Beauty of a second chance radiates in the joys of owning a former racehorse
Julian Muscat at a proud night for those associated with the retraining charity
At the turn of the millennium some of the sport’s top brass asked themselves a particularly difficult question. What happens to thoroughbreds when they reach the end of the racing road?
Fast forward 17 years and the answer has become infinitely more palatable. The vast majority with nowhere to go are directed towards Retraining of Racehorses (RoR). Through the sterling efforts of the sport’s official charity for the welfare of former racehorses, thoroughbreds morally abandoned by their owners are rehomed and retrained for a fresh start in life.
It’s a reassuring development that was long overdue, and has now gathered impressive momentum. The horses end up in the care of professional riders and enthusiasts alike. They are demonstrating an aptitude in defiance of their demeaning stereotype as stupid, impetuous, uncontrollable quadrupeds.
As much was plainly evident from the RoR’s fourth annual awards gathering at the Jockey Club Rooms in Newmarket on Monday evening.
Notwithstanding the Jockey Club’s support, the famous Rooms made an appropriate backdrop to the charity’s progress. Giant portraits of former Jockey Club grandees stared down from the walls, their solemn expressions reflecting the fact that such astronomical collective wealth should never have allowed the question to be asked in the first place.
One of life's uplifting tenets
But this wasn’t an occasion for rueful lament. It was a testament to one of life’s uplifting tenets: the beauty of a second chance.
And how the horses have seized it. Retrained ex-racehorses are flourishing within numerous equine disciplines, among them polo, eventing, endurance riding, hunting showing, showjumping – and yes, even in dressage.
An evening laced liberally by the feelgood factor culminated with Beware Chalk Pit, formerly trained by Jonathan Geake, winning the RoR Horse of the Year award. A total of 14 'elite' awards were bestowed, each one of them collected by owners and riders bursting with pride.
An unattractive demarcation between racing and other equestrian disciplines is the ego of owners, trainers and jockeys, too many of whom believe the prowess of a horse is largely down to them.
There was none of that here. It was a pure, unadulterated celebration of the horse itself.
Asked to amplify her thoughts on how Right You Are had overcome a litany of mental and physical problems to be short-listed for Horse of the Year, Charlotte Bowery said of the chestnut she owns and rides: “It’s wonderful for the horse to be recognised like this.”
Appropriately, some of racing’s best-known faces sprinkled stardust on the gathering. The charity’s patron, Clare Balding, co-hosted the awards with Luke Harvey, fresh from collecting his own recent award as broadcaster of the year. Harvey is living-and-breathing evidence of the virtues of a second chance. His jovial demeanour has come to represent racing’s perma-smiling face.
Another who bequeathed the sport inspiration this year is Guy Disney, who fought a four-year battle to be allowed to ride with his prosthetic leg, and who completed the treasured Sandown double for military riders aboard Rathlin Rose. Disney presented one of the awards; his self-deprecating nature was entirely in keeping with the evening as a whole.
It takes months, sometimes years, to retrain a young racehorse. RoR is the central facilitator, assigning that responsibility to one of 16 nationwide centres before the horses move into their new environment.
The numbers alone are impressive. The destination of more than 90 per cent of up to 7,000 thoroughbreds retired every year is known to RoR, but that still leaves around 500 to rehome annually.
RoR is almost at the stage where it has as many people keen to take on a retired racehorse as it has horses on its books. Progress is more than tangible, although the charity’s chief executive, Di Arbuthnot, alluded to eye-catching events organised by parallel charities in Australia, France, Japan and Turkey as evidence of how much more can be done.
Jenny Bulman, whose horse Jimmy Hay won the elite dressage champion award, struck a perfect chord when she became the first award recipient of the evening.
Having related how it took her two years to sort out Jimmy Hay’s neck, almost certainly the legacy of the bay being born a twin, she reflected with great affection on the horse she has now had for eight years.
Then she thanked RoR for instituting the awards in 2014. “Where else would he get recognition,” she asked of her pride and joy? “He was rubbish at racing.”
Look back on a sizzling year of racing in the new edition of the Racing Post Annual, which has 208 colour pages packed with the best stories and pictures of 2017. Order now at racingpost.com/shop or call 01933 304858