By Diana Pikulski
The first Racehorse Retraining Symposium was organized by Steuart Pittman in 2009 as a clinic for people and organizations wanting help in transitioning Thoroughbreds from racing to second careers. At the time, Carolyn Karlson was a business school professor and as well as a trustee of the University of Maryland. She also owned her first racehorse, Ave Ravina. Karlson was already thinking about what her post-racing options would be for the mare. She befriended Pittman and his wife Erin, invested in their mission and became a donor, corporate officer and driving force behind what is currently known as the Retired Racehorse Project and the annual Thoroughbred Makeover and National Symposium. I caught up with Karlson who now lives in Saratoga Springs to talk about the unique concept and its evolution:
DP: What is the Thoroughbred Makeover and how many people participate?
CK: In 2013, the first Thoroughbred Makeover was held. It featured 26 horses and trainers in ten riding disciplines. In 2018, a record 780 trainers accepted to compete. The deadline to file applications for 2019 was Wednesday so the 2019 numbers are not yet in. All horses start with no post-racing training. The trainers chronicle their progress through social media over the nine months after they have been selected to enter. It culminates in a weekend of competition, education and collaboration.
DP: Why did you start with 26 entries at the first Thoroughbred Makeover?
CK: It was December 2012 and the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting had just taken place. The country was reeling from the tragedy. Twenty six people died. I heard a commentator on television suggest that everyone go out and complete 26 acts of kindness. So, I donated $26,000 to the RRP and said let’s retrain 26 horses. By funding 26 trainers with $1,000 each to participate in a training competition, we created the first Thoroughbred Makeover. We were thrilled that Pimlico agreed to host the inaugural event and we are forever grateful to them.
DP: Why did you make the move to the Kentucky Horse Park?
CK: The turnout and level of interest was more than we anticipated and more than any racetrack and even most equestrian competition grounds can handle. We moved the Makeover to the Kentucky Horse Park in Lexington, Ky. because we wanted to be in a nationally recognized facility for all disciplines. For instance, rather than simulate a cross country course in the track in-field, we needed a real cross-country course as well as the great indoor facility.
DP: You must be thrilled with the profound footprint RRP has made in the Thoroughbred world, both on and off the track, since its launch. Where is RRP in its intended trajectory?
CK: I love seeing the descriptors “RRP Eligible” or “TBMakeover-Eligible” all over the internet. It is in discussion groups as well as in ads for Thoroughbreds to let people know that the horse fits the criteria for the upcoming Thoroughbred Makeover. They have become recognized terms. Everybody is talking about the Makeover and that has put the Thoroughbred sport-horse in the spotlight like never before. Plus, as a professor of entrepreneurship, I see it as a model for how to grow a business. We grew in a completely organic way and formed strong bonds among the people who make up our ever-growing base. We as the RRP grew up with social media. We are the same age as Instagram. So, we would always instantly embrace every change and development in social media and that has paid off. Right now, we have 160,000 Facebook followers and thousands more on Instagram and Twitter, and those followers are all following our trainers. The strong sense of sharing in the process from start to finish, culminating with everyone meeting at the Makeover is a dynamic that is fueling enthusiasm and increased participation every year. And it is a platform to enhance the service we provide.
DP: What has surprised you thus far on the journey with RRP and as a Thoroughbred owner who is so vested in aftercare of Thoroughbreds?
CK: It’s fascinating to see not just how RRP has evolved over the past 10 years but also to see how the entire Thoroughbred industry has changed in dealing with the issue. Rescue is not in a word in the RRP lexicon. We have always come from the perspective that Thoroughbreds can stand on their own as a coveted competitor in many disciplines. We exist to empower Thoroughbreds and their natural ability to excel in all disciplines and have value. We want people to see them as capable and desirable not in need of rescue. Now, throughout the entire racing industry, the emphasis is off of rescuing Thoroughbreds and focused on refining aftercare of Thoroughbreds.
DP: Are you satisfied with how the racing industry supports RRP and the Makeover?
CK: The relationship is evolving and has made great strides recently. RRP’s message is very positive and that is good for the entire Thoroughbred industry. Adding Jen Roytz to the team has been invaluable. Her connections to racing have opened up many new partnerships and we are becoming part of the fabric of the racing industry. We have two new groups of sponsors. They are sales consignors and Thoroughbred owners. The sponsoring consignors are donating a percentage of their sales commissions to the RRP. That recognition of a second career during the earliest transactions of a racehorse’s life feels very positive. It was a turning point for us. Similarly, when Chocolate Martini’s owners donated a percentage of her earnings as she raced, we felt that we had started to make a new impact in the racing industry. We were also thrilled last year to show a video at the Breeders’ Cup, explaining the program and announcing the winners. Finally, we feel it is important to recognize the racing connections of the Makeover horses as well as the breeders and thank them.
DP: What adjustments have you made along the way that you didn’t necessarily expect?
CK: We are good at introspection. We have evolved as we learned things. For instance, we changed the eligibility criteria because we learned that the horses need more than the initial 100 days with which we started. And, we don’t ask that the trainers pick their category right away. We learned that as you go through the training process, horses may show you that they belong in a different discipline than you were first imagining.
DP: Why are the criteria so important?
CK: We need parameters to keep the focus on horses transitioning from racing at the time that they leave racing.
DP: How do you see the future in terms of your growth potential and relationship to other aftercare organizations?
CK: Our mission is different enough that we anticipate staying independent but continuing to collaborate wherever possible and advantageous to the horses. We are not ‘residential’ in any way but we see the need and appreciate the organizations that do specialize in the care of retired horses. Our model has paired well with groups like Canter, Mid-Atlantic Horse Rescue, New Vocations and many others on a state level. Every year additional organizations enter horses and we are as thrilled as they are with the positive exposure it brings for their horses and programs.
DP: Has the journey over the past 10 years caused you to rethink the ultimate goal?
CK: Highlighting that window right after racing has kept the focus on the mission which is helping horses transitioning from the track, increasing their value in second careers and educating people about their worth and ability. So, the result has been exactly what we hoped. Owners and trainers in racing are thinking more often about their horses’ value in a second career and retiring more horses sooner and more sound.
DP: Are there changes in store for 2019?
CK: In 2019, we are incorporating a college and club team division. We tried it out last year and it was a success, so we are putting a larger focus on it this year. It is a way for the college equestrian teams and equine departments, as well as high school and local riding clubs to work with the Thoroughbred industry and it will open up a new way to attract young people to Thoroughbreds as riding horses, as well as introduce them to Thoroughbred racing. We also are encouraging all college equestrian programs and clubs to set up information booths in the vendor section of the Makeover. It is especially exciting to me because of my involvement in colleges and work on behalf of college students. We are going to continue to pursue new ways to educate the public about the versatility, talent and value of Thoroughbreds. They have the ability to touch everyone. The youngest trainer in last year’s Makeover was 12 and the oldest was 70. Making-over a Thoroughbred is not only a labor of love, it is an entrepreneurial activity and trains people for many other careers. Growing is definitely in the plan and in the future. We will be expanding data collection services of useful information about pedigree and confirmation and how they translate into success in a second career.
DP: How can people and organizations support the RRP and Thoroughbred Makeover?
CK: Joining the organization is one way. If you join, you receive our great magazine. Donating to the organization or sponsoring a class at the Makeover is another meaningful way to help. We also need volunteers for the Thoroughbred Makeover weekend, which is Oct. 2-5, 2019.
For information about the Retired Racehorse Project and the Thoroughbred Makeover, visit:
Diana Pikulski is the editor of the Thoroughbred Adoption Network.