Makeover trainers evaluate sport horse potential based on conformation shots
Social media has enabled potential OTTB owners to review a large number of retiring Thoroughbred racehorse listings at any given time. Newcomers to the breed might find it challenging to assess a prospect right off the track and decide if it’s the right match for their desired purpose.
That’s why we’re launching this column, in which past Thoroughbred Makeover trainers share their thoughts about assessing prospects and evaluate example horses based only on their conformation photos. We’ll feature trainers from two disciplines in each issue.
Let’s meet the featured trainers for our inaugural edition:
Courtney Asdourian, First place in Polo at the 2018 Thoroughbred Makeover with Tanyas Pride
Courtney began playing polo in a Baltimore, Maryland, interscholastic league at age 10. Her love of the sport led her to attend the University of Kentucky (UK), in Lexington, where she played on the National Championship team in 2010. While at UK Courtney purchased her first OTTB to retrain for polo, sparking her appreciation for the breed.
After graduation Courtney traveled the polo circuit, wintering in Wellington, Florida, and returning to Lexington in the summer. Now she plays in international tournaments, traveling to England, Thailand and Argentina, in addition to maintaining her business buying, retraining and selling OTTBs as polo mounts.
Sarah Hepler, Third place in Dressage at the 2018 Thoroughbred Makeover with Flat Leaver
Sarah’s love of Thoroughbreds goes back to 1990, when she got her first OTTB. Currently the owner of three OTTBs, all competing in dressage, Sarah is a Makeover veteran, having competed in 2017 and 2018, with plans to return in 2019 (see page 28).
Sarah also volunteers with the placement group Finger Lakes Finest, which lists horses based at New York’s Finger Lakes Racetrack that are available for second-career homes.
Choosing a Horse
Each trainer has key features he or she looks for in photographs. For a polo prospect that will stand up to the rigors of the sport, Courtney wants to see a smaller horse — 15-15.3 hands — with a short back, square hind end, strong shoulder and wide chest. She also specifically seeks lightly raced horses that are 3-5 years old. “Most polo ponies reach peak performance around age 9 to 11, so I want to maximize the career for these amazing athletes,” she says. Additionally, it’s important to Courtney that a prospect have no physical limitations for a second career.
For Sarah, “conformation comes second to personality. A kind eye is the first thing that will grab my attention in a photo. I look for pictures that display a calm, cool, level-headed type of horse.”
One such photo drew her to Jacapo, her 2019 prospect: “There was a photo where he was ground-tied,” she says. “The rope was just hanging from his halter … and he was still on the track. He had a soft, relaxed eye and an expression that says, ‘Hey, I want to be your new best friend!’ ”
When she does move to conformation, Sarah looks first at a horse’s neck and shoulder. “While a ewe neck, especially a mild one, can be improved with training, I prefer not to be fighting conformation while remuscling a horse for a sport career.”
Sarah likes a neck that ties in at the top of the withers, combined with a slightly longer back, a big shoulder and a strong hind end to balance.
Both Courtney and Sarah like to see a horse move — Courtney looks for efficient movement that will translate well to polo’s physical demands. “A good polo pony has feet that barely dust the ground while they run.”
For dressage Sarah wants to see a sweeping, stretching walk. And no matter how great a horse looks in photos and video, “I don’t buy a horse sight-unseen,” she says.
In addition to browsing internet listings, Courtney visits the tracks and reaches out to the personal network she’s built. “I always make sure I have permission to admire a trainer’s horses,” she says. “Often I get talking to the grooms, and they point me in the direction of horses they think might suit what I’m looking for. I’ve also built good relations with several people in the racing industry who know exactly what I’m looking for and are happy to send them my way. If I’ve done good business with someone and we’re both happy, I value that continued relationship.”
Meet the Prospects
Our model horses all come from New Start, the Pennsylvania Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association’s (PA HBPA) racehorse retirement initiative. They’re fostered at Hay Creek Farm, in Honey Brook, Pennsylvania, where they are receiving foundational training for a second career. All three are Makeover-eligible for 2019 and, while they might no longer be available for purchase by press time, New Start always has many quality prospects.
Horses coming through New Start’s program retire from Penn National Race Course, in Grantville, Pennsylvania. Penn National Race Course, the Pennsylvania Horse Breeders Association and fees from race entries fund the program.
Courtney’s Top Three
Horse 3 The first thing I like about this horse is the delicate, refined neck. There is a nice subtle curvature, and the way it’s connected to the shoulder tells me this horse will most likely be soft and responsive from the nose and mouth. I also like that this horse is level from front end to hind end. For me personally, I do not care for horses that have a downhill or uphill build. I prefer mine to be straight across the back. Judging solely on this photo, this horse gives me the impression she is light on her feet, which I really look for.
Horse 2 Although this horse also has a fairly refined neck, I do not care for his hind end as much. To me he looks a bit straighter behind, and that shows me he might not work as efficiently off his hind end. I do like the short pasterns on this horse, as I have found it lends to less risk of tendon injury as a polo horse down the line. With the long legs on this horse, I also have the impression that he would be too tall for polo. Proportionally, I do not see this horse maturing between 15-15.3 hands.
Horse 1 The third option I would choose for polo is a very nice prospect but simply too heavy in the body for what I look for. Noticing the stout neck and what I imagine is a very broad chest, I would assume this horse is not as light on its feet as the first horse I chose. This horse also seems to have more of an uphill build, which would mean he most likely has a bit of an elevated action in front.
Sarah’s Top Three
Horse 3 All of these horses have some great things going for them, but this horse is definitely my first pick because of his neck attachment, shoulder and neck, plus his lovely uphill build. His neck comes out relatively straight and high from his wither, thus making muscling over the top easier than fighting with one that is slightly U-shaped. His shoulder is large, and I like its angle. He has a thick neck already, despite being muscled “upside down” (his muscles underneath are stronger than those along the top of his neck). Imagine what he will look like when correctly muscled!
Horse 2 This horse has a nice, kind eye. He has a big shoulder, and I like the way his neck connects to his wither. He’s a bit downhill. He has nice, straight front legs. I like his hip angle, plus the shape of his neck, the length of his back and his expression.
Horse 1 This horse also has a nice, kind eye. He is a bit over at the knee, and his neck dips a bit from his wither forward. He does have a nice, short back, a good shoulder, a decent hip angle, a deep barrel to take up a longer leg and a thick neck (I’m a sucker for necks!).
This article was originally published in the Spring 2019 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!