'Not a $1 Horse': Changing the Narrative of the Thoroughbred Beyond Racing

Mia Farley and Phelps | EquiSport Photos


As we revel in the afterglow of a 150th Kentucky Derby that was everything racing needed it to be, those of us with a foot in the sport horse world still have the previous weekend on repeat in our heads.

The last weekend in April, horses can be found thundering around a different venue of international competition at the Kentucky Three-Day Event, which features the Olympic sport of eventing at the Federation Equestre Internationale (FEI) 4* and 5* levels at the Kentucky Horse Park. The 5* level is a more difficult level of competition than what riders will contend with this summer in Paris and the Kentucky 3-Day is one of only seven 5* competitions in the world. In an Olympic selection season, you can imagine that the competition is stiff.

Since its inception, the Retired Racehorse Project has keenly tracked the Thoroughbred presence on the Kentucky entry list from year to year, since eventing has held out as a sport where the Thoroughbred can still be seen at the international level. Unfortunately, this number has crept downwards in the last 10 years from 21 in 2015 to just five in the 5* this year. As the sport has evolved away from the old long format, which required substantially more physical stamina, top riders have gravitated to purpose-bred, typically imported sport horses who possess a flashy trot and can jump out of their skin.

I say all of this about the level of competition and historical Thoroughbred presence to provide context for my next statement: This year the Thoroughbred came out on top in a big way. Of the five Thoroughbreds entered in the 5*, every one of them, not only completed the event, but completed in the top half of the division, which saw 35 starters. And one Thoroughbred in particular got everyone's attention after the cross country phase was complete. Twenty-four-year-old Mia Farley and “Phelps” were one of only two pairs, and the only American pair, to complete the course “double clear,” meaning that they ran the course within the optimum time with no jumping faults. This may be an emerging pattern, as they were the only pair to accomplish this in the Maryland 5* last fall in was their first outing at the level.

Phelps is currently owned by David O'Connor, a living legend in the sport of eventing. The horse ended up in O'Connor's barn as a resale project, but he had a gut instinct to keep the horse around, so he “bought” Phelps for $1 to formalize the transaction. And here is where the purpose of this article comes in.

My social feeds over the past 10 days or so have been peppered with headlines about Mia and her $1 “underdog” Thoroughbred. I know full well that the media loves an underdog story and so many of us have shared these stories with good intentions, but this mindset is doing a disservice to the breed.

Breeders Fred Hertrich, III and John Fielding paid a Tiznow stud fee ($75,000 at the time), raised Phelps, and put him in the Taylor Made consignment at the 2014 Keeneland yearling sale where Solveig Stables was the top bidder at $50,000. It was presumably Solveig Stables that put Phelps in training as he logged four works in the summer of 2015. By his 3-year old year, he had exited racing and was in the hands of Joanie Morris, who ultimately sold the horse to O'Connor, and Farley took over the ride by the time Phelps was five. Six years later, Phelps is making a name for himself at the highest level of international competition in the sport of eventing. He may not have excelled at what he was originally bred to do, but perhaps there's some dual Breeders' Cup Classic-winning blood that's influencing his success today? If anything, he's certainly not a $1 horse.

Mia Farley and Phelps | EquiSport Photos

We need to stop feeding the narrative that Thoroughbreds are underdogs with rags-to-riches stories just because they're doing something other than what they were originally bred to do. As we well know, these horses are thoughtfully bred, lovingly raised, and carefully produced and cared for like the world-class athletes that they are. Lack of competitiveness on the track simply has nothing to do with the quality of the horse and all that went into producing it–it only means they need to pursue something different.

The racing and breeding industries did the necessary thing 10-plus years ago by mobilizing and significantly funding aftercare. We've made so much progress in ensuring that horses transition easily into their next chapter and we need to be talking more about what is next. We've moved beyond the point of convincing people that Thoroughbreds are capable and, if we're going to continue to support an efficient and effective aftercare industry, we're going to need to further drive demand for the breed in equestrian sport.

We can't do that in a meaningful way without data and there is no breed registry for the Thoroughbred sport horse that is collecting that data. As a result, the Thoroughbred's influence on sport is being lost. Sport horses who are, in many cases, 50% or more Thoroughbred blood are marketed as warmbloods, draft crosses, and appendix Quarter horses. Artificial insemination (AI) is the norm in sporthorse breeding and the resulting foals are registered to other studbooks, regardless of whether the dam or sire was 100% Thoroughbred. As an industry, we've given up the opportunity to market our own horses as something other than charity cases–and that matters, because it is demand that is going to help secure that horse's future when the statistical likelihood that they're going to need a second career comes to pass.

The Jockey Club's federal filings describe its mission as “… the breed Registry for Thoroughbred horses in the U.S., Canada and Puerto Rico. It is dedicated to the improvement of Thoroughbred breeding and racing…” so perhaps it's reasonable to say that this is outside of the scope of The Jockey Club's mission. Either way, we should be talking seriously about launching an industry-supported initiative that fills the void where a Thoroughbred sport horse registry is needed. If you solve that, you solve a huge portion of the traceability and post-racing accountability issue.

The RRP staff recently held our annual all-hands meeting and completed a vision exercise where we defined what it looked like when our mission is effectively accomplished. After all, the goal of charities should be to effect change significantly enough that their charitable work is no longer needed. What did we come up with? A world where aftercare is no longer a charitable effort, but rather an anticipated and well-planned-for transition, and where the Thoroughbred is held in as equitable regard as other sport and riding breeds. That headline teaser might read “Leading sire X has prolific influence on track and beyond, produces record number of 5* starters.” I sincerely believe we're ready to embrace this next chapter in the Thoroughbred brand.

Kirsten Green is the Executive Director of the Retired Racehorse Project. Best known for producing the Thoroughbred Makeover training competition, the RRP is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit which seeks to increase demand for Thoroughbreds beyond racing.

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