Maryland’s Horse: The Iconic Thoroughbred
Does it still have a place in the modern Maryland equestrian world?

(first appeared in The Equiery's Auugust 2012 issue)

 

For over 300 years, the phrase “the Maryland Horse” has been synonymous with Thoroughbred. No need to qualify “the Maryland horse” as a Thoroughbred, as that would be redundant. Hence why our Thoroughbred breeding organization is named “The Maryland Horse Breeders Association,” and why––until about 15 years ago––the magazine owned by MHBA was called The Maryland Horse (today the magazine has evolved into Mid-Atlantic Thoroughbred, reflecting changing times and assumptions).


Trailblazers
Kentucky may have more Thoroughbreds, and Virginia may have more money, but Maryland has the history, the pedigrees, the creativity and the chutzpah. Maryland has always been a national pioneer in innovative Thoroughbred programs, while the other states play catch-up.

This is only natural, as Maryland formed the first sporting organization in the colonies, the Maryland Jockey Club, in 1743.

Also in 1743, Maryland hosted the first organized race, the Annapolis Subscription Plate.

Governor Benjamin Ogle established the first Thoroughbred breeding farm, Belair Stud, in 1747.

Fast-forward through 220 years of Thoroughbred history, and Maryland was still blazing trails in the Thoroughbred world.

In 1962, the Maryland General Assembly created the nation’s first “bred fund.” The value of Maryland-breds immediately skyrocketed, as did stud fees; other states immediately followed suit, creating their own bred funds.

The Maryland Million, Ltd., established in 1986, was the first one-day stakes program rewarding progeny of nominated stallions standing in Maryland. Imitators quickly followed.

By 2003, the Maryland General Assembly had anointed the Thoroughbred as the “official state horse.”

Olympic Medals

Yes, the Maryland Thoroughbred was bred to run fast. But after racing, Maryland Thoroughbreds became foxhunters, steeplechasers, show hunters, eventers and trail horses. They became schooling horses and Olympic medalists.

If you are over the age of 40 and grew up in Maryland, chances are that the first horse you rode as a kid was a Thoroughbred—even if you were not from one of Maryland’s fabled “old Thoroughbred families.”

The Thoroughbred not only defined Maryland and racing, but also defined our nation’s nonracing sports. The standards for show hunters were originally based on the way an ideal Thoroughbred would carry himself and move—not the way a pony or a draft cross would move. Phase two of the original Three-Day Event, which included not just cross-country but the now absent roads & tracks, was all based on how Thoroughbreds ran, jumped and recovered.

Even in American dressage, the Thoroughbred had a role. The popularity of dressage surged in the U.S. in the 1970s, and at its center was the Thoroughbred Keen, who earned five USDF FEI* level titles, gold and silver medals at two Pan Am Games, a team bronze in the 1976 Olympics, and was a member of the 1984 U.S. Olympic team.

But running and jumping was really where the Thoroughbred excelled. It used to go without saying that the major U.S. Olympic and international eventing horses were Thoroughbreds. Given that fact and given that Maryland produced some of the best Thoroughbreds in the world, it follows that Maryland-breds would be included in this luminous roster, Maryland-breds such as the great JJ Babu (winning team gold at the 1984 Olympics with Bruce Davidson) and Mr. Wister, ridden to Olympic team silver in 1964 by Maryland-based Lana DuPont Wright (first female to ride in the Olympic Three-Day).

It is likewise no surprise to find that Thoroughbreds had at one time dominated show jumping. According to a 2011 pedigree analysis by sport-horse-breeder.com, of the 20 inductees in the show jumpers Hall of Fame, 18 are Thoroughbreds. And guess which breed of horse holds the puissance record at the Washington International Horse Show? A Thoroughbred, of course! The 17.1-hand “racetrack reject” Sweet ’n’ Low, with his rider Tony d’Ambrosio, crested the big wall at 7’ 7.5” in 1983, a record that stands to this day.

Who can forget the little Maryland-bred Thoroughbred mare, Touch of Class (Jockey Club name Stillaspill), capturing two Olympic Golds in show jumping in the 1984 Olympics? (1984 was a good year for Maryland-breds at the Olympics!) She was the fourth horse in history to win two show-jumping gold medals (the first since 1956), and she became the first nonhuman U.S. Olympic Committee Female Equestrian Athlete of the Year

Where have all the good ones gone?

On July 9, our U.S. equestrian teams for the 2012 Olympic Games in London were announced. There are no Thoroughbreds on our roster.

No longer does the Thoroughbred reign supreme. Day two of the Three-Day no longer favors the Thoroughbred: roads and tracks has been eliminated and the cross-country has become “more technical,” which is a polite way of saying speed, grace, courage and riding off your gut are no longer the primary talents needed to excel.

Just like today’s Olympic rider, today’s weekend warrior favors the less complicated crossbred or warmblood. Today’s adult amateur will often intentionally steer away from Thoroughbreds: “anything but a Thoroughbred!” They may relent a bit, qualifying that as “nothing that has ever raced.” This preference for the crossbred and warmblood is reflected even in the modern show hunter ring and the preferences of contemporary judges.

Sliding into Ignominy

Over the last 300 years, the goal and focus of Thoroughbred racing have changed dramatically. Once a gentleman’s sport, pursued for honor and bragging rights, with horses bred for function, then form, the modern sport of racing is chasing a ever-decreasing betting dollar that is increasingly split among other gambling interests. The goal with the modern Thoroughbred is to win as many races as possible, as quickly as possible, when the horse is as young as possible, and then be flipped to the breeding shed in order to make even more money. Inevitably, this affects the breed.

The sport horse and pleasure rider, leery about the legendary “hotness” of the Thoroughbred but also the possibility of costly lifetime soundness issues, have increasingly refused to look at a Thoroughbred unless it was guaranteed to have never raced. “Off-the-track Thoroughbred” (OTTB) teetered on becoming a dirty word, and the post-race market for track horses slid even further, leading to even more unwanted Thoroughbreds.

This, in turn, has led to a public relations nightmare for the Thoroughbred breeding and racing industry, as animal rights activists glommed onto and sensationalized random (and presumably isolated) cases of former racing champions ending up in slaughterhouses. Compounding the PR nightmare, in the middle of the 2012 Triple Crown season, the New York State’s Attorney filed a civil suit against the Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation, Inc. alleging that, in 2010, over 100 horses under the umbrella of TRF died from neglect.

Meanwhile, in Maryland, our sterling reputation has been tarnished. Our first-rate tracks have slid to second-rate as surrounding states, flush with slots monies, built state-of-the art tracks and offered big, fat purses. Our Maryland-Bred Fund had been the gold standard, but it is now pocket change compared to what other states offer. Not only did owners and trainers beat feet for greener pastures, so did some of our breeders. It is not easy for an industry filled with such tradition and such pride. Like fading southern belles clinging to a bygone way of life as they wander their empty plantations, refusing to acknowledge that the war is over and the world has moved on, some Thoroughbred folk refuse to acknowledge that the horse world has irrevocably changed and it will never be what it once was.

But not all are oblivious. Many are fighting for the Thoroughbred, but it is an uphill battle. An engrained hostility in Annapolis toward the racing industry, a hypocritical self-righteously pious opposition to the expansion of gambling (slots), and industry infighting, crowned with stupid shenanigans after the legalization of slots, has had us running backwards on the far side while the other states were roaring down the stretch.

But ultimately, this a race that favors endurance, with 300 hundred years of history, Maryland knows how to run a long race.

Even were Maryland racing to rebound, that would not solve the public relations nightmare of the unwanted horse. In fact, a resurrected Maryland Thoroughbred breeding industry could compound the problem of the unwanted horse.

Restoring the Luster

Former White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emmanuel once quipped, “Never let a good crisis go to waste!”

If the modern Maryland Thoroughbred industry is in crisis, well, not everyone is wandering around in a torn hoop skirt. Like Rhett Butler. Some are seizing the opportunity.

Organizations such as The Jockey Club and the Thoroughbred Owners and Breeders Association have become more active in supporting adoption and retirement options for Thoroughbreds.

The terms “off-the-track-Thoroughbred” and “race-track reject” are increasingly being replaced with the softer-sounding, more market-friendly phrase “retired race horse.”
A cheap or free OTTB is still often the first horse owned by many people, but these days all too often the people acquiring them are neophytes, inexperienced. They acquire their former racehorses through a “friend of a friend who has a deal” (at which, the experienced horse people just roll their eyes, knowing full well that means someone is looking to unload the horse), or out of a good-hearted effort to “save” a horse from the meat market.

Unlike 20, 30 or 50 years ago, in which experienced horse people were the ones picking up OTTBs, now it is the clueless father accepting that free horse for his daughter, who has never ridden before, or the well-meaning middle-aged adult with no prior experience who decides to “save” a horse. This is the modern demographic of horse ownership, and unfortunately these new owners, lacking the skill set to cope with a highly refined animal that is trained to do one thing and one thing only (run really fast) can quickly find themselves overwhelmed, in a dangerous situation and/or resenting their horses. Some may even assume it is just a rogue horse and will send it off to a bottom auction.

But this is where the Rhett Butlers hear opportunity knocking. Businesses, nonprofits, copyrighted training techniques, and scads of articles and books are riding the trend of retraining the racehorse, all geared with giving these new owners the tools and education they are lacking.

The Maryland Horse Breeders Association has been wholeheartedly supporting these efforts, providing grant money to the Retired Racehorse Training Project (see article in this issue) and bonuses to the Maryland Steeplechase Association for Maryland-bred and Maryland-sired horses running in the Governor’s Cup Series (see Out & About in this issue).

In the late 2000s, we started seeing the rise of Thoroughbred-only horse shows. The Jockey Club jumped on this opportunity to burnish their image by launching their Thoroughbred Incentive Program, in order to “recognize and reward the versatility of the Thoroughbred through sponsorship of Thoroughbred classes and high-point awards at locally, nationally or internationally sanctioned horse shows.” The Jockey Club committed $100,000 to TIP for a pilot program in 2012 (see sidebar).

For 2012, Maryland has two Thoroughbred shows, “The Totally Thoroughbred Horse Show,” hosted by the Maryland Jockey Club in July (with no funding from the TIP), and “From Furlongs to Fences,” which will be held at Fair Hill in the fall.

The Maryland Thoroughbred has seen tough times before. But the classic Maryland-bred is fundamentally sound, bred for endurance and versatility. Down the stretch, it will be the Maryland Thoroughbred that prevails!

*United States Dressage Federation, Fédération Equestre Internationale

Jockey Club Pledges $$ For Outstanding Retired Racehorses

The Thoroughbred Incentive Program was launched in 2012 in order “recognize and reward the versatility of the Thoroughbred through sponsorship of Thoroughbred classes and high-point awards at locally, nationally or internationally sanctioned horse shows.”

T.I.P. sponsorships are available for a variety of disciplines, including eventing, dressage, hunters, jumpers and Western and English pleasure, and will include ribbons, prizes and in some cases, purse money. Horse show organizers who would like to offer a T.I.P. Thoroughbred class and/or high-point award at their shows must apply to T.I.P. at tjctip.com.

The Thoroughbred Incentive Program is also offering two annual awards: The T.I.P. Thoroughbred of the Year Award will recognize a Thoroughbred who has excelled in a noncompetitive career, such as equine-assisted therapy or police work. The award will include a $5,000 grant to the nonprofit organization associated with the horse or, if not associated with a nonprofit organization, to a horse-related charity chosen by The Jockey Club.

The T.I.P. Young Rider of the Year Award will recognize a young rider, 18 or under, who owns or leases a Thoroughbred for use in 4-H, Pony Club or other activities. The winner(s) will be determined through an essay contest with a total award of $5,000 annually that can be applied to the college of the winner’s choice or to their participation in an event that furthers their involvement with horses.

Applications and deadlines for the T.I.P. Thoroughbred of the Year Award and T.I.P. Young Rider of the Year Award are available on tjctip.com.

Thoroughbreds registered with The Jockey Club will be eligible for participation in all T.I.P. classes and awards. Horse owners interested in participating in T.I.P. can find more information regarding eligibility and assistance with identification of Thoroughbreds at tjctip.com.

 

©TheEquiery2012

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