#NeverEclipsed campaign an ode to those answering the call

By Elizabeth Anne Gillespie/Special to HRN
January 22, 2020 10:01am
#NeverEclipsed campaign an ode to those answering the call
Photo: Elizabeth Anne Gillespie

In addition to honoring excellence in 17 equine and human categories, a news release recently stated, Thursday’s Eclipse Awards will pay tribute to Thoroughbreds who have moved on to a second athletic career. The NTRA in recent weeks invited fans to salute Off-Track Thoroughbreds by posting their photos to social media with the #NeverEclipsed hashtag. Selected submissions will be played throughout the Eclipse Awards.

We’ve come a long way, baby.

As any equestrian will tell you, adopting, transitioning and retraining racehorses for their second careers is gratifying. In the world of OTTBs, there’s always that phone call. We’ve become highly attuned to inflections in voice on the other end, hoping you can help place a horse that perhaps showed no interest in racing.

That’s when your own mind starts racing with all the hope, promise and dreams of what could be.

Type in #NeverEclipsed and just scroll. You’ll witness 3-day Eventers sailing their ex-racehorses over jumps that appear to defy gravity. You’ll see a proud old warrior, at age 30, happily standing in his field while his owner nuzzles him; his riding days long past but loved forever by his family. Flashy hunters, eventers, show jumpers, polo ponies, barrel racers, trail buddies, and Thoroughbreds utilized in equine assisted therapy programs all share billing. These countless stories stir the emotions.

I grew up with an older sister in an era when riding and showing a Thoroughbred was considered the epitome of cool — if you were lucky enough to have one. They were highly regarded for their ability and versatility in most any discipline. There simply were no warmbloods, and importing European sport horses for jumping and other disciplines was unheard of.

Every horse we ever rode or showed had a lip tattoo. I distinctly remember the young riders at shows on “other” horses whining, “The judges are only picking the Thoroughbreds in the hunter/jumper classes!” with the constant refrain that “the Thoroughbreds are winning everything!” Of course they were.

Top Thoroughbreds and riders of that era read as a who’s who of the U.S. Olympic Games, The Pan American Games, Nations Cup Teams and the Show Jumping Hall of Fame. We were all glued to the TV or on the edge of our seats at the shows watching Hilda Gurney on Keen, Joe Fargis on Touch of Class, Michael Matz on Jet Run and Rodney Jenkins on Idle Dice. The list of Gold Medals and other accomplishments these brilliant and talented ex-racehorses have achieved is remarkable.

A few years ago, I got that call. I knew a giant leap of faith awaited in every way. I grabbed a friend and drove to the shed row, all the while convincing myself maybe I could take this on, but on that day I would just “look” and make an assessment.

The trainer walked him out of the stall. He was a nice looking 2013 chestnut gelding and resembled his sire, Kantharos. He was un-raced and needed a home. I told the trainer I would let her know within a few days. I didn’t sleep that night trying to decide what to do, but my overwhelming thought was that he was a good type for a hunter prospect. Maybe a jumper. And with some time, I rationalized, he would show us.

My friend and I spoke excitedly during the car ride back home with me detailing the plan I would put in place. I didn’t realize it at the time, but I had already decided that he would have a home with me. A good friend will tell you when your dreams are unrealistic and impossible. A great friend will help you realize and achieve those dreams.

He was the new youngster in his barn away from the track, stabled among retired champion paint horses, a few imposing warmbloods, older show ponies and some seasoned fox-hunting horses wintering in Florida. He found his buddy, an older ex-racehorse named Hot Shot. I imagined they traded racetrack stories over dinner. His newly christened barn name became “Clooney” because the farm owner and I thought he was so Hollywood handsome. 

Clooney took to his new life in the barn and on the farm immediately. I remember him stepping off the trailer on his first day and being turned out. After romping around the grassy paddock, he found a good spot and rolled in the warm sand. He laid there a long time relishing his new place in the sun. That picture of him is always in my memory.

Clooney had lots of work ahead of him. He loved to have a job and something to do as is typical of a Thoroughbred. They have active minds and generally want to please. They give you everything they have, whether on the racetrack or in the show ring. I spent every spare moment I could after work and weekends at the barn. I found an experienced and confident rider — after three tries — to get him started under tack while I supervised from the ring. In short order, he was easily going over poles and cross rails. He showed bravery with an aptitude for jumping and was careful, naturally well-balanced, intelligent and willing.

Barns are their own little worlds away from your other life — the office, family pressures, sitting in traffic. The barn is where all kinds of other things happen and challenge you. It’s a world unto itself. I regularly look upward and thank my dear Dad for introducing us to horses, riding and barn life at such an early age. His lifelong passion for racing also included an innate love for the horse, not just betting.

Being introduced to the beauty and grandeur of racing while visiting the many beautiful courses in the U.S. and Europe had a profound effect on me. He studied pedigree in addition to the Daily Racing Form. Although we participated in countless school activities and non-related sports, the foundation of being in a barn as a kid correlates to life’s lessons. Horses are great teachers. 

The versatility, intelligence and sheer athleticism combined with the giving nature of the Thoroughbred breed as a sport horse is finally regaining the much-needed momentum and popularity that so many organizations have worked tirelessly to bring back. The Thoroughbred Aftercare Alliance, along with The Retired Racehorse Project and Thoroughbred Makeover, Mid-Atlantic Horse Rescue, Makers Mark Secretariat Center, TRF and New Vocations are just a few examples of the gold-standard aftercare. That includes accreditation, adoption, retraining and rehoming — all important work gaining increasing attention.

Clooney and I, we are a small team. There’s the horse, the rider, the trainer and the farrier. We cheer each other on, hold each other up and dream big. Every day I realize we belong to a much larger team that is the OTTB Movement. We’ve endured barn changes and challenges that come with the territory. We’ve even survived two hurricanes!  Along the way, we’ve made enduring friendships, achieved numerous milestones and been part of a greater movement that is unrivaled. Throughout our journey we are continuing to write the story of the incomparable bond between humans and horses. We’re 
#NeverEclipsed.

 

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