At the Rolex Kentucky Three-Day Event this weekend, 21 of the entered horses started their careers as Thoroughbred racehorses.
They were not successful on the racetrack, but they are now part of an elite group of sport horses that can perform the intricate flatwork of dressage, race over huge fences and leap through an Olympic-style show-jumping course.
Several Thoroughbred welfare groups think more people in the sport-horse industry should understand that there is a source of inexpensive, talented horses coming off a racetrack near you. To help get the word out, they are having an educational symposium and dinner Saturday, during the Rolex weekend, to show people what a great choice an off-the-track Thoroughbred can be.
"We believe people in the sport-horse industry have to step up and educate people," said Steuart Pittman, director of the Retired Racehorse Training Project, which he runs at his farm in Davidsonville, Md.
The event, called Thoroughbreds for All, is organized by Pittman's group and the New Vocations Racehorse Adoption Program. It will be at West Wind Farm in Lexington on Saturday after the Rolex cross-country competition and will feature eventing riders such as Bruce Davidson and local stars Cathy Wie schoff and Dorothy Crowell. Using live horses, they will talk about the merits of off-the-track Thoroughbreds, or OTTBs, and share tips on the best ways to train them. Organizers also will hand out a printed catalog from online listings of the OTTBs available in Kentucky.
When more people want off-the-track Thoroughbreds, Pittman said, their value will go up, and owners could sell them, rather than running their less successful horses until they are broken down and possibly sent to slaughter.
"We can't control what racing people do," Pittman said, referring to past over-breeding of Thoroughbreds for the track. "They have to come to terms with the same issues we have had."
Rolex is a great showcase for the message. Among the equine competitors who started at racetracks are crowd favorite Courageous Comet, ridden by Rebecca Holder; Park Lane Hawk, ridden by 2010 Rolex winner William Fox-Pitt; Titanium, ridden by Davidson; Ying Yang Yo, ridden by Boyd Martin; and Here's to You, ridden by Emily Beshear, daughter-in-law of Gov. Steve Beshear.
"There's a good chance the winner will be an ex-racehorse," Pittman said.
Moving racehorses into new careers is picking up traction, he said.
The Jockey Club recently initiated the $100,000 Thoroughbred Incentive Program, which solicits applications from 2012 shows and events that want to host a Thoroughbred class among their competitions. The amount of money shows get for prizes will depend on how many shows apply and the level of the competition. Earlier this month, the Kentucky Horse Park hosted an all-Thoroughbred horse show.
Pittman is working on the event with Anna Ford of New Vocations, which has an office in Lexington. She thinks the tough economy will help the OTTB market. The Thoroughbreds for All Web site lists trained horses for about $6,000.
"I don't think you can find a better deal Saturday night," Ford said. "People come, and they learn more about off-the-track Thoroughbreds, or they go home with a better idea of how to work with the one they have."