By Melissa Bauer-Herzog
Starting off Breeders’ Cup week in downtown Louisville, Ky. Monday was the second annual Equestricon horse racing convention.
The first day of the event attracted horse racing fans and owners from all walks of life attending over 15 Monday panels taking place on the Breeders’ Cup stage on the Convention Floor and in rooms downstairs. For those who had time to spare between panels, rows of vendors took over the rest of the floor, from farms in Horse Country Row to a Breeders’ Cup merchandise booth and the Thoroughbred Aftercare Alliance Hub.
If you had forgotten the racing industry was in the midst of Breeders’ Cup, walking around the Kentucky International Convention Center would bring you back to this week’s races. Breeders’ Cup signage could be seen around the block and walking into the Convention Floor and all four walls had a purple tint from the bulbs lining the ceiling.
The Breeders’ Cup Stage provided the location for the convention’s first ever “Track Talks,” which kicked off with an aftercare panel titled “Leaders and Innovators In Aftercare, Presented by the TAA.” Moderated by the TAA’s Stacie Clark-Rogers, Old Friends Farm’s Michael Blowen kicked off proceedings with a talk that at times could have doubled as a comedy routine.
“The day Silver Charm showed up at our farm, Dec. 1, 2014 is the greatest day of my life,” Blowen said. “I know you’re supposed to say the day you got married or the day your kids or your grandkids were born, but it’s not the truth.”
Once the crowd was warmed up, the power of off-the-track Thoroughbreds was on full display through the stories shared by three people who had seen or felt the effect they’ve had first hand.
The process former National Football League player Jeff Tow-Arnett had to go through to prove he was fit to adopt his horse Nowhere to Hide from the Maker’s Mark Secretariat Center was challenging, but he credits it for helping to change his life.
“Thoroughbred aftercare is a huge thing. It’s drastically changed my life. If you would have asked me four years ago if I’d be standing here, I would have told you you’re absolutely nuts. If you would have told me I’d go from one horse to now having 23 horses, I would have told you there’s no possible way but ‘Noah’ turned my life upside down.”
Today, Tow-Arnett has a 60-acre property with his brother and girlfriend where they are growing a lesson program in Minnesota. Still in contact with the Maker’s Mark Secretariat Center, Tow-Arnett’s operation is also looking at teaming up with the Center to create a “Maker’s Mark North” in the future.
The most powerful speech of the day, however, came as the final talk in the aftercare Track Talk with war veteran James Stewart.
Sharing the story of how an off-track Thoroughbred named “Budder” (registered as Three Lions) literally saved his life after years in the military had the crowd enthralled. Recounting how his mother-in-law told him about a program that could help him, Stewart was forced to stop a few times as his emotions caught up to him.
Traveling to the program, he was assigned to Budder for his time there. Working with Budder in the round pen alone one day, the horse walking up to him was the change that he needed to start to heal from his Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.
“You turn your shoulder to the horse and if he wants to accept you, he comes up to your shoulder.” Stewart explained. “So I did it, I turned my shoulder to him and he approached. We were walking a figure eight, then I pretty much just stood there with him and cried. I had no idea what had gone on. I left a bunch of war baggage right there in the sand of that pen. He saved my life that day, because if it hadn’t worked, I probably would have gone home and committed suicide.”
Following Stewart’s Track Talk was hard, but the next talk an hour later gave it a try with the “Innovative and Leading Women in Racing” talk, presented by the Thoroughbred Women’s Network.
The session started with Claire Crosby sitting down beside Dell Hancock, one of the most recognizable women in racing.
Hancock spent most of her time on the stage talking about the Grayson-Jockey Club Research Foundation. In a very informative talk, she explained how the Foundation chooses projects to help fund–including the process that goes into choosing which projects will play a bigger part in usable research–and how those who aren’t accepted also get feedback on how to improve.
Hancock also gave examples of horses who have been helped by the research funded by Grayson, including champion Lady Eli and Kentucky Derby winner Always Dreaming.
“I think if you take care of the horse, the horse will take care of you,” she said. “We wouldn’t be having this wonderful week right now and this great weekend of racing coming up if our horses weren’t healthy. At the end of the day, it takes a lot of work to keep them healthy and any help that we can give through research or rules or whatever it is, I think it’s our responsibility. If you love the horse, you’ve got to take care of it.”
With four other women participating, there were many nuggets of wisdom not only for other women but anyone aspiring to get into the sport. But it was an oft-used saying repeated by Tanya Gunther of Glennwood Farms that stuck out the most.
“‘Never quit something that you can’t spend a day not thinking about.’ For me that is the horses. I don’t think a day goes by that I don’t think about them and I feel very lucky for that,” she said at the end of her panel.
Equestricon wrapped up the day with the Breeders’ Cup draw and a successful Thoroughbred Aftercare Alliance auction. Tuesday’s panels kick off at 8:55 a.m. and run all day long on topics from handicapping to Thoroughbred aftercare and ownership, with more good stories and thought-provoking discussions still to come to wrap up this year’s edition of Equestricon.