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Group aims to retrain racehorses after retirement

Baltimore resident Carolyn Karlson grew up near New York's Saratoga Race Course, and has always loved thoroughbred horses. Six years ago, she purchased her first horse, Ave Ravina.

"She raced in Maryland as a 3-year-old and a 4-year-old," Karlson said. Though the horse never won a race, "she was my first and she remains my favorite."

When physical issues ended the horse's racing career, however, Ave Ravina was retrained, an opportunity Karlson believes should be available to all thoroughbreds after they retire.

As vice president of the Retired Racehorse Training Project, a nonprofit organization founded in 2009 and based in Davidsonville, Karlson is working to enable more horses to be retrained after their racing careers. The nonprofit says its mission is "increasing demand for thoroughbreds off the track" and it provides education, resources and awareness to help people retrain racehorses and recognize the animals' potential.

On Sept. 21 at the Marlborough Horse Trials in Upper Marlboro, Ave Ravina competed in her first event combining dressage, show-jumping and a cross-country challenge. Ridden by jockey Michelle Warro, she took a first-place ribbon in the category of Open Beginner Novice.

"I was watching her on the course," Karlson said of her horse. "She was so much happier [than she was as a racehorse].

"She has been training seriously for about a year and she is now starting to take this next step in her life," Karlson said.

On Oct. 5 and 6, Karlson's organization is hosting the first-ever Thoroughbred Makeover and National Symposium at Pimlico Race Course, with 26 retired thoroughbred racehorses from the U.S. and Canada showing off new skills. The horses will execute complex dressage moves, weave through barrels and demonstrate their show-jumping abilities.

The Retired Racehorse Training Project was founded by Steuart Pittman, who owns and runs Dodon Farm in Davidsonville, where he retrains former racehorses, including Ave Ravina, primarily for events like the one in which she recently competed.

"For me, the thoroughbred has always been the ultimate horse," Pittman said. "But nobody really wants them if they're not trained to do something other than race."

Pittman said the nonprofit's first public event, in 2009, was a symposium for people interested in training retired racehorses. It was held at the Maryland Therapeutic Riding Center in Crownsville, and more than 350 people paid $25 each for demonstrations and information.

"That convinced us there was a demand," he said.

Karlson became involved after attending a class on equine nutrition taught by Pittman's wife, Erin, at the University of Maryland, where Karlson was director of the Hillman Entrepreneurs Program.

Pittman figures he's retrained as many as 10 retired racehorses a year for 15 years, and is eager to share his knowledge about training the horses for a variety of second careers, including polo, show-jumping and rodeos.

For the upcoming event at Pimlico, Pittman and Karlson decided to highlight 26 trainers and the horses they have retrained over the past few months to honor the "26 Acts of Kindness" pledges that followed the December school shooting in Newtown, Conn.

The 26 were chosen from 142 applications, said Pittman, who explained criteria included geographic diversity and the range of talents showcased by the horses.

The mornings will be devoted to information and seminars for people involved in retraining racehorses, but the afternoons will be "four hours of entertainment," he said. Highlights include a cattle-roping demonstration by South Dakota rancher Dale Simanton, and a talk about marketing former racehorses by Diane Crump, a jockey who was first woman to ride in the Kentucky Derby.

The goal is to make the symposium an annual event, perhaps taking place at a new site each year.

"We all want these beautiful horses to find second careers," Karlson said.

The Thoroughbred Racehorse Makeover and Symposium is Oct. 5-6 at the Pimlico Race Course. Admission is $35 for a full day; afternoon only is $18; a weekend pass is $50. Tickets are $60 for the Saturday evening party in Pimlico's Hall of Fame Room. The party features live music, storytelling about thoroughbreds and a dinner from Turf Caterers. For more information or to buy tickets, go to retiredracehorsetraining.org.

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Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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