Buy The Right Horse For The Job: Boyd Martin Encourages Top Event Riders To Try OTTBs
Thoroughbred Blackfoot Mystery and Boyd Martin finished sixth at the 2016 Rolex Three-Day Event in Lexington
As the market for Thoroughbreds after the track continues to grow, Olympic rider Boyd Martin believes riders at the top levels of other equine disciplines should give an off-track Thoroughbred (OTTB) a try. Martin, who has long been a champion of the breed at the upper echelon of eventing, believes bringing more ex-racehorses into the top levels of the sport would benefit both the aftercare movement and the riders themselves.
“In my opinion, the off-track Thoroughbred is the ultimate event horse,” said Martin. “Not every OTTB is the ultimate event horse, but I would take a nice-moving, quiet-thinking, bold, brave, good-jumping Thoroughbred over any other horse breed in the world. There’s no better breed to be a four-star event horse.”
The thing that has stymied the Thoroughbred in his sport, according to Martin, is a preference in recent decades for European Warmbloods as riders believe those breeds will be better movers. Whether or not they’re better in the dressage phase of the sport, they have neither the speed nor the stamina of the Thoroughbred on the long, intense cross country course, which can get them eliminated before they even participate in the stadium jumping phase.
“It’s almost a bit trendy to go to Europe to buy a European horse. It’s madness,” said Martin. “It’s a little bit like when my wife buys wine or perfume; if it’s affordable and locally made, she’s not interested in it.
“It’s a cultural thing, but I shake my head sometimes, especially with young riders with the ambition to be a four-star rider. What’s going to stop you from being a four-star rider? A horse that can’t gallop. It’s pointless buying a horse and putting years into it, and all of a sudden at the two-star level, you’re galloping around with its tongue hanging out. Buy a horse with the criteria to get the job done.”
The hold-up for many professionals may be the sheer amount of time needed to go through the thousands of horses leaving the track or completing basic training each year to pick out a top-level prospect. It does take some searching to find a horse who’s not just athletic, but a future Olympian.
Martin, a native of Australia, has found success with off-track and bred-to-race Thoroughbreds, most notably Australian Neville Bardos (Martin rode him in the 2010 World Equestrian Games and Rolex Kentucky Three Day Event) and more recently, Blackfoot Mystery, who finished sixth at Rolex with Martin in 2016.
Martin purchased Neville Bardos for $850 after a friend took the horse off the track and declared him “no good” as a jumping prospect. The gelding, by New Zealand-bred Mahaya, was ultimately syndicated for $150,000 and has gone on to win two events with two-star ratings, and completed three- and four-star events, placing him on the short list for the 2008 Beijing Olympics. Neville Bardos is most famous for surviving a barn fire during his time with Martin and ultimately returning to competition at the four-star level. He has since retired to Martin’s farm.
Blackfoot Mystery, fondly known as “Red,” is an American-bred (by Out of Place, out of Proud Truth mare True Mystery) who raced with little success in California. He was brought off track by the Thoroughbred Rehab Center and rose through the eventing ranks through a couple of professionals before he found his way to Martin.
At this year’s Rolex, Martin piloted Crackerjack, who has now competed at five of the six four-star rated events in the world and is on track to appear at next year’s World Championships.
In eventing and other English-based disciplines like jumping and dressage, professional riders often train and compete horses owned in syndicates. In the case of Blackfoot Mystery, several of the 12 shares in the horse are held by racing owners who had never invested in an eventer before.
“Because he was an American Thoroughbred, I was actually able to get a lot of people to buy a share. A lot of people who owned racehorses liked the idea of supporting an American Thoroughbred.
“It turned into being a great thing because the first event horse they ever owned actually went to the Rio Olympics, so they thought, ‘Well, this is easy,’” Martin joked.
In eventing, Martin said owners go into syndicates knowing they’ll be lucky to break even with their horse’s expenses, particularly since top horses are often jet-setting around the world. Instead, the motivation for many of them is an interest in supporting a particular professional or their country’s next Olympic team members. There’s also an element of passion for horses, and Martin suspects for this reason, many OTTBs-turned-top event horses enjoy a higher level of care and better long-term prospects than they did before they left the track as cheap claimers.
“They’re buying into these horses, and a lot of them are OTTBs, without any thought of financial gain out of it,” Martin said. “They’ve probably got a huge amount of play money. I believe the horses owned by sport horse owners are probably going to get more taken care of than potentially a money-earning racehorse for its career because the person getting involved in it is pro buying into it with every motivation except making a buck off it.”
Well-financed owners are, however, an unfortunate sign of the times in many horse sports, according to Martin. It’s becoming more and more expensive for riders and trainers to participate on a regular basis, but this provides a great opening for the OTTB – if people will give the breed a chance.
“The sad part about horse sports a little bit nowadays is you have to be pretty remarkably privileged to participate,” he said. “A racehorse who’s too slow for racing his value is pretty low, which means if these [aftercare] programs can get up and running, any kid with a passion for horses and a smaller budget could get involved in the sport. A kid with $4,000 could potentially buy an Olympic horse.”
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