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LONG LIVE THE OTTB GREATS - AN ARTICLE BY OFF-TRACK THOROUGHBRED MAGAZINE

Dec 22, 2020 5:07 PM

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Stephanie Massey Colburn and Rocket
Stephanie Colburn surges forward to hit the ball on Rocket.

Meet four Thoroughbreds that have excelled in second, third, and fourth careers well into their 20s and even 30s.

Written by Stephanie L. Church and Reprinted with permission of Off-Track Thoroughbred Magazine, the official publication of the Retired Racehorse Project. Learn more at therrp.org.

Longevity. Society is spellbound by it, branches of health care dedicated to it and lucrative industries built around it. What can be done to live longer and feel more youthful? Well, if you are a horse, being a Thoroughbred is a good place to start.

Careful conditioning; responsible race training and thoughtful retirement; then mindful retraining and campaigning can prime OTTBs to perform well into their 20s and even 30s. Good bloodlines and conformation aid in the effort, as well as attention to diet, shoeing and preventive care.

We spoke to owners of four exceptional senior OTTBs. These horses’ histories are varied but they’ve all crossed finish lines on dirt or turf and worked well into their third and even fourth decades. Here are some insights on what has kept them going.

Fearlessness

Elite Motion & Performance’s Stephanie Massey on the ball. ©David Murrell.
Elite Motion & Performance’s Stephanie Massey on the ball. ©David Murrell.

To be competitive on the collegiate circuit, a polo pony must have all the qualities of a good polo mount—speed, power, agility, stamina, bravery—but also be readily switched out to be ridden by the opponent’s team. A little bay mare named My Mom’s Pretty (Quip—My Mom Sara, Cool Moon), aptly known as “Rocket,” was a perfect fit for this role. Donated to the Texas A&M Polo Club in 2009, at age 16—much of the decade prior following her thirty-fourth and final race is unknown—Rocket settled right in and began winning best playing string awards for the team.

“During my stint there, it seemed like every tournament (where we got to take our string) we had a best playing string award at the regional level,” says Stephanie Colburn, DVM, of Leonard, Texas, who rode Rocket as an undergrad at A&M and retired the mare from collegiate play when she graduated in 2012. “And in 2012 at the Central Interscholastic tournament, she earned the sole best playing pony title.”

Colburn had some help keeping Rocket fit during vet school from 2013 to 2017 but then gave the mare two years off during her internship and first year of veterinary practice in Florida. She returned in 2019, legging up the mare and easing her back into the Texas Arena League. There she has been winning best playing pony titles…even when she’s just played one period.

Jockey Club Thoroughbred Incentive Program's Best Playing Thoroughbred Overall was awarded to Rocket, owned by Stephanie Massey, pictured with Governor-at-Large Robin Sanchez.
Jockey Club Thoroughbred Incentive Program's Best Playing Thoroughbred Overall was awarded to Rocket, owned by Stephanie Massey Colburn, pictured with Governor-at-Large Robin Sanchez.

Extremely versatile, Rocket has played outdoor and indoor polo in addition to the collegiate circuit throughout her career. “She was one of those horses where she was just so sensitive and so, so powerful,” Colburn says. “She is extremely well-balanced. She never seems to trip or take a wrong step. I like a horse that takes me to the play—you don’t ever have to kick her. Lean forward a little bit, just put your hand forward a little bit, and she’s Mach 1. She’s fearless.

“You have plays where you’re almost like a jousting knight,” Colburn adds, “where you’re going head-on toward people, and you need your horse to stay straight and not veer from that line. And she just has no fear. She never spooks, never wanders. You put her on the line, you know exactly where she will go. I’ve had many plays where people didn’t realize how quick she was. And…they’re looking down thinking, ‘Okay, I’m about to hit this ball,’ and all of a sudden she’s there (to intercept it).”

Arena leagues have wound down due to the coronavirus restrictions, but Colburn, her husband and friends have kept Rocket fit during the break. “Yesterday we went for a two-hour trail ride, and she hasn’t ever really done trail riding before. We took some of our foxhunting horses, too, which you think they should be conditioned to do anything and everything. And we got to these wooden bridges. And guess who’s the only one brave enough to lead the pack across? It was Rocket.”

Raw Talent

Rosarian Moment (Timeless Moment—Rosarian Star, Master Derby) is a nearly two-time warhorse (87 starts) who defied paradigms by eventing at the upper levels into his mid-20s. As a high-schooler, Heather Strawbridge, MD, now a pediatric pulmonologist in Columbiana, Ohio, worked for a horseman who restarted racehorses and sold them as sport horses. They would split the proceeds, and Strawbridge’s portion went into her college fund. “Rosy” came on the scene in 1995 when she was a rising high school senior, and she found the nine-year-old chestnut’s workmanlike attitude and athleticism compelling from the start.

“I rode him my whole senior year of high school, up until I was going to start college, and I was devastated about having to sell him,” says Strawbridge. “But this guy and his wife had decided to give him to me as my Christmas gift.”

The pair started their eventing career at Novice and quickly moved up to Training level, competing at the United States Pony Clubs (USPC) Championships East in 1996 and 1997, during Strawbridge’s first two years of college. In 1998 she had a setback, fracturing neck vertebrae in an automobile accident, but a friend kept Rosy going while she recovered. By the next year the pair was back climbing the ranks, then hitting the upper levels in the early 2000s, with Rosy tackling full-format one-stars from ages 17 to 19.

“I think Rosy did a lot of things on raw talent,” she says. “I was in medical school at the time and then doing my residency and wasn’t taking lessons on a regular basis. I don’t think I was able to put as much time into him as I do the horses I compete now—which are really good horses—but every time I took Rosy out, he placed.”

Strawbridge dropped him back to Preliminary in 2006 because retiring him felt like the right thing to do, given his age and all he’d accomplished. “But he wasn’t ready,” she says, and blazed around cross-country as if he were a decade younger.

“The year after that, he still wasn’t ready to retire,” she adds. “So, I said, ‘You know what? I’m just going to run him Intermediate,’ because I trusted him and his game. I knew I probably couldn’t make the time and it might not be perfect, but I would rather do it on him than anyone else. So, I ran him Intermediate when he was 21.”

Unwavering Work Ethic

“If you take the other horses out to work them, most horses would keep their heads down eating. He sees the other horses go out to work, and it’s like he’s saying, ‘you forgot one!’ You can just tell. Some horses are fairly indifferent. Not him.”

Double d’Or (Tour d’Or—Or de France, by L’Enjoleur) is another horse with an extended career arc. After retiring from racing at 7 after 21 starts, d’Or took to eventing well, contesting Novice with his first post-racing owner before Carroll Crowl, who lives near Lexington, Kentucky, purchased him. Her younger daughter, Laura, took him through the ranks of Pony Club and eventing, and in 2009 (when d’Or was 17) the pair competed Preliminary at the USPC Championships East, in Lexington, Virginia.

D’Or loves to work and be challenged, says Crowl, and at this event he showed his special athleticism on cross-country. “It was a crenulated bank—up the bank, one stride, then off the next bank,” she explains. “D’Or turned that one stride into a bounce, and it was kind of a miracle that they were still together when they landed!

“He’ll sometimes mess with his riders, if he thinks they’re good enough,” she adds. “He’s not a packer and will let you ride but will take over if needed.”

The bay gelding and Laura ended up helping clinch the win for the Tri State Region, which earned the riders a trip to Ireland. Laura headed to college, so another junior rider leased d’Or and evented him through Training at recognized horse trials. It was back in Kentucky at an event that veterinarians diagnosed d’Or with a heart murmur and his determination really surfaced.

“We said, ‘Okay, well, he doesn’t owe us anything, so we retired him,’” says Crowl. “But he was absolutely miserable. When he was turned out, he wanted in; when he was in, he wanted out. He was not taking delivery on it.”

Next, Laura’s college professor started riding d’Or to rebuild her confidence riding. After that, a veterinarian took over the reins and competed d’Or at Training again, with the pair competing in the 2014 USEA Area VIII championships.

At this point d’Or came back to the Crowls’ for some rest to recover from a busy season and, again, for possible retirement. Predictably, he eschewed attempt No. 2, insisting on going back to work after about six weeks. “There was a line of people with their hands up wanting to have him next,” says Crowl.

After vets deemed his heart murmur less concerning than previously thought, d’Or was back to rebuilding confidence, this time for Emma Stockrahm, who ultimately qualified and took him to the American Eventing Championships at Novice in 2016 and 2017 (d’Or was 24 and 25 at the time). When Stockrahm went off to college, the horse rejected a third attempt at retirement and next frequented local beginner riders’ divisions with a junior, along with Interscholastic Equestrian Association and Intercollegiate Horse Shows Association events.

Crowl thought better of trying to retire d’Or again after that lease ended, so at 28 he’s now partnered with RRP supporter Rhyan Banas, who rides him recreationally.

Even with a clear role, d’Or is always eager to be in the arena. “If you take the other horses out to work them, most horses would keep their heads down eating,” Crowl says. “He sees the other horses go out to work, and it’s like he’s saying, ‘You forgot one!’ You can just tell. Some horses are fairly indifferent. Not him.”

Coolheadedness

“I rode and studied under Col. Alfred Kitts. One thing he always said was Thoroughbreds can do anything any other horse can do, only better. He always said that. And with Luke, that is 100% true.”

While Rocket, Rosy and d’Or’s stamina is of the galloping and/or jumping variety, Lucretius (Shelter Half—Lady Jumna, Crow), who recently retired from his duties as a therapeutic riding horse, has proven his endurance with hours of balanced, careful work in the arena, laser-focused on the instructors’ words and his riders’ needs.

After schooling through second-level dressage with his post-racing owner, then serving as a lesson horse, “Luke” came to The Franklin County 4-H Therapeutic Riding Center, in Chambersburg, Pennsylvania, in 2014 at age 23. The organization serves 60-80 people, ages 5-85, at any given time, with its riding and driving horses.

Kim Battin, the center’s stable manager, said Luke also had done some trail riding and jumping in his former career. He was just as versatile in his new job—small enough that side-walkers could comfortably help support riders and large enough that he could carry adults and teach them independent riding skills.

For nearly six years Luke was a rider favorite, having taught some to simply trust that they’d be okay atop his back and others how to ask for a canter transition.

“He was always good,” says Susan Rotz, program director for the center. “And the parents really trusted him, just because they could see how gentle and nice he was with the children. And Luke is very steady. When somebody was afraid, he’d just take little steps. It was the steadiness that built the confidence.”

Volunteers also loved him. “With a lot of the horses, especially during a really busy session, they’ll start to get cranky at the end, and Luke just never was that way,” says Battin. “He did a variety of things so that he was never bored or sour.”

Rather, the horse simply always did his job without complaint and radiated peace, says Rotz, even when he wasn’t working, attracting riders and their parents and siblings to his stall window for a scratch.

In December 2019 Luke sustained an injury — appearing to have somersaulted in the pasture. With excellent veterinary care and donated chiropractic adjustments and massage, he returned to soundness, but Battin and Rotz could tell he was ready to retire. Center staff are planning a retirement party for him at his new home once coronavirus restrictions ease.

“It takes a very special horse to be able to meet all the requirements (of a therapeutic riding horse) and do the job and be happy doing it,” says Battin. “I rode and studied under Col. Alfred Kitts. One thing he always said was Thoroughbreds can do anything any other horse can do, only better. He always said that. And with Luke, that is 100% true.”

Vital Soundness

Longevity is practically synonymous with physical soundness. With 181 starts between them during their racing careers, these horses have shown that “lightly raced” is not a requirement for a second career (or a third or fourth).

“With 181 starts between them during their racing careers, these horses have shown that “lightly raced” is not a requirement for a second career (or a third or fourth).”

Aside from d’Or’s murmur and Luke’s pasture tumble, these horses have been the portrait of soundness. Rosy knocked his shin on a corner at his second CCI*, resulting in a slight swelling that never completely subsided, but he never took a lame step. Strawbridge guesses he’s just a very functional, stoic horse—her vets also discovered he had chips in his knees long after he’d run Intermediate. And Rocket had a minor soft tissue injury that healed with rest.

Colburn attributes this longevity to good genetics and care. Owners have been mindful of their horses’ oral health, diet, fitness regimens and arthritis management. “Taking care of all those things not only at the high-level stage but also realizing when a horse is too tired to perform, and switching off the horse to prevent injury, is key,” she says.

D’Or’s vet came out on a recent morning to do a wellness exam and declared him “sounder than most horses half his age,” says Crowl. “I think that because he’s always been able to have turnout (even as a racehorse) that has contributed a lot to his longevity — the mental and physical part of being outdoors, getting treated like a horse.”

Whatever the secret combination, these horses have declared they will continue to grace their owners’ pastures—and even arenas—for as long as possible, serving as excellent specimens of Thoroughbred longevity.

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