “on strike.” We were approached to try him, as my daughter enjoyed Pony Club activities, and it would be a change for him – one he thrived on. He enjoyed trail rides and the sport of eventing, too. But it wasn’t until she introduced him to Musical Freestyles, that we found his ‘raison d’etre.’ Even more amusing, he preferred western music when he did this dressage! Our Ben, a wonderful off-the-track Thoroughbred and then some!

  7. Maria

    I have one that even myself want to start showing in Dressage. Well all of mine can easily do level 1, but that kid by Chief Seattle can really “sit and push” Him as a 2yo…

  8. Viktoria Ks

    Wonderful job. Wonderful story. Perhaps Mr. Santos would consider teaching others how to retrain these OTTB (by reaching out to rescues) and the rescues, in turn, could help him to make sure these transformed TB are protected by a contract and a network to look out for them, in their new homes.

  9. susan miller

    I have a ma by imperial falcon who produced 3 event horses (part breds) & she is a just a wonderful mover – she goes in a round frame and tracks up under herself – got her to breed to a tb for a race horse – other side of her is dance code (ballade dam of devils bag, angelic song, st ballado, glorious song & 4 more ) & codex – l980 derby winner – she is just a love – she looks like northern dance!

  10. Jon

    They should have never gone out of fashion! TB’a have so much to offer if ones takes the time to work with them. I enjoy them so much I adopted an OTTB from Mid Atlantic Horse Rescue last weekend. Smart, athletic and fancy. What more could one ask for.

    1. Susan Salk

      Jon, who did you adopt? And, congratulations!!!

      1. Jon

        Brewing Battle. 2006 Bay TB G By Poteen out of Bolgers Battle by Bolger. How could anyone not want to be around such and talented, good natured and handsome horse like him?

  11. Christine Egidio

    Love this story! I have an off-the-track Thoroughbred, a Quarter Horse, and a Dutch Warmblood. Love them all but my Thoroughbred is my favorite breed hands-down! And although I don’t do dressage, I had to laugh at the comment about Thoroughbreds giving you energy right away and Warmbloods you have to push and push. SO TRUE!

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