By Diana Pikulski
Since the TDN first interviewed Katie Larsen, who founded Southern Belle Thoroughbreds in 2017, the organization's impact on safe placement of racehorses at Woodbine and Fort Erie has grown exponentially.
Southern Belle has placed 257 racehorses in two years and it has become a regular source for Thoroughbred Makeover prospects. The operational model at Southern Belle resembles that of Canter in the United States. Southern Belle has volunteers on the racetrack grounds who serve as the organization's ambassadors and facilitators, making contact with trainers who have racehorses they wish to retire and sell. The volunteers are experienced in seeing the potential in a horse as well as limitations based on injury or conformation. They photograph and video the horse and then the horse is listed on Southern Belle's website, promoted on social media and shared with the network of potential buyers that Larsen has developed.
“Without dedicated people to be our 'boots on the ground', we would not be so impactful,” said Larsen. “At Fort Erie, Lamar Squires is my go to volunteer if a call comes in from a trainer. He goes immediately, sends me the photos, videos and descriptions and I write the ads and find the suitable buyer.”
In the summer and fall, when Southern Belle is receiving its highest volume of calls, they can be listing as many as five to seven horses a day.
“Exercise rider Chelsea Clouter is my partner at Woodbine Racetrack,” said Larsen. “She has been a cornerstone for us, taking photos of up to five horses a day sometimes which need to be re-homed immediately. Chelsea, Lamar and I all work closely together which is why we are as efficient as we are in the placement of these Thoroughbreds.”
Larsen works full-time in the banking industry. She rode as young girl, but could not keep up with the high cost of horses and life on the show circuit. After making the decision to bring horses back into her life, she bought her first Thoroughbred, Mia Bella Amore (Golden Missile). Her relationship with the mare inspired Southern Belle Thoroughbreds.
“I didn't expect to be so successful, so soon,” said Larsen. “I understand the trainers and owners wish to move a horse as quickly as possible once they make the decision to sell it. We appreciate that they have made the decision and the horse is our number one priority so we act immediately and hit our growing network of trainers who are looking for sound horses or horses who need a little bit of time off or rehabilitation. Many of our horses from last year appeared at the Retired Racehorse Project Thoroughbred Makeover in 2019 which was overwhelmingly incredible to see.”
Thoroughbreds are enjoying an increase in popularity in the showing and eventing circuits fueled in large part by the Thoroughbred Makeover and the racing industry incentive programs such as NYTHA's Take2 and The Jockey Club's Thoroughbred Incentive Program. These initiatives create Thoroughbred-only divisions and offer prize money to winners. Southern Belle emerged at the right time to help meet the increased demand for sound Thoroughbreds.
“With the help of Facebook, we reach a large audience,” said Larsen. “Also, I am diligent about following up on horses and staying in touch with our purchasers. They appreciate that and see us as a family. On our website, in addition to the horses which are available, we feature the horses in their new homes.”
One of Larsen's favorite success stories is Smooth Spirit (Smooth Bid), a 9-year-old mare who raced 30 times and is now eventing at training level with Darby Delle Donne. As a racehorse, Smooth Spirit, was trained by Anthony Alderson and earned $33,320 before retiring at six.
“Donne is an accomplished eventer and she saw the potential in Smooth Spirit, now known as Renegade,” said Larsen. “The duo even travels to Florida to train on the eventing circuit throughout the colder Ontario months. This horse is thriving and absolutely loves her new job.”
Another inspiring placement was Ultimate Blue (Giant Gizmo), known at Fort Erie as the 'one-eyed wonder horse' who started 48 times. He is now on the hunter circuit as a true ambassador of the breed.
In 2019, Southern Belle's efforts were recognized with sponsorship from Canadian Thoroughbred Horse Society.
“There has been a ton of negative publicity this past year around horse racing in regards to the meat industry as well as track conditions and I think it is important to share the positivity that we experience in our dealings with trainers who want to do the right thing and the loving homes where we place our horses,” said Larsen. “It is a labor of love for us at Southern Belle and it is a thrill to experience success at securing happy retirement for our beloved Thoroughbreds.”