Lexington center finds new careers for retired race horses

April 28, 2014

140403MMSecretariatCenter0195Susanna Thomas, director of the Maker’s Mark Secretariat Center, talked to Sullenberger, a former race horse who is being trained for a new role as a pleasure horse. “Sully” was recently adopted.  Photos by Tom Eblen


When the Kentucky Derby comes around each May, public attention focuses on the glamour of Thoroughbred racing. But reports of abuse and performance-enhancing drugs also have people asking questions about how those horses are treated — and what happens to them after their racing days are over.

Horses are living creatures, after all, not disposable commodities for gambling and sport.

“If the industry wants to survive, it can no longer treat after-care as a charity that can or cannot be supported,” Susanna Thomas said. “It’s a sustainability issue that will not go away.”

As director of the Maker’s Mark Secretariat Center at the Kentucky Horse Park, Thomas works with a mostly volunteer staff to retrain about 40 retired racehorses each year for new careers as hunters, jumpers and pleasure riding horses.

Thoroughbreds have a reputation for being high-strung and hard to retrain. But Thomas said the problem is often not the horses, but people who lack the knowledge, skill and patience to help them make a difficult transition.

“It’s sort of like taking a soldier who’s been in heavy-duty combat in Iraq and putting him right into a job on Wall Street,” She said. “He’s going to want to dive under the table every time bells go off.”

The center was created in 2004 in a partnership between the horse industry and the distillery, which raised more than $600,000 for it through the sale of special bourbon bottles.

Thomas became the center’s director six years ago, bringing a diverse skill set and background to the job. Raised in New York City and Europe, she is the daughter of Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer Robert K. Massie, a Lexington native, and Suzanne Massie, a Russian expert and presidential advisor who taught Ronald Reagan the phrase, “Trust but verify.”

140403MMSecretariatCenter0209AThomas had worked in journalism and non-profits. She is married to James Thomas, who before retirement in 2005 spent 41 years restoring Shaker Village at Pleasant Hill. She has a degree in comparative literature from Princeton and speaks several languages. “Now I speak Equus,” she said.

Thomas has always been fascinated by the intellectual and spiritual relationship between people and horses.

“As a rider, I was never interested in chasing ribbons,” she said. “I was interested in how can I understand this animal better and be in partnership.”

She got a hint at her future when, as a child, she saw carriage horses being abused in Naples, Italy. Thomas told her parents that when she grew up she was going to come back and save them. “I didn’t do that,” she said. “But I save whatever horses I can here.”

The center’s 24-acre campus has a variety of facilities for teaching Thoroughbreds used to running lickety-split on flat dirt or turf to slow down and handle more varied terrain. There are hills, woods, a creek, a cross-country course, two specialty pens and a riding arena. A lot of time is spent getting horses to trust their new trainers and desensitizing them to noises and distractions.

“As a responsible trainer,” Thomas said, “you have to figure out a way to make the right way easy and the wrong way hard and to build (a horse’s) confidence so he’ll understand it better.”

When a horse is donated to the center for retraining and adoption, Thomas and her staff begin by assessing its physical and mental condition according to a system she developed.

“Every horse gets a horsenality assessment,” Thomas said, which helps determine its best future role, the most effective retraining methods and what kind of new owner will be a good match. Thomas won’t approve adoptions she thinks are a bad match.

The average horse spends two months at the center at a cost of about $2,000. Thomas keeps a “baby book” on each horse that includes its expense records. New owners are asked to cover those expenses as the price of adoption.

“The horse’s job is just to cover its expenses,” Thomas said, adding that the rest of the center’s $300,000 annual budget comes from grants and donations.

“Every horse that comes through us can go on to be an ambassador for this breed at any level in a variety of disciplines,” she said. “We’re talking from Pony Club to the World Equestrian Games.”

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New tailgating is a big hit at Rolex 3-Day Event

April 30, 2011

Martha Lambert of Louisville comes to the Rolex Kentucky Three Day Event every year. So when she heard tailgating spaces would be available for the first time, she quickly reserved one and started inviting friends.

“This is the best idea they’ve had since they started the Rolex,” said Lambert, who competed at the Rolex three times in the 1990s. “I wonder why they haven’t done it before?”

Lambert was one of more than 100 people, companies and organizations that paid either $275 or $325 for a space along the crest of the meadow where much of the cross-country course was built. Each spot included eight admission tickets. Only a handful of spots went unused.

“There was an excellent response,” said Vanessa Coleman, ticketing director for Equestrian Events, the Rolex’s organizer. “We’ve already had people say ‘you need to make this a tradition.'”

It certainly helped to have a picture-perfect day — lots of sunshine and temperatures in the 70s, following a stormy month that dumped more than a foot of rain on Lexington.

“Yes, we’re responsible for the weather today, too,” Coleman joked with tailgaters as she walked from spot to spot to check on things.

Lundy’s Catering took advance orders, but also sold a lot of last-minute food as tailgaters saw what their neighbors were having. “I think it’s going to be a hit,” said Alissa Lundergan, one of the company’s owners.

But most tailgaters brought their own food and drink — impressive homemade spreads, served with plenty of champagne. Chad Ross of Frankfort loaded a big gas grill into his pickup truck to cook brisket and pork tenderloin for his family and friends from Missouri.

“We come to the Horse Park as often as we can,” said Wendy Long of Huntington, W.Va. She and her husband, Larry, are such horse sport fans that their license plate reads: Jump Over. “This is such a nice way to enjoy the Horse Park and the Rolex,” she said.

Becky Coleman of Tifton, Ga., comes to Rolex every year to photograph the competition. Her husband, Tony, isn’t a horseman, but he agreed to come this year and was happy to have the tailgating spot as a place to relax. “She’s big into it,” he said of the Rolex. “I figure if Mama’s happy, everybody’s happy.”

Practical Horseman magazine had a spot to entertain supporters, as did the Irish Draught Horse Society of North America. Society members were there to cheer on eight competing horses with Irish draught bloodlines.

Land Rover had the most elegant tailgating space — six spaces, actually, with six brand new Land Rover and Range Rover models. Their tailgates were lifted to display a spread of gourmet food for Land Rover owners and other customers to enjoy.

“This was perfect for us,” said Kim McCullough, the company’s brand vice president. “People naturally tailgate with a Land Rover.”

Land Rover, the event’s vehicle sponsor, also was operating an off-road demonstration course. While the company doesn’t actually sell vehicles here, dealers report the efforts have produced many good leads, McCullough said.

Otterbein University in Westerville, Ohio, had a tailgating spot to do some marketing for its equine studies programs, which have 110 majors, and equestrian team. About 30 students were attending Rolex.

“We hope to attract potential students,” said Lucy Cryan, who directs the university’s equine program. “And we decided to get the word out to alumni to stop by and say hello.”

Most tailgaters said they hope to get a spot next year — and for many years to come.

“It is awesome being able to do this,” said Randi McEntire, who comes each year with a group of fellow horse enthusiasts from Charleston, S.C. “We’re already talking about next year and how we’re going to improve on our setup.”

The group was tailgating under a University of South Carolina Gamecocks tent and digging into the smoked chicken, cold cuts, fresh vegetables and ample liquor selection that Kent Gramke had assembled.

“Good company, good weather, good food — that’s what makes the event,” Gramke said. “And horses,” his friend Sherry Lilley quickly added.

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Cross-country Saturday was the day to ‘do’ WEG

October 2, 2010

The Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games had been in town for a week, but this seemed to be the day everyone said, “Let’s do it!”

And why not? It was Saturday. The weather was perfect. And it was cross-country day. Even locals who aren’t equestrians know that cross-country is the annual highlight of the Rolex Kentucky Three-Day Event — horses and riders racing across fields, splashing through water and making breath-taking jumps.

The record crowd of 50,818 started building early, creating the closest thing to a traffic jam Lexington has seen during the Games. Cars waiting to exit Interstate 75 North at Ironworks Pike backed up for more than a mile at times.

As usual, some of the happiest spectators were those on one of the LexTran shuttles running continuously from downtown to the Kentucky Horse Park.

“This is a historic event,” said Holly Codell of Lexington, and not just because she was taking her son, Jack, 12, to one of the world’s great sporting events.

“We’re riding a LexTran bus for the first time,” she said, snapping an iPhone photo of Jack, who looked ready to die of mother-induced embarrassment. “This was so easy, and the bus is nice and clean.”

After several days of entertaining horse-crazy friends from Boston, Codell said she was developing new appreciation for her hometown. “You forget living here how beautiful Lexington is,” she said.

The horse park’s advantage — a huge facility with all of the venues in one place — has also been its curse during the Games, forcing visitors to walk long distances to see everything. But there seemed to be more directional signs and shuttles on Saturday. There were many more maps, posted at strategic locations or being passed out by volunteers.

On the cross-country course, cheers went up each time a horse and rider cleared a jump. Locals smiled each time the announcer mentioned one of the Kentucky-named jumps in his proper British accent: Fort Boonesborough, Red River Gorge, Land Between the Lakes.

Everyone seemed to be an amateur photographer. Crowds gathered around each jump with fancy cameras, small point-and-shoots and even cell phones waiting to capture the decisive moment.

“I’m getting some good shots with my wimpy little camera,” said Vanessa Deroux, who came from Seattle to see the Games. “This is great. I couldn’t miss the opportunity.”

For those who needed a diversion from horses, Land Rover was offering free test drives on its own cross-country course. Several hundred people waited in line to drive a Range Rover through water, over hills and across a tilting wooden bridge.

While much of Lexington’s population seemed to be at the park, there were plenty of internationals, too. Many proudly wore their national colors, or literally wrapped themselves in their flag.

Monika Gottschalk and Christiane Somerfeldt of Cologne, Germany, were decked out in tri-color clothing and had German flags sticking out of their backpacks. This was their fourth World Equestrian Games, and they were having a blast: spending all day at the horse park and shopping downtown and at Fayette Mall each evening. “All of the people here are so friendly,” Somerfeldt said.

The Lexington Convention and Visitors Bureau’s “Big Lex” blue horse stickers seemed to be especially popular with Europeans. One Italian journalist had a dozen decorating her backpack.

After leaving the crowds on the cross-country course, I was surprised to see so many people in the other side of the park. The giant food tent was packed at lunch for the first time during these Games, and the Normandy, France, pavilion was jammed with people trying to watch the cooking demonstrations.

The trade fair was doing a booming business, and the Alltech Experience and Kentucky Experience pavilions and Equine Village were comfortably crowded.

“Come on ladies — you need a Corvette. Your hair would look so good in the wind!” Daryl Lyons called out to passersby at the Kentucky Experience, where he was selling $20 raffle tickets for the $80,000 Bowling Green-made sports car.

“We’re having fun,” said Christian Hahn of Prospect as he and his three children, ages 2, 4 and 6, took a pizza break. “We did the kidzone, rode a pony, pet a penguin and now we’re going to find some horses to watch.”

As John Morgan and his wife, Linda Carroll, wandered the cross-country course, they said they had been going to WEG events all week, from the endurance race to one of the James Beard gourmet dinners.

“We’re about WEG’d out,” he said. “But it has all been just fantastic.”

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Photo Gallery: Out and about at Rolex

April 24, 2010

Here are some photos I took today at the Cross Country competition of the Rolex Kentucky Three-Day Event at the Kentucky Horse Park. Click on each thumbnail to see complete image:

Consider Rolex a bonus for living in Lexington

April 25, 2009

Who comes out for cross-country day at the Rolex Kentucky Three Day Event?

Mostly horse people — thousands and thousands of horse people, from across the country and around the world. Many of them are serious horse people.

You can tell the serious international horse people because they converse in French or German, or have accents as British as the Rolex’s play-by-play announcer. Some are impressively overdressed, but they seem not to mind as temperatures on a sun-splashed Saturday rise well into the 80s.

You can tell other serious horse people because their less-impressive clothing contains the logos of Rolexes past, other major horse events or their local riding club. They carefully mark notes in the program and comment to one another about each rider’s performance and technique.

Others may be dressed normally, except for a telling accessory. Take, for example, the woman in the white sun dress, straw hat and knee-high Gore-Tex and leather riding boots. This was not a day for waterproof boots. My guess is that she bought them from the Irish vendor and thought they were easier to wear than carry.

The Rolex trade fair in one corner of the Kentucky Horse Park is its own little world of temptation for serious horse people. In addition to waterproof boots from Ireland, there is everything from made-to-measure saddles and English riding apparel to handy gadgets like the Jiffy Steamer hay storage device.

A growing number of horse people come armed with expensive cameras and long, heavy lenses. Others seem just as happy with the results from their little point-and-shoots. The wonders of digital photography and auto focus have made it easy to capture the magic of a beautiful animal and a skilled rider as they thunder down the course and glide over a jump.

A major Rolex demographic is little girls who love horses and older girls who are getting good at riding them. They are accompanied by camera-toting fathers, and mothers, many of whom used to be those little girls.

Johnny Smith was there with his daughter Jordan, 19, who has been riding since she was 8 and has always wanted to come to Rolex. They decided just last Wednesday to make the trip up from Dallas, Texas. They drove all day Friday and were having a great time.

“I hope to do eventing someday,” Jordan Smith said. “I want to be here someday.” Her father talked about how many camera memory cards he had filled up.

Between the competitors’ rides, the little girls give constant loving to the outriders’ horses. Some are veterans, such as Safari, a 14-year-old draft cross who was working his ninth Rolex with owner Maureen O’Daniel of Lexington in the saddle in formal (and hot) riding attire. Others are new, such as Lil’ Mo, a 5-year-old retired thoroughbred racehorse who has found a new career as a hunter-jumper for Lei Ruckle of St. Louis.

The little girls’ younger brothers seem more interested in the funnel cakes in the food area, not to mention the Kettle Korn and deep-fried Oreos. The littlest siblings just want to play in the muddy creek that runs through the course.

There are many people here who would like to be horse people, if only they had more money or time or land.

Karen and Paul Lehman, who moved to Scott County from Florida last year, hope to have horses someday. At the moment, they’re busy with 7-month-old Brandon and another baby on the way. “We’re just getting into the whole horse thing,” she said.

I also suspect many of the 40,600 people who came out Saturday are like me — they don’t own horses or ride horses or even really know much about them. Rolex, like Keeneland, is one of those bonuses you get for living here. It’s a good excuse to get out and walk around on a beautiful day in a beautiful place and see some of the world’s best horses and riders do amazing things.

In 516 days, the Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games will begin its 16-day run at the Kentucky Horse Park, bringing together the world’s best athletes in eight equine disciplines. Hundreds of thousands of horse people will be here, including many of the world’s most serious horse people. Tickets go on sale Sept. 25.

But Games organizers also want to make sure they leave room for average, local people who just want to come out to see some horses and riders do amazing things. That’s why some general admission tickets will be available. (Prices will be announced late this summer.)

“Our event will be as much for the Lexington resident as for the international horse person,” Games spokeswoman Amy Walker said. “We want people to come out and enjoy this once-in-a-lifetime event.”

Think of it as one of the bonuses of living here.

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