A Week at the Happiest Show On Earth

Talk Show Man hunting with Elkridge-Harford Hunt

BY LINDY GUTMAN

Last month, I had the honor of participating in the Retired Racehorse Project 2020-2021 Mega Makeover in Lexington, KY.  The Retired Racehorse Project is a 501 c3 that advocates for and supports the retraining of Off the Track Thoroughbreds for a second career. The Retired Racehorse Project exists to facilitate the placement of Thoroughbred ex-racehorses in second careers by increasing demand for them in equestrian sports. It serves the farms, trainers, and organizations that transition them.

The first makeover was held at Pimlico Racetrack in 2013. There were 26 horses that “competed” that first year. In 2015, the event was moved to the Kentucky Horse Park with 185 entries that year over the 10 disciplines offered. This year, they had over 800 horses accepted. 

I’ve attended the show each year.

I am a big fan of Thoroughbred racing and love OTTBs. I am also an amateur that is not particularly brave. I didn’t really think that I could ride an OTTB and had never tried to retrain one. I knew that it was something that I wanted to do and hadn’t really set my mind to it quite yet. Until I had an idea…

As local racing fans, my husband and I had followed the racing career of Talk Show Man. He’s owned by our equine veterinarian, Michael Harrison. We’d had a couple of racing partnerships with him over the years, and this is the best horse he’s ever bred.  We’d seen him run quite a few times but had never really been up close to him.

I used Dr. Harrison’s farrier at the time and knew that Talk Show Man hadn’t been at the track recently. While not yet public, Steve told me that he’d been retired. He was nine and had been turned out at home preparing for a fall return to the races when he bowed a tendon. At Dr.Harrison’s next visit, I asked if I could take the horse to the Makeover.

He didn’t know much about it and didn’t give me an answer, so I dropped it.  I know how much he cares about his horses and knew that it would be hard to let this one, in particular, go.

Two months later, I got a text message. “Let’s talk about your plans for Talk Show Man.” It took me about a minute to set up a time to meet and Talk Show Man came home with me a couple of weeks later.  

Eligibility is a key factor with makeover horses. They must have had a published work within a specific amount of time to be eligible. Talk Show Man had run that June, so was an eligible horse for 2020. I made sure that Dr.Harrison knew that I’d never retrained a racehorse before, and he was OK with that.

I can say that this has been both one of the greatest journeys and coolest experiences of my life. Talk Show Man, a two-time Maryland Million Turf winner, is a local racing celebrity and I had tons of fun with that. We had visits and loads of both national and local press. I was worried that I wouldn’t do him justice but then had an advantage—my horse was ten years old and competing against much less experienced horses. But then the 2020 Makeover was canceled due to Covid-19. 

Retired Racehorse Project decided to make the next Makeover a major event. The 2020-2021 Mega Makeover was announced, but my advantage was gone.  Since we’d be competing against our eligible year, our competition would also have a year to get older and catch up. In addition, I gained some baggage. Headed into October of 2020, we’d only had pretty good rides. But this spring, I started to have some trouble and came off a few times. It rocked both his and my confidence and we had to spend some time getting things back together.  We started again, back at the 2’ height, and things moved on well from there.

Let me say, that participating in the Makeover was the singular best thing I’ve ever done with horses.  We competed in both Show and Field Hunters. The Show Hunter division was huge and consisted of two over fences classes and a flat class, much like a regular show. It’s judged a bit differently since this is a training competition, so suitability is a factor. I’m happy to report that Talk Show Man received a perfect “10” on manners!

Flat Class

The Field Hunter division was much smaller and consisted of three parts: an under saddle test in a group, an individual test, and a mock hunt.  Talk Show Man was wild in the under saddle. I’m not sure exactly what happened, but I think he heard “leap and buck” and “keep bucking” rather than “trot.” In the individual test, I knew that there were two jumps that I would not attempt and one that was iffy for me.  Though he was on his very best behavior, I went around all three of those jumps. One of them was a novice table, which I don’t care if I ever jump!  But we did get a perfect “10” on our open gallop!

The mock hunt was an absolute blast, and one of my proudest moments of the weekend. Okay…  I’ll confess some traditional pre-hunt drinks helped the fun factor. When we came to a coop in a valley, the horse in front of me refused, so I had to pull out.  The next horse refused, and then the next two had the same fate. I heard myself say “let me go, I’ve got this…” and over we went. Then all the others followed me!

Getting ready to start the mock hunt. We have the number 1 on our hip.

We wrapped up with a 3rd place amateur and 12th overall in Show Hunters, and a 5th place amateur and 7th overall in Field Hunters. What I’m most proud of is that I brought my “A game” to the biggest show of my life. At the level that I ride, I could not have done any better. My horse was spectacular and, on his game, as well.

If you have any, and I mean any desire to work towards this event, please talk to me! I was inspired by an amateur friend, and knw you can do this too. You just need to believe in yourself and surround yourself with the support of people that want you to achieve your greatest goal. It’s fantastic and so rewarding. The Makeover is truly the happiest show on earth. 

And my blue ribbon? It’s at the end of my lead rope.