Perfect Pairs

Memorable matches made at the ASPCA Makeover Marketplace

The RRP’s goal in hosting the Thoroughbred Makeover and National Symposium is to inspire a new generation of equestrians to turn to the retired racehorse for their next competition mount. While the competition itself has certainly become a bucket list item for many Thoroughbred lovers, those who have competed in the Makeover are quick to remind observers that the show is just the start.

For shoppers or adopters at the ASPCA Makeover Marketplace, the Makeover is quite literally the beginning: From browsing the catalog and the online listings to watching horses perform and trying them out, the Marketplace experience is designed to make finding one’s next Thoroughbred sport horse as easy and enjoyable as possible.

Far from a simple listing service for off-track Thoroughbreds, the Marketplace has become in recent years a destination for serious horse shoppers. Hunter/jumper professional Bernie Traurig was ringside in 2019, Marketplace catalog in hand, looking for prospects among the quality horsepower on display in the show ring. 

“Our expectations were exceeded,” he said. “We found at least 10 horses that we thought were interesting for the sport of hunters and jumpers — and not only in the hunter and jumper rings.”

More than 100 matches have been made at the Marketplace. We caught up with three riders who used the Marketplace resources to find their dream partners.

Making the Most of the Makeover

After seaching the Marketplace catalog and making a list of horses to watch, Maria Caplan fell in love with and bought Howie Gonnado This. Photo by Brant Gamma Photos

Maria Caplan came to the 2017 Thoroughbred Makeover on a mission: She intended to purchase a horse.

“I had heard about the Makeover Marketplace, and I went through the online catalog of over 100 horses,” Caplan says. “I thought, how cool is it to be able to sit on a bunch of horses, watch them go and vet them right there?”

She narrowed down the options using the search filters, looking specifically for geldings going in English-based disciplines that would have potential as eventers. She sent an email to the trainers of the 30 to 40 horses on her list to let them know she was interested and seeking more information. From the responses, she narrowed her list further still, highlighted the horses she wanted to see and pointed her truck and trailer from North Carolina to the Kentucky Horse Park.

With ride times posted on each horse’s profile, Caplan was able to make a schedule to watch the eight horses on her short list perform. She rented a golf cart at the Makeover so she could get from one end of the Horse Park to the other without missing a round. One horse, in particular, caught her eye right away: a 2013 bay gelding named Howie Gonnado This (Jockey’s Dream [BRZ] — My Dance, Rhythm).

“I watched him go in the first round of the Show Jumping,” Caplan says. “He had class, out of all the horses I saw. He was a plain bay but had a classic look and an amazing jump. I train with J. Michael Plumb and, having learned from him what kind of horses he likes, I thought, ‘Mike would agree.’

“Howie” put in a flawless round in the Show Jumping, and Caplan set up a time to ride him in the designated trial arena. “He was so responsive to the aids, and his gaits were comfortable — I knew then that he was the right one,” she says.

Caplan was also impressed that Howie did so well at the Makeover. He placed seventh overall in Show Jumping and fourth in Field Hunter, which meant he came back on Finale Saturday to perform in the packed indoor, further solidifying Caplan’s decision.

The Walters family, who bred and raced Howie, also prepared him for the Makeover. Caplan was able to negotiate a purchase price with them when they recognized the horse would be going to a great home and a perfect match. After completing a prepurchase exam early Sunday morning after the Finale, Caplan took Howie home.

“As an adult amateur, it was worth it for me to spend the money on one I knew could do the job and go straight into the ring,” she says. “And boy, oh, boy was he successful right off the bat!”

When she bought Howie, Caplan was riding Novice and Training-level eventing, keeping her horses on her own farm but hauling to Plumb’s facility three or four days a week for lessons. “Mike did agree with me about Howie,” Caplan says. “We thought that perhaps by 2021, the horse would be ready to do Intermediate.”

But Plumb reminded Caplan to move slowly and get the basics solid so she didn’t rush the talented horse. During their first full year together in 2018, Caplan and Howie started by winning the Maiden level at the Carolina Horse Park, then moved up to Beginner Novice, taking home the year-end High Point Thoroughbred Incentive Program (T.I.P.) Award for that division as well as the Reserve Champion T.I.P. Award for all levels from the War Horse Event Series (a group of unrecognized schooling horse trials at the Carolina Horse Park).

The pair moved up to Novice in 2019 with similar success. They won the Novice High Point T.I.P. Award at the War Horse Event Series and finished the year with no show jumping rails on their USEA record.

In 2020, before the COVID-19 pandemic dramatically altered the competition calendar, Caplan and Howie moved up to Training, finishing second in their first sanctioned event and winning another T.I.P. championship at Aiken Opener, in South Carolina. During the subsequent shutdown, Caplan and Howie spent their days hacking around the 4,000-acre Walthour-Moss Foundation, which Caplan found greatly improved their dressage. In fact, by June, back competing again, their score improved to a 21, helping them finish second in the Open Training at War Horse.

Unfortunately, it was soon after this competition that Caplan lost Howie due to an inoperable tumor in his small intestine. She shares that while she’s grieving, taking it one day at a time, she’s grateful for the time she got to spend with her incredible horse.

“The Thoroughbred will give you everything,” she says. “That horse never stopped. I didn’t always ride him to the best spot, but he would save me every time. If I had to do it all over again, I would.”

(Want to shop for your own Makeover Marketplace graduate? Click here to sign up for the free catalog.)

Online Shopping Extravaganza

A 17.2-hand stunner named Dark Knight Royale (who raced as Honest Gene) caught Maxy Phillips’ eye while browsing the 2018 Makeover Marketplace listings. Photo by Marcus Greene Outdoor Photography

Maxy Phillips and her mother knew the next event horse they purchased had to be special — and a Thoroughbred. Phillips’ mother grew up on Thoroughbreds, and Phillips herself had competed through the two-star level on one. The Makeover Marketplace listings were a natural place to start their search. 

“Mom was looking,” Phillips says. “It’s what she loves to do!”

It was a few weeks after the Makeover in 2018, so some of the horses in the Marketplace online catalog were marked as sold, having found their new partners while in Kentucky — but there were still plenty left to browse. A 17.2-hand dark bay named Honest Gene (Hat Trick [JPN] — Hishi Aspen, Forestry) caught her eye.

“With the online listing, everything was right there: photos, videos, even his scores from the Makeover,” Phillips says. “We loved his gallop; he was one of just a few horses in the Eventing discipline who had scored a 10 on his gallop. It was all so accessible, and we were able to tell right away that we thought we had found the one.”

As residents of the San Francisco Bay area, it took a bit of travel for Phillips and her mother to try “Knight,” who was in Nebraska. One red-eye flight later, they met Knight and his seller, Brit Vegas, who had hauled the horse to a facility with a cross-country course for the trial ride. 

“We actually sent Brit videos of me riding my last horse to make sure it was going to be a good match.” And a good match it was. The Phillips purchased Knight, and Vegas hauled him all the way out to California herself.

Phillips and Knight took it slow the first winter. “He had lots of physical talent and scope, but we needed to click mentally,” she says. 

They kicked off their competitive partnership with a Novice eventing run in March 2019, and by August 2019 the pair had moved up to Training. Phillips had the horse fit and ready to make his Preliminary debut in the spring of 2020, but the pandemic shut down the competitive calendar.

Phillips is primarily an eventer, which she says can be challenging in her region. “The community is so supportive, but it’s a difficult area for the sport; there are no eventing trainers here,” she notes. Instead, she pieces together the individual phases with eventing instructors and clinicians through Pony Club, as well as lessons in dressage and show jumping. 

While the pandemic sidelined Phillips’ goal of going to her first FEI event this year with Knight, she believes the break has been good for their connection — they’ve been able to train more at home. Her competitive goals include moving up to Preliminary, which means working on other aspects of her relationship with Knight. 

“We’re still figuring out the best way to manage show environments, especially with how to get him to produce his best dressage test,” she says. “He’s a challenge to train because he knows all the answers already.”

Knight competes under the name Vegas gave him: Dark Knight Royale. For Phillips, that name might have been fate: “We’ve always had horses with ‘Royale’ in their name!” 

Phillips describes Knight as “the perfect horse. He matches the talent of the Thoroughbred we lost and had purchased him to replace, but he has the personality of a puppy dog.” 

A Dream Horse

Make It Right’s Marketplace description — “smart, quiet, sensible, talented, and manages cute and sexy at the same time” — sounded like Zenya Lepper’s dream horse. Photo courtesy of Zenya Lepper

Many horse lovers have done it. Zenya Lepper, a fan of the Thoroughbred Makeover, was browsing the 2019 Marketplace horses — “not necessarily because I was horse shopping,” she claims. “I just like to look!”

But then her eyes landed on Make It Right (United States — Strongly So, Strong Hope). “I read his description, and he sounded like my dream horse.” (That description included the phrase “smart, quiet, sensible, talented, and manages cute and sexy at the same time.”)

Lepper, who describes her riding background as casual, had stopped taking lessons around age 13 to pursue ballet, eventually attending a boarding school to focus on dance. An injury took her away from ballet, and she took up riding again, mostly English on the flat, but she wasn’t in the market for a horse when she saw Make It Right’s listing. 

She noticed that the sellers, Tom and Clare Mansmann, were located close to where she lived in Middleburg, Virginia. “At the time, I was riding at a barn where I felt a little stuck in my riding and that I had gone as far as I could go there. So I went out to Tom and Clare’s and started riding with them.”

Lepper didn’t mention the listing — she just made the most of her riding lessons with the Mansmanns. A few weeks in they paired her with a horse with the barn nickname Peter. After three or four rides she was in love.

“Suddenly, I had the thought, ‘Wait a minute … is this the same horse?’ I actually still had the listing for Make It Right saved on my computer and, sure enough, it was the same horse that I had fallen in love with online, and the same horse that brought me to the Mansmanns in the first place,” Lepper says. 

One thing led to another, and she found herself making the dream come true: Peter now belongs to her, defying her own expectations that she would just be lifelong lesson rider who never owned her own horse.

“On the first ride, I started to feel like maybe I wasn’t a good enough rider for him,” Lepper says. “But every ride got better and better — I’ve never ridden a horse that’s been able to teach me like he does. The communication improves every ride, and I’ve never had that feeling on a horse before. Riding is hard! This horse is exactly what I need.”

A natural athleticism that came from a life of dance lent itself well to riding, and now, with the perfect partner, Lepper’s grace is transitioning to the saddle.

“All doors are open,” Lepper says of her future with Peter. “I don’t have any big goals at the moment; I just enjoy learning with him. I can’t wait to see where we’ll go from here and where this journey takes us.”

Find your own dream horse in the ASPCA Makeover Marketplace listings when they’re published on August 16, or sign up for your own free catalog at therrp.org/aspca-makeover-marketplace-sale-horse-catalog/.

Adoption an Option at ASPCA Makeover Marketplace

Some of the horses listed in the ASPCA Makeover Marketplace each year are adoptable, entered in the Thoroughbred Makeover by the aftercare organizations transitioning them to second careers.

“Listing a horse through the Makeover Marketplace helps us reach a great network,” explains Bev Strauss, co-founder and president of MidAtlantic Horse Rescue (MAHR), in Chesapeake City, Maryland. “It gives our horses a lot of exposure and drives more traffic to our website where we have many nice horses available.”

While planning ahead to determine which horse(s) MAHR’s staff and volunteers will take to the Makeover can be challenging for the organization, whose goal is to help move horses to their next homes and make room for more, participation in the event pays off for both the horses and MAHR itself. 

“Participation in the Makeover event really adds to their resume,” Strauss says. “A lot of our adopters are proud that their horse participated, and we’ve found that it’s increased the marketability for those horses.”

Thoroughbred Aftercare Alliance’s own Erin Shea was one of those adopters in 2019. “I always attend the Makeover with a list of horses to follow in the competition, never looking to buy, just to observe,” she says. “This past year, I ended up taking one of those horses home. Knowing that he came through Beyond The Wire and MidAtlantic Horse Rescue, I felt confident in making the adoption. Being able to see him in action at the Makeover and see the great work that the MAHR team did in restarting him in a new career made the decision much easier.”

This article was originally published in the Fall 2020 issue of Off-Track Thoroughbred Magazine, the only publication dedicated to the Thoroughbred ex-racehorse in second careers. Want four information-packed issues a year delivered to your door or your favorite digital device? Subscribe now!

Featured articles