For some thoroughbreds at Pimlico Race Course on Saturday, it had been mere months since their last race.
Now, as the ex-racehorses trotted onto the track, they were asked by riders not to run like the wind, but do something entirely different — circle barrels, leap hurdles or prance precisely in dressage, an Olympic equestrian sport.
The horses at the second annual Thoroughbred Makeover: A Marketplace & National Symposium resisted the urge to take off when they heard the boom of an announcer's voice. Instead, they followed riders' commands, drawing applause from spectators.
They were part of a two-day event at the racetrack that's designed to show versatility, trainability and value of thoroughbred racehorses as they leave racing behind and learn new "careers." The event, open to the public and scheduled through Sunday, includes educational sessions and a marketplace where the ex-racehorses are for sale as they go through training in fox hunting, polo, barrel racing and other sports. Horses sell for a range of $1,000 to $25,000.
It turns out that the job market can be tough for a thoroughbred. More than 25,000 are born to become racehorses each year, according to the Retired Racehorse Project, which organized the Pimlico event. But relatively few are winners with long careers, and over the past couple of decades, thoroughbreds have fallen out of favor as show horses, event organizers said.
"They come off the track at 3, 4 and 5 years old and have their whole lives ahead of them," said Beverly Strauss, executive director of the Mid-Atlantic Horse Rescue, a Chesapeake City-based nonprofit that buys slaughter-bound ex-racehorses and finds them homes as pleasure and sport horses.
The Davidsonville-based Racehorse Project works to connect ex-racehorses with the estimated 2 million horse owners in the United States. The project sponsors public events and puts together educational programs to promote the retraining of ex-racehorses. This is the second year for the event at Pimlico, which last year drew about 800 people to the track.
"We organized the event to increase demand for thoroughbreds after the racetrack…so when a horse is done racing, there are people who want it," said Steuart Pittman, the Racehorse Project's president.
Pittman, who founded the project in 2010 with the belief that thoroughbred ex-racehorses need advocates, said such events show the public that "thoroughbreds off the track are the most trainable, generous and talented four-legged animals on the planet. It's much easier to sell a horse after it knows the job you're selling it for."
Many of the former racers can be productive in other ways, and "thoroughbreds are making a comeback in the show ring," Strauss said.
On Saturday, Strauss rode one of the nonprofit's horses, Fiji Boy, to show off the thoroughbred's fledgling jumping skills during a segment highlighting the horses for sale. For Sunday, she planned to enter another horse, D'Sauvage — a horse retrained as a "show hunter" — in a contest that's expected to be a highlight of the two days.
The "America's Most Wanted Thoroughbred Contest," will feature 10 thoroughbreds competing in events showing off re-training in areas such as fox hunting, dressage, polo, steeplechasing and show jumping.
Contestants include Icabad Crane, who placed third in the 2008 Preakness and raced until just last year, when he was retired by his owner, Kentucky Derby-winning trainer Graham Motion. The contest will be judged by racing celebrities, including Hall of Fame jockey Chris McCarron; Diane Crump, the first woman to ride in the Kentucky Derby; and Rodney Jenkins, a star show jumper/hunter rider.
On Saturday, Pittman stood on the track with a microphone in hand introducing horses and riders and describing their backgrounds, features and skills.
The demonstrations "show the horses doing 10 different sports and doing it well," Pittman said. "Some are here straight off the track."
He encouraged potential buyers to visit the marketplace, sponsored by Lexington, Ky.-based Thoroughbred Charities of America, in a stabling area just beyond the racetrack where owners were available to discuss their horses.
Spectator Wendy Albert, a Towson resident who owns thoroughbreds in Frederick County, leaned on a fence near the track, hoping to get some inspiration for work she's doing training an 8-year-old thoroughbred.
"It shows me what's possible," she said.