‘These Are Awesome Animals’: Thoroughbreds Thriving Post-Career

‘Hot-headed’? ‘Hard to control’? How about ‘adaptable’ and ‘brave’. There’s more to racehorses than racing.

‘These Are Awesome Animals’: Thoroughbreds Thriving Post-Career

‘Hot-headed’? ‘Hard to control’? How about ‘adaptable’ and ‘brave’. There’s more to racehorses than racing.

HAD HIS REPUTATION not preceded him, no one watching the chestnut gelding go through his paces during the Retired Racehorse Project’s 2022 Thoroughbred Makeover event in Lexington, KY would have known he was a former king of a division that demands the hottest blood.

Only two years prior, the Ron Moquett-trained Whitmore had been crowned the champion male sprinter in North America following his triumph in the 2020 Breeders’ Cup Sprint (G1) at Keeneland – a deserved title considering how relentless he was both on and off the track. He was affectionately known as Thoroughbred racing’s bad boy due to his antics and opinions.

Yet, less than a year into his retirement, the previously strong-headed runner looked every bit the professional show ring stalwart as he completed his first competitive trail riding class, walking calmly under Western tack over wooden bridges and through ground poles, even taking things in stride when a blue flag his rider was holding grazed his head. 

WHITMORE / Video by Kentucky HBPA

When he was on the track, Whitmore had embodied some of the stereotypes the equine community has assigned to Thoroughbred racehorses in that he could be a challenge to handle when it came to harnessing and honing his blistering speed. 

All those reasons and more are why his connections wanted him to continue to showcase the inherent breadth and depth of his ability once his days in the starting gate were over.

“I was very proud of the way he represented Thoroughbreds,” Moquett said after the protégé he co-owned finished ninth of 43 in his competitive trail debut. “That’s the reason we really wanted to do this. We wanted to promote the fact that these are awesome animals and they’re not just awesome at the racetrack, they’re awesome at anything.”

Whitmore wins the G1 Breeders' Cup Sprint
WHITMORE / G1 Breeders’ Cup Sprint // Keeneland /// 2020 //// Photo by Horsephotos

Over the last two decades, the issue of Thoroughbred aftercare – specifically, the mission of making sure the welfare of equine athletes is prioritised throughout their lifetime regardless of their on-track careers – is one that has gained significant traction across racing jurisdictions around the globe. While Australia, Europe, and the Hong Kong Jockey Club have developed various programs dedicated to caring for, rehoming, and retraining former racehorses, perhaps nowhere is the matter more amplified than in the United States, where the topic of the sport’s social license has been heavily scrutinised in recent years. 

In addition to the Thoroughbred Aftercare Alliance – a Kentucky-based non-profit created in 2012 to accredit, inspect, and award grants to approved aftercare organisations – the U.S. boasts such programs as New Vocations, Second Stride, and the aforementioned Retired Racehorse Project all working to facilitate new careers for former racehorses, in part by educating the broader equine community on the incredible versatility of the Thoroughbred. Thankfully for the individuals doing the tireless work on the frontlines, it has been the off-the-track Thoroughbreds (OTTBs) themselves who have been their own best advocates.

While it has become relatively commonplace to see OTTBs making their presence felt in disciplines like eventing, show jumping, dressage, and show hunting, former racehorses have also successfully competed at everything from barrel racing to polo to – as Whitmore attests – competitive trail. Though the Thoroughbred breed has an innate level of intelligence and athleticism that naturally makes them suited to any number of competitive and leisure settings, those who have the privilege of working with OTTBs say many of the attributes that allow them to handle a racetrack setting make them uniquely qualified to become standouts in any number of careers.

“I always feel it’s such a benefit when a horse has been a racehorse and then is going into a sport horse career because they already have a work ethic and enjoys having a job and having a routine and partnering with a person to accomplish a goal,” said Jen Roytz, former executive director of the Retired Racehorse Project and co-owner of the boutique breeding and retraining operation Brownstead Farm in Versailles, KY. 

“It’s like the motivation to do something is already there. Some of the things I find that is super beneficial as far as a racehorse’s knowledge that they can use in the sport horse world is they travel everywhere so they’re usually pretty good about hauling…and I feel like they don’t get overly rattled for long periods of time about doing totally new things or experiencing new things. 

“I find that a racehorse’s natural inclination to travel forwardly makes everything else so much easier”

“Another thing I really like comparing racehorses to other breeds is racehorses have this built-in forward momentum which, with some horses who don’t have that experience, they can get behind the leg or suck back,” Roytz continued. “I find that a racehorse’s natural inclination to travel forwardly makes everything else so much easier, because that’s one of the first things you teach a horse in general when they’re starting any discipline – finding their forward. If you don’t have that forward, you really can’t teach them a lot of other things.”

By the very nature of being in a racetrack environment, many OTTBs come to a second career already well equipped to handle crowds and other distractions, not to mention various caretakers and riders. Though it can be a challenge at first to get a former runner out of the mindset that they are heading out to race or train each time they leave their stall, their indefatigable ability to handle constant training often helps them to make a relatively quick transition from novice to top-level performer in other disciplines.

Among the many high-profile success stories on that front is that of Icabad Crane, who made 33 career starts and finished third in the 2008 Preakness Stakes (G1) for noted trainer Graham Motion. After retiring from racing in 2013, Icabad Crane was sent to the farm of seven-time Olympian Phillip Dutton, a member of Australia’s Gold Medal Three-Day Eventing Team at the 1996 and 2000 Olympic Games. Within a year, Icabad Crane had won the Retired Racehorse Project Thoroughbred Makeover’s Most Wanted Thoroughbred title and eventually advanced to the CCI2* level. 

ICABAD CRANE / Video by Retired Racehorse Project

“I think from my experience in dealing with Phillip and (fellow Olympic eventer) Boyd (Martin), they love the fact these horses have so much stamina,” said Motion, who along with his wife, Anita, has been among the foremost leaders in Thoroughbred aftercare in North America. 

“Some of these horses that we think are slow horses, it’s just because (being a racehorse) is not what they’re cut out to be. But a lot of these horses that may have been slow racehorses have incredible endurance when they go for these cross-country courses. 

“Most of these horses too really settle down once they get off the track and out of a rigorous training routine when they’re turned out all day. I worry sometimes about some of the horses we’ve sent off, wondering if they are going to settle down. But most of the ones who live outside, 90% of the time they’re different horses. I think both Phillip and Boyd…they feel there is nothing better than getting a really good Thoroughbred who has the disposition to handle it.”

The Thoroughbred heart – an intangible which routinely showcases itself whenever a competitive battle emerges on the racetrack – is perhaps the most desired trait many OTTBs possess. To run toward and clear natural obstacles, to power through jumping courses filled with decorated fences, to trust a rider when confronted with objects that would ordinarily trigger a flight instinct requires a level of mettle that cannot always be taught.

“In general, Thoroughbred horses are born pretty brave,” said Dutton. “A lot of Thoroughbred horses, you’re not really pushing them or encouraging them that much. They’re taking the rider down to the jumps whereas some of the colder blooded horses, they need a bit more encouraging trying to keep them brave. Because of that, a lot of times (Thoroughbreds) will be especially good for people learning the sport to get really confident.”

Brownstead Farm, Kentucky
Brownstead Farm, Versailles, Kentucky / Photo by Jen Roytz

Thanks in no small part to the collective efforts of those in the aftercare space, the reputation of former Thoroughbred racehorses has indeed grown to where they are increasingly recognized as reliable partners for equestrians at any level. 

At the top end, you have ambassadors like Sorocaima, a veteran of 43 starts who finished sixth at the 2024 Defender Kentucky Three-Day Event, one of only seven Five-Star three-day events worldwide. It is the amateur ranks, however, where OTTBs have arguably experienced their biggest explosion. 

Not only are former racehorses relatively cheap to purchase compared to purpose-bred sport horses, there is greater stimulus for a rider to choose an OTTB due to support systems like the Thoroughbred Incentive Program, which was created by The Jockey Club of North America in 2011 to recognize and encourage the retraining of former racehorses by sponsoring classes and awards at sanctioned shows. 

“They’re incentivizing equestrians to want to get a Thoroughbred because there’s more money available for them and more opportunities for them to compete at their local shows all the way up to a national championship level,” Roytz said. “That’s making a huge difference too because, you know, you’re giving people the option of, I can pay more money for a different breed of horse that isn’t eligible to compete in all of these either restricted classes or money added classes.”

For most horses who do make it to the track, finding a landing spot outside of the breeding shed will be a necessity once their racing careers conclude. For all the myriad issues facing those trying to push aftercare to the forefront of the industry’s priorities, selling the Thoroughbred as an all-around athletic star is a box that has thankfully been all but checked.

“Every expression you can use that is good, that’s what Thoroughbreds are,” Moquett said. “I want people to see them do this kind of thing and understand if you need a horse, if you want a horse at some level, you can find a retired Thoroughbred and you’re going to love them like we do. You’re going to be one of those crazy people that follow around and love Thoroughbreds.”

Alicia Hughes is an award-winning writer and journalist with nearly three decades of experience producing horse racing content. A resident of Lexington, KY, Hughes formerly served as the lead turf writer for the Lexington Herald-Leader newspaper,  Racing Editor for BloodHorse publications, and Director of Communications for the National Thoroughbred Racing Association. She was also president of the National Turf Writers and Broadcasters from 2016-18.

View all articles by Alicia Hughes.

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