On the day he was spotted in a cross-country warm-up ring, I Just Want to Fly looked about as far from his past as a failed racehorse could.
Dappled gray, and brimming with power and a showy presence, he moved flawlessly, capturing the eye of world-class equestrian Nathalie Pollard.
As Michael Pollard, her husband and Pan American Team Gold Medalist recalls, “She saw him across the ring and said, ‘That’s a really, really nice horse’. He just had a beautiful look and was already a good mover.”
During a phone interview this week, as he drove to the legendary four-star Kentucky Rolex, with I Just Want to Fly, now named Icarus, and some other mounts in tow, Pollard complimented his wife’s unerring eye for great horses, and waxed philosophical about a subject that has captured the imagination of riders of all ilk: ex-racehorse Thoroughbreds and the seemingly endless supply of world-class Sporthorse talent waiting to be uncovered at local racetracks.
Icarus raced four times in his youth at Prairie Meadows in Iowa, earning $540, before he was snapped up, and eventually found his way into the Pollard’s barn of top-level Sporthorses.
“I’ve had other OTTBs. I had a horse named S. S Jet from New Zealand, who I rode to the three-star level and who is going to Badminton this year. Before I could afford to go to England to get a horse, I would get a horse off the track,” Pollard says.
“If you find a good Thoroughbred off the track, they’re as good, or better, than anything you can find by going to Europe.”
This is exactly the point that so many top name riders, re-homing, and re-training advocates, have been trying to make for years; these equines are essentially a fiercely competitive Sporthorses. And they can win at the toughest competitions of all kinds, and at the highest levels.
No less than twenty-one ex-racehorse Thoroughbreds have received pinning numbers for Rolex Kentucky Three Day this weekend, and will compete against the crème de la crème in the highest rated show in the Western Hemisphere.
And, as they surge across hilly terrain, over steep obstacles, and into and out of water, filling their lungs with sweet Kentucky air as they gallop at speed, for 12 minutes, the dreams of their riders, and the hopes of Thoroughbred advocates, will fly along with them.
Allie Conrad, executive director of CANTER Mid Atlantic, and national board member, says the pendulum is swinging back toward the prominence of the Thoroughbred in sport.
Whereas, for years, it has been the high-priced, imported Warmblood that has dominated equestrian sport, Conrad believes a change is in the air.
“Is it a heyday? I think it’s the dawn of one,” Conrad says. “I think people are returning to the Thoroughbreds because they want a lighter, swingier horse with catlike quickness.”
While nobody is saying that the Thoroughbred will dominate the hunter/jumper world, or ever possess the gaits in great numbers of the dressage superstars, in the eventing world—where stamina, bravery and keen intelligence are paramount— the pendulum is indeed, swinging back, says three-time Olympian and world-renowned coach James C. Wofford.
“For my particular sport, I see a resurgence of the use of Thoroughbreds,” Wofford said in a telephone interview this week with OffTrackThoroughbreds.com.
“As Warmbloods were put to use in the upper levels” of eventing “it became apparent to some of the silverbacks of the sport, such as myself … that they could not meet the cardiovascular (rigors) … of galloping for 12 minutes, over obstacles, up and down hills.”
Even after a shorter eventing format was ratified by the International Federation of Equestrian sports in 2004, which reduced the endurance portion of the trials, cooler-blooded horses still lacked the stamina of Thoroughbreds, he adds.
“I do believe the pendulum is starting to swing,” Wofford says. The competitive factors combined with the bad economy have created the perfect storm of success for Thoroughbreds, Wofford says.
“People are paying phenomenally cheap prices for great horses,” he says, noting that if a horse can survive the mental and physical rigors of the track, and leave it with a “big, swinging walk,” and the spirit to try, that this is a horse with the right stuff.
“I might buy a horse because he has a huge walk,” he says. “The walk is the gallop, with a four-beat movement.”
Louder than hoof beats on a cross-country course, has been the drumbeat for racehorses, these days, coming loudly, from people like Steuart Pittman. The longtime equestrian really hit on something great when he started promoting the breed as a trainable Sporthorse, Wofford says, noting that Pittman does a “marvelous job” raising awareness about the breed and its potential.
Pittman, the mastermind behind the trailblazing Retired Racehorse Training Project, says a new heyday is coming.
“In five years, the number of Thoroughbreds at Rolex will be even higher than it is now,” says Pittman, creator of the training project. And it’s easy to see why. In his re-training experiment earlier this year, four ex-racehorses proved willing, trainable and smart.
Just weeks after being paired with equestrians, the horses learned to walk, trot and canter, gamely demonstrating their talents in a ring with 3,000 onlookers pressed against the rails.
They proved themselves there, and they’re proving themselves at the highest levels.
“In Rolex, you still need a horse who can make the time. And you need one with a catlike quickness, who has the reflexes to get you out of trouble if you make a mistake,” he says. “I feel safer on a quick-thinking Thoroughbred any day of the week.”
With so many great Thoroughbreds to watch at Rolex this weekend, Pittman declined to make a choice. Courageous Comet, owned and ridden by Becky Holder, will of course be hard to beat, he says, And Icarus, ridden and owned by Michael Pollard is a big talent. So is Parklane Hawk, ridden by William Fox-Pitt, and unraced Thoroughbred Andromaque, ridden by Will Faudree.
Anthony Patch returns this year with owner and rider Lainey Ashker and Pam Fisher will be riding ex-racehorse stallion Sea Lion II. Please visit Retired Racehorse Training Project for a complete list of OTTBs at Rolex.
Each horse/rider team has so much riding on them. To make the best time and get the best scores at the three-day event is, naturally, the prime motivation.
But, as Kentucky gears up for its most important week, which begins with Rolex and concludes with the Kentucky Derby on May 5, there is a buzz, and an excitement about the ex-racehorses who never won at Churchill Downs, but who are at the top of their game, just down the road from the Twin Spires.
“It’s a great thing we’re doing in Kentucky,” Pollard says.