A hardscrabble racehorse who bounced between Suffolk Downs and Finger Lakes, earning a pittance and never shining during his 41-race career, continues to rise up through the Dressage levels, winning against the most rarified Warmbloods.
In his debut last month at a Prix St. Georges-level show in Nottingham, N.H., OTTB Real Gentleman took a fourth-place ribbon against seasoned Warmblood competitors, putting in a flowing, steady and brilliant test, says his owner and businesswoman Ann Seamonds.
Barn name: Rio
Sire: Gone for Real
Dam: Sunshine Star, by Star de Naskra
Foal date: Feb. 5, 2006“It was a very hot day, and he was very, very obedient,” she says. “Though his tempi changes had a couple of little baubles, he basically knocked it out of the park.”
Ridden by Bethany Larsen and trained by Pan Am Games-winning dressage rider Mary Howard of Brentwood, N.H., Real Gentleman showed “flashes of brilliance in the expression of his gaits” during a performance that capped off a wonderful and unexpected journey.
The path from racetrack to show ring began in 2012, after Seamonds purchased the OTTB with the simple goal of helping to re-train a retired racehorse for a second career. At the time, her goals were simple; to be close to a horse, and to watch him find a new path for himself. “It wasn’t about the destination, it was about the journey,” she says.
But shortly after he arrived at Five Stars Farm in Brentwood, where Real Gentleman lives and trains with Mary Howard and his rider, Seamonds realized her horse, nicknamed Rio, was telling her he was ready for bigger and better things.
“I would watch his lessons and could feel when he understood something. For me, that was the biggest joy,” she says.
Though he always had the mind for dressage, he had to work hard to build the muscular strength to do what comes naturally to the sport-bred Warmbloods, she adds.
“It took Rio a long time to develop the strength to do these movements. He’s now to the point in the medium trot where you do see the brilliance because he’s really strong and relaxed though his back. He can lift himself off the ground now,” she says.
His poise and balance was so impressive during a fourth-level test last year that a show spectator approached Seamonds and asked to sit with her to watch the performance.
“This spectator told me she had noticed Rio was a Thoroughbred and asked if she could watch with me. She later said she didn’t think what he’d accomplished was even possible for a Thoroughbred,” Seamonds says. “That comment meant so much to me. It just validated everything I feel about this horse. Even if he never sets foot in the show ring again, he has done so much good by showing other people how great Thoroughbreds can be at Dressage.”
She adds, “Rio absolutely belongs in Warmblood company.”
Following his successful debut at Prix St. Georges, Seamonds plans to enter him in another show at the same level in August. And as he trains, Seamonds has doubled down on her commitment to OTTBs.
On June 21, she purchased OTTB Smokey’s Honor after seeing his ad on the Retired Racehorse Project’s Trainer Listing. Smokey came through Parx Racing’s Turning for Home program, and was under the care and training of Jessi Werner and Phoenix Equine Services at the time. Seamonds decided immediately that the OTTB’s big, elastic gait was ideal for her next Dressage horse.
Both OTTBs are ambassadors for the breed in an arena where very few competitors started off as racehorses.
“Warmbloods have been purposely bred for a long time. There are dressage lines and jumping lines. But what I hope Rio and Smokey show is that you can train the same movement into a Thoroughbred,” she says. “It may come more naturally to the Warmbloods, but Thoroughbreds are also really capable of amazing things in the dressage ring.”