A growing number of thoroughbreds are being groomed for new roles following their days on the race track, including assignments as fox hunters, riding horses, pets and show jumpers.
Maryland thoroughbred trainer Rodney Jenkins points to the intelligence of a horse as one of the reasons why the animal is able to easily make the transition into the next stage of its life.
"It's really a thrilling thing to watch a horse in action," Jenkins said. "They're beautiful animals. They're not dumb. They're smart, very smart, and aware of everything that goes on around them. … Away from the track, thoroughbreds make great horses for people who want to do things right."
Jenkins, 68, will be one of the judges for the Totally Thoroughbred Horse Show, a show jumping competition for former race horses, which will be held Saturday at
The show, the first of its kind, was created by Maryland
racing secretary Georganne Hale and Stacie Clark-Rogers, manager of the Adena Springs retirement program for thoroughbreds in Canada.
The event will include seven different classes, as well as the competition for the Pimlico Perpetual Trophy between the top two finishers in three of the groups. More than $4,000 in prize money will be awarded, and ribbons will be given to the top six finishers in each class.
The role of judge for the
-based Jenkins may be a surprise, given most of the local racing community knows the long-time horseman as one of Maryland's top 20 trainers. But Jenkins, like the horses he will be judging, also made a career change in his life.
Jenkins was a world-class show jumping rider in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s before he retired with more than 70 grand prix wins. In 1999, he was inducted into the Show Jumping Hall of Fame at the Kentucky Horse Park in Lexington, Ky.
"I think this is one of the nicest things they've done for the race horse," Jenkins said of the Totally Thoroughbred Horse Show. "Those horses have given so much and now people are giving something back to them. You hear bad things about racing, but it's really not that way. People, most of them, treat their horses well and try very hard to find good places for their horses to go at the end of their careers."
Jenkins said it is not surprising to him that thoroughbreds have made good show jumpers.
"They're sensitive and smart," he said. "They have so much scope, so much stride to them. Some are better than others, like some people are better at one thing than another.
"Thoroughbreds are much quicker, much faster and more sensitive than the warm bloods, the mix breeds, bred in Europe for show jumping. It does take a lot of patience to redo them, but you'd be surprised, once they're away from the track they get very quiet and nice and make great horses for most people."
Born and raised in Virginia, Jenkins grew up in a family of horsemen. His father was the huntsman for the Rapidan Hunt Club in the state.
Jenkins began his own career at 17. Fresh out of high school, he took his first job as a professional show jumper in Palm Beach, Fla., where he rode 19 horses, drove a 12-horse trailer and mucked stalls.
Eventually, Jenkins returned to Virginia, controlled his own barn and was riding 50 horses a day, many for the top owners in the sport. Over his more than 30-year career in show jumping, he was recognized as a "natural horseman." And it seemed the older he got, the better he became.
Jenkins' best year came in 1987, his last in the sport. He won the American Grand Prix Association's Rider of the Year award, two silver medals at the
in Indianapolis, and was also named the American Horse Show Association's Horseman of the Year.
But at age 43, he had had enough saddle time.
"Riding, working 50 horses a day can take its toll, though I loved my barn," Jenkins said.
Asked why he didn't continue working with show horses as a trainer, Jenkins has a ready answer.
"When you stop riding grand prix, you end up teaching the people who ride them," he said. "It's a tough order. I love horses. Show horse jumping was a good business for me and my family and I liked it. … But I never was going to teach people. You ride or you don't."
Jenkins said he always kept a couple thoroughbreds in his stable, and his brother, Larry, trained and raced them at Charles Town in West Virginia.
"When I retired, I then got to do what I wanted to do," said Jenkins, as he headed into the barn to pet Daisy, the barn cat, and feed mints to his horses.
Saturday, though, will bring back memories and Jenkins said he is eager for the opportunity to judge the show jumping competition.
"I'll be looking for the movement of the horse, the manners of the horse, the soundness of the horse and the overall compatibility of the rider and the horse," he said. "The horse is the superstar, we're just lucky enough to be part of the program."
Two of the notable early entries for the show are Outcashem, a 19-time winner during a six-year thoroughbred racing career, and P Day, who earned nearly $700,000 in 57 races — including a victory in the Grade III Baltimore
Handicap in 2003 at Pimlico.
"[P Day] was such a cool horse," Hale said. "He was bred and trained by Charlie Hadry. He won races going long and short, on the main track and on the turf. He has had a great career as a show horse after retiring in 2005 and it will be fun to see him again."
Admission for the event is free, but money raised during the day will benefit three local thoroughbred aftercare programs — Thoroughbred Placement Resources, Mid-Atlantic Thoroughbred Rescue and Angel Acres Horse Haven Rescue.
If you go
July 14 (rain date: July 15)