Governor Jack, a former racehorse, cantered smoothly and landed multiple jumps in front of the crowd at Pimlico Race Course, as if he had been an event horse his entire life.
Elissa Ogburn, his 14-year-old trainer and rider, knew how far he had come.
"He was still a little pushy, bobbing his head around," said Ogburn, a freshman at Old Mill High School. "He's kind of gotten more comfortable with me. I know how to calm him down."
Ogburn was one of 26 trainers who showed off racehorses prepared for second careers in the Thoroughbred Makeover & National Symposium Saturday and Sunday. The Retired Racehorse Training Project planned the event, which was made possible after the Maryland Jockey Club offered to cover the cost to host the weekend event at Pimlico.
RRTP Vice President Carolyn Karlson suggested the makeover after the Newtown shootings in December, which moved her to honor the 26 victims at Sandy Hook Elementary School.
"One morning, I thought, wouldn't it be neat to take 26 horses off of the track and retrain them for new careers," Karlson said. "Not just for the 26 horses that would benefit from this, but for the people who would see what racehorses could do, besides run really fast."
Governor Jack had six wins in his racing career and $101,435 total winnings, making the 7-year-old thoroughbred one of the most successful former racehorses at the event. But after he retired in 2006, he was shunted from owner to owner.
Sarah O'Brien, his former exercise rider, discovered he was being neglected.
"He was a raisin of a horse," she said. "He was shriveled up, his feet were in bad shape. It was sad."
MidAtlantic Horse Rescue's Bev Strauss took Governor Jack and began looking for a new owner. When Ogburn's first makeover horse injured itself while kicking the barn, Governor Jack served as an apt replacement.
"I've learned a lot from racehorses," Ogburn said. "They really aren't crazy, like the stereotypes say."
Ogburn said people sometimes think thoroughbreds are too excitable and are not suited for children. She hoped that by training Governor Jack for a new career, she could show others that thoroughbreds have a purpose off the track.
"I just wanted to say that kids can ride thoroughbreds and people might want to think about having a thoroughbred as their next horse," Ogburn said. "They are not as scary as people say."
RRTP President Steuart Pittman, who owns Dodon Farm in Davidsonville, gives Ogburn riding lessons and gave her twice-a-week coaching sessions for the makeover. He told observers on Saturday that Ogburn had decided she would buy Governor Jack after the event.
"People who see this horse now don't think it's the same one," Pittman said. "She's going to be the best mounted 14-year-old in Maryland."
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