Thoroughbred Makeover Sneak Peek Wows Crowds at Rolex

Emily Daignault-Salvaggio rode her new OTTB Gin Joint in the Retired Racehorse Project's Thoroughbred Makeover Preview at Rolex, where riders like Lynn Symansky and Dorothy Crowell offered commentary on the five demo horses. Read on for her full recap. Many thanks to Emily for writing and to John Salvaggio of JAS Photography for the great photos. Go OTTBs!

Nuno Santos and RapsandTaps. Photo by JAS Photography.

Nuno Santos and RapsandTaps. Photo by JAS Photography.

From the “Sport of Kings to the Kings of Sport.” It’s a catchy slogan to go along with a challenging concept of a competition. Steuart Pittman’s brainchild, The Retired Racehorse Project, has gone from a special localized event for the past few years to an explosive wide open marquee event in 2015.

Gone are the days of 10 to 20 hand-picked trainers with OTTB experience in a variety of disciplines and skills. In 2015 the RRP’s Thoroughbred Makeover is open to an expected maximum of over 330 horses competing in a show setting to be held at the Kentucky Horse Park on October 23-25, the concurrent weekend with the Mid South Combined Training Association’s Team Challenge.

Many disciplines will be featured, including hunters, jumpers, eventing, dressage, fox hunting, polo, trail class, ranch work, and the catch all for the others, “freestyle.” So as a preview event for the 2015 edition, five of the entered Thoroughbred Makeover horses came to Lexington during Rolex to be shown off to the eventing fans.

It seems simple to just load up a horse and take it to a new place, ask it to do its job in front of crowds and new settings, have a nice time and go home. But when you factor in that a mainstay of this competition is that NONE of the entered horses had more than 15 post track life retraining rides as of mid-January, well, things get more interesting. So your best case scenario for this demonstration was a horse that could have been approved as a competitor in mid-January and now has a whopping three months of training rides.

That’s not a lot of time under a Thoroughbrd’s belt. In this field of five there were horses that had had every bit of that three month time frame, then there were others who had not had that much time. The horses in this demonstration ranged in age from 3 to 6 years old. Some were very successful on the track and others were not.

The format was simple: ride around individually and show off the flat work you had as Steuart spoke to the crowd about you, your horse and your goals. If your horse jumped, it did so with the other two jumpers so that all the jumping was at once. If it did trail stuff, you worked and showed its talents with the crowd solely focused on you. And if it did only dressage, you’re on your own to show it off as well.

Nuno Santos and RapsandTaps. Photo by JAS Photography.

Nuno Santos and RapsandTaps. Photo by JAS Photography.

Nuno Santos and RapsandTaps

Nuno Santos, a former exercise rider and assistant trainer for the great Bobby Frankel who has now reverted back to his dressage roots from Portugal, is a trainer based in Maryland who was up first. He has the 5-year-old stallion by Tapit (current stud fee: $300,000) named RapsandTaps entered in the makeover.

Interestingly the horse is still owned by his race owners, Merriefield Stables. He’s a dressage horse now with a lovely natural frame and self-carriage that will likely take his rider into good stead in October. The young grey showed his flashy movements and seemed to embrace the crowd’s attentions on him as he flaunted his wares for all to see. Steuart made mention as he commentated that Nuno is a natural settling a horse and true to this the horse and rider looked fabulous in all moments of their time in front of the crowd.

What was interesting to see was Nuno’s rock solid vertical position. MANY exercise riders can lose their upper body position due to countless hours in two point over the backs of racehorses. It is a challenge to remember where to keep your body when changing between two very different disciplines. Nuno’s dressage roots serve him so very well. He is such a nice rider to watch and for a few moments I found myself really appreciating dressage done well on a lovely naturally talented horse.


Hillary Irwin and Nutello. Photo by JAS Photography.

Hillary Irwin and Nutello. Photo by JAS Photography.

Hillary Irwin and Nutello

Hillary Irwin is already well established in her eventing career. She is the owner of Hillary Irwin Eventing based in Elkin, North Carolina, and has a decent sized stable of active eventers. Add to that, she has made a connection with top tier trainer Graham Motion’s Herringswell Stables and was able to acquire Nutello when the gelding was retired with a minor tendon injury. It helps to have good connections to source horses from, and Graham’s barn is among the best.

This came at the end of “Mo’s” career that notched $416,364 in earnings over four seasons of turf racing.  The Lemon Drop Kid gelding was born in Kentucky but started his race career in France; only later did he return to the U.S. and land in Motion’s barn. Irwin picked him up and brought him south to her base and rehabbed the leg.

But as luck would have it, she broke her foot when the time had come to start Mo back. So a little bit longer of a delay kicked the beginning of their full work to mid-February. Well to be fair he did get worked by Hillary a bit while her foot was broken. She didn’t know it and so did three weeks of work with him before her doctor finally benched her.

Now months later her work and the geldings class are showing him off to be a fine prospect for her future. He is a bay with some very nice movement, and his “been there, done that” mentality is quick to appreciate. When the rain poured down on us Saturday morning, Hillary and Mo showed that steady eddies are vastly under-appreciated in favor of the big and flashy horses that surround them.

Over fences Mo is game and Hillary’s long career of training with the who’s who of almost every discipline made her equitation something I longed to recapture in my own riding. They’re entered in the eventing discipline for October, and I imagine they’ll be right in the thick of things.


Amy Lent and Face of Glory. Photo by JAS Photography.

Amy Lent and Face of Glory. Photo by JAS Photography.

Amy Lent and Face of Glory

Amy Lent is a Kentucky resident and she may have had the shortest trip to travel, but given the trail class amenities she needed to bring to show off her horse, Face of Glory, she definitely hauled the most stuff to the horse park. Among her tricks and paraphernalia were a mock cow on wheels, a series of boxes that “Glory” had to step up and down like stairs, a Spanish pole that she held and circled the horse around, and a PVC pipe frame of a “curtain” of pool noodles that they rode through. (Side note, I tried and Gin would go absolutely nowhere near those noodle things!)

Amy is an experienced trainer in a variety of disciplines and retrains many horses out of her Nicholasville home base. She has three horses entered in the makeover, all of whom she adopted from Second Stride based in Crestwood, Kentucky. She will be competing Glory in the trail class, the working ranch class and if he’s ready by then, she will drive him in the freestyle.

Glory and Amy clearly have a working partnership, and this will serve them well as they polish the skills that already have great foundations. More impressive was that Amy was unable to do much before March given the difficult winter that Kentuckians faced.

To see a young horse like him twirl around a long pole dragging on the ground and to literally pull a rolling fake cow with fake (but real enough!) horns right at him, was truly impressive. It’s easy to get lost in an English-centric world, but when you watch a young western horse learning to work and perform with so many different challenges, it’s awesome to see that kind of versatility.


Jordan Pruiksma and Fullback. Photo by JAS Photography.

Jordan Pruiksma and Fullback. Photo by JAS Photography.

Jordan Pruiksma and Fullback

Jordan Pruiksma had the challenge of the youngest horse in Fullback, a 3-year-old regally bred son of Bernardini who was owned by her employer, Darley. She broke “Stellar” at the Aiken branch of the famed racing stables. He was always the one to her that she adored. He would hug her as she put his bridle on and she put her name in for consideration if he was he ever to need a home.

Darley is well known in Europe for having one of, if not the best, re-homing programs for their horses. It’s not hard to acquire a failed runner from Darley abroad. But here in the States, the Darley rehoming venture still exists primarily among those who work for the company and those who are friends of Darley and its people.

As such right around Christmas time Jordan got the best gift of all: a late 2-year-old gelding with whom she already had formed a bond. Fullback had proven to be slower than his exceptional breeding so he was given to Jordan. Now in the mere five months since she has had him, they have already gone out and won a small combined test in Aiken, demolishing the Amoeba CT division with Stellar living up to his name in dressage.

She works with Kristin Schmolze at home and was lucky to have her at Rolex to warm her up for the first demo ride as well. There are a lot of really big name riders who we were lucky enough to have come and commentate with Steuart during our demos. All of them walked away trying to talk Jordan into parting with Stellar, and all of them failed.

It can’t hurt to have Lynn Symansky, Laine Ashker and Dorothy Crowell trying to convince you to sell something you’ve only had five months. But it’s even better still to be able to smile and say, “No thanks.” He really is a special horse. We all watched as in the first demo he did his first in and out. Jordan thinks he’ll be headed to the hunter class and maybe the eventing in October, but as young as he is, she’s playing it by ear.


Emily Daignault-Salvaggio and Gin Joint. Photo by JAS Photography.

Emily Daignault-Salvaggio and Gin Joint. Photo by JAS Photography.

Emily Daignault-Salvaggio and Gin Joint

Last of the group was me on my gelding Gin Joint. He’s a 6-year-old by Macho Uno out of a Cozzene mare and he was bred by Adena Springs. Right before we shipped to Kentucky, two of his former exercise riders from Canada found me online and confirmed for me that “Gin” has always been foot perfect and extremely calm and quiet, even as far back as when he was a 2-year-old running at Woodbine in stakes races.

He’s a cool horse to be sure and the best thing about him is that he is ready and willing to do it all. He is a talented horse but a few notches behind the others. All of them had their last races in 2014. He had his eight weeks before Rolex. He’s done a lot of great work in that time, and I was extremely proud of the calm and cool work he did in Kentucky. He’s a nice mover but he’s a fantastic jumper. He never did a thing wrong, and he was green once at a jump and the next time through he was way over it. How can you not love a horse like that?

The demos drew a great crowd on Friday afternoon and Lynn Symansky joined Steuart to add commentary on our five horses. She was impressed with all of them and the horses seemed to step up a bit in the presence of the rider who would finish as the top placed rider on an OTTB on Sunday. Lynn had great things to say about training OTTBs, about the experience of living through numerous people who told her to give up on Donner, and about how Thoroughbreds really can do it all.

On Saturday we were demoing to a smaller crowd. The moved-up start time for cross country and the torrential downpours greatly affected our attendance. The horses didn’t care and they performed brilliantly given the awfully cold rain. The riders were all bundled inside of rain coats, and the crowds were populated with ponchos and umbrellas.

Dorothy Crowell was our commentator du jour and she too was taken with all five of the horses. Dorothy and Molokai are still icons of the sport of eventing, and Dorothy knows well what a Thoroughbred can do and how to develop one. She gave us great comments about progressing through the basic training and what she does in her own training system.

Side note: Dorothy is now going to be competing in the Makeover herself with a Thoroughbred she chose on Sunday from the Secretariat Center. So it’ll be interesting to see how she and her chosen horse bond by October as well.

The Makeover competition is still six months away. That’s a lot of time in a horse’s training life. The RRP website has blogs for all of the competitors entered and you can read them and follow their progress at this link.

Some well-known riders like Colleen Rutledge will be competing, and many horses will be highlighted and then some will be sold after this competition. We hope all of these demo horses show up again and progress to succeed in their chosen disciplines. I can’t imagine how it will be with 330 horses with nine months or less of training all in one place. But I am inspired when I think of the scope of this return in popularity of Thoroughbreds as dominant horses in sports.

Thoroughbreds are an all-around capable breed, and more folks need to see it in action. It could be a star like Donner, an icon like Molokai or a future barrel racing superstar; nothing is limiting their abilities. Thoroughbreds really do deserve a consideration for any task. This event will be just the place to see what they can do.

RRP Thoroughbred Makeover Links: Website, Competitor Blogs, Volunteer Info, Sponsor Info

Four of the Thoroughbred Makeover horses mentioned above have Facebook pages! Be sure to link them to follow along with their progress as they prepare for the competition: NutelloFullbackFace of Glory and Gin Joint.