At this year's Rolex Kentucky Three-Day Event, while many in the crowd were following the competition's leaders, a few were keeping an eye on an up-and-coming gray Thoroughbred.
Ridden by veteran equestrian Buck Davidson, 9-year-old Titanium performed an elegant dressage test, enthusiastically threw himself over each jump on the cross-country course and was one of only seven horses to clear every rail in the stadium jumping within the time allowed.
The pair finished 16th. The ride was a marvelous first-time effort for "Ty" and pure victory for retired racehorses.
"It was the happiest 16th place I'd ever been," Davidson said. "He wasn't really ready for it, but he stepped up and did more than he knows how to do. ... It's so cool to have a horse that didn't make it as a racehorse making it at our game."
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Five years ago, such a future must have seemed unlikely for Titanium. But he's an example of what can happen when failed racehorses get another start.
And it's the kind of transition many in the racing and breeding industries, horse sports and animal rescue organizations are working to make happen every day.
Flash back to the Fourth of July 2005. Titanium finished ninth in a field of 10, more than 14 lengths behind the winner.
After a career that began at Belmont and Saratoga, the Kentucky-born Titanium had won only one race and less than $12,000. He had landed at State Fair Park in Lincoln, Neb., where he had just lost for the second time.
On that day in July, anyone with $5,000 could have claimed him. Nobody wanted him, at least nobody in Nebraska.
"This poor sucker's at the bottom of the barrel," thought Candi Cocks, who trains steeplechasers with her husband, William, in Camden, S.C.
Candi Cocks had followed Titanium's career from afar ever since she spotted him in a 2003 sale catalog. As Titanium slipped down the racetrack rungs, Cocks had called his various owners along the way to say, if you ever want to sell him, I'm interested.
Two years later, when he was finally unloaded in Camden, she felt like she had hit a home run. She hoped to make him a steeplechaser like his half-brother, Niello, but the kind-eyed amiable gelding just didn't have it in him.
"I think he didn't want to run," Cocks said.
But he liked to jump. "He jumped anything you put in front of him," Cocks said.
That got her thinking: Maybe he's really a sport horse. Being one-speeded is a bad thing in a racehorse but a good thing in an event horse.
So she called a friend, Joanie Morris, who is with the U.S. Equestrian Federation and often scouting new equine talent, for an opinion. Morris took one look and was on the phone to Davidson, who bought him sight unseen.
The no-hoper was reborn as a top-level sport horse.
"This is what you want for horses," Cocks said. "Look at what he's doing. I'm tickled to death he found a career, and he didn't end up in the slaughterhouses. ... Thank God, I got him. God only knows where he was going to end up."
Diana Pikulski has a pretty good idea.
For some, slaughterhouse is fate
Pikulski, executive director of the Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation, was one of the fans at the Kentucky Horse Park in April watching Titanium and Davidson.
Pikulski said organizations like hers help find new homes for 1,200 to 1,500 former racehorses a year.
"My estimate is another 1,500 come off the track, need a place to go and end up going into a livestock auction," she said. For them, the next stop often is a slaughterhouse in Canada or Mexico.
"Think how lucky that horse is," Pikulski said of Titanium.
Pikulski follows the second careers of racehorses. She points out that like Davidson, many of the top riders have turned racetrack duds into eventing studs.
At this year's Rolex Kentucky alone there was Olympic gold medalist Philip Dutton, who finished second on Woodburn, a New Zealand Thoroughbred, and sixth on The Foreman, a Virginia-bred Thoroughbred who won less than $7,000 racing under the name Four Across.
And there was Courageous Comet and Becky Holder. Comet was a relatively successful racehorse, winning almost $72,000 before he retired from the track. But he's become a star in the hands of Holder: They competed together at the 2008 Olympics in Beijing and finished third at Rolex Kentucky this year.
It's the kind of journey Pikulski and others would like to see more horses making.
And beginning this year hundreds more will get second chances.
Making it 'part of the business'
The Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation and five other rescue groups, including the Kentucky Equine Humane Center in Nicholasville, will share a $1 million grant from the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals to rescue and retrain ex-racehorses through various programs.
And racetracks are taking a more active stance. Many, such as Keeneland and Churchill Downs, now have policies stating trainers can be denied stalls at the track if they are caught sending horses to slaughter.
John Asher, a Churchill Downs spokesman, said no trainers have been expelled from any of Churchill's four tracks, but some cases are under investigation. Asher said he couldn't provide any details of the inquiries.
Pikulski also credits the National Thoroughbred Racing Association's Safety and Integrity Alliance for requiring tracks to fund and affiliate with a retirement program to qualify for NTRA certification. Both Keeneland and Churchill are certified and have supported rescue groups.
The Jockey Club, for the second year, is offering a program in which breeders can voluntarily elect to donate money to aftercare when they register a foal. So the more horses someone breeds, the more they can contribute. In 2009, the first year, The Jockey Club donated $200,000 to retirement programs.
That kind of support from tracks and breeders is important, Pikulski said. "Taking care of these horses can't be charity. It's got to be part of the business."
Raising rescues' profile
The racing industry also will be shining a high-profile spotlight on successful Thoroughbred sport horses at the annual Thoroughbred Owners and Breeders Association dinner this fall at Keeneland.
A new set of awards, sponsored by Rood & Riddle Equine Hospital in Lexington, will honor the top Thoroughbred hunter, jumper, eventer and dressage horse, with a trophy going to the top overall achiever.
"The higher profile it is, the more recognition of Thoroughbreds as sport horses and the more opportunity there will be to make people realize their value as sport horses," said Dr. Tom Riddle, an equine vet and rider.
In recent years, the trend for equestrian sports has been to use European horses, Riddle said, "but there are so many Thoroughbreds that could provide excellent jumpers and dressage horses and event ers. Many, many horses retire young and need another job."
Titanium's job-hunting days are over.
Davidson said Ty might be back in Lexington for the Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games this fall or for Rolex Kentucky competitions.
"I can assure you of one thing," Davidson said. "He's going to be looked after, whether he goes on to win a world championship or he never does another thing for me."