The Blueberry Bulletin Presented By Equine Equipment: My OTTB Did Not Fail

This is the fourth installment in our monthly column from editor-in-chief Natalie Voss following her journey with her 2021 Thoroughbred Makeover hopeful Underscore, fondly known as Blueberry. Read previous editions in this series here and learn Blueberry’s origin story and the author’s long-running bond with this gelding and his family here. You can find Blueberry’s Facebook page here.

One of the first things I did after adopting Blueberry was to embark on a small online shopping spree for him (naturally, none of the draft cross mare’s gear would fit him), followed by a small online shopping spree for myself. I found a t-shirt on Etsy which reads, “My OTTB ran slower than yours.” It made me chuckle, as the new owner of a horse who ran once and placed fourth.

Blueberry is by Uncle Mo, out of a graded stakes-winning mare. He had the mind of a racehorse, and we’re told he showed such impressive speed in the mornings, his training team suggested he be nominated to stakes races at Woodbine before he’d even made a start. We joke sometimes about our “underachiever” who cost $400,000 as a yearling and won a little over $4,000 in return.

But the reality is, there’s a little air of disappointment when racing people are asked about OTTBs. Many are eager to support aftercare in word and in deed, but there’s often a wistful air if you ask them about a specific horse that has left their operation for a second career. ‘Oh yes,’ they may say. ‘It’s a shame they didn’t work out.’

I get it; no one spends six figures in stud fees, or pays an Eclipse Award-winning trainer’s day rates hoping to find out their horse is slow, or injury-prone, or briefly brilliant but eventually flat. Everyone wants to win the Kentucky Derby. Everyone wants to catch lightning in a bottle. Perhaps it’s good that so many people in this sport wake every day with these stars in their eyes, continuing to breed, sell, buy, train, and care for the thousands of horses who support so many livelihoods. Everyone who has a role in a racehorse’s life is subject to back-breaking work, long hours, lost money, and chasing sleep. There wouldn’t be an industry to employ us all if we didn’t have crazy dreams to make all of that worthwhile.

But the reality, which I know people understand just as keenly, is that there will be many more horses like Blueberry than American Pharoah. When I wrote about the challenges of aftercare in late 2019, 28 percent of Thoroughbreds born between 2005 and 2014 never even made it to the races. One Australian study found that about 40 percent of that country’s racing population retired each year, with only 10 percent of those heading off to breeding careers. The 2020 American foal crop is estimated to be 19,010, but there were only 99 Grade 1 races held in North America last year – it’s just a matter of logic that some horses will have a career on a breeding farm waiting them, but most of them will not.

The last few months of under saddle work with Blueberry have been a joy. I tell people that he makes me look a lot smarter than I am, because the level of dressage we’re working on now is physically easy for him. Our trainer, Stephanie Calendrillo, told me at one point that she loves a horse who loves to work, who asks her when she encourages them to lift their backs and soften their jaws, ‘How high do you want me to lift?’ She said Blueberry does it for you and then asks ‘Oh sorry, was that enough? Do you need me to do more?’

He loves going to work, but he’s smart about it. I pulled him out of his stall for a morning ride this week – his first in a couple of weeks – and where others might have expended calories on exuberant bucks and hops, he was immediately quiet, focused, responding to the slightest twitch of my rein or heel. He does not waste energy (if anything, he can trend towards ‘sleepy’ rather than quick), and believes with all his heart he is a professional who has Done All Of This Before even when he hasn’t.

Having known his mother, I’d hoped when I adopted him that he would have this mindset. I did not know, until about May when he began ground driving walk/trot/canter, how he moved, beyond having a very impressive walk at the Fasig-Tipton Saratoga Sale in 2018. In his first months with me, he was on 24-hour turnout while he recovered from some minor ligament desmitis and we awaited a stall and better weather at my trainer’s main property. When I saw him stretch out at a trot and felt his floaty canter for the first few times, I used a few four-letter words. I hadn’t just adopted a nice horse, I’d adopted a really nice horse.

I’m excited to bring him to the Thoroughbred Makeover next month, but I also recognize that it’s just our first show season goal. There will be other seasons after this one, and I think he’s just going to get better with time.

‘I’m not surprised,’ Stephanie told me. ‘He’s well-bred, and class is class, no matter what you’re doing with them.’

Blueberry warming up at his second dressage show in July, where he would win his Intro C class and finish second in his Intro A class

I think it’s time we change the conversation about these, the vast majority of the Thoroughbred foals born in this country each year. There were 27,700 races held in North America, which means there were fewer than 27,700 winners, but that doesn’t mean that every horse who didn’t win a race, or who found a non-breeding second career has failed – they were just a predictable part of the statistical picture of competitive racing.

By extension, we can also reframe the successes of the racing connections for those horses. Part of the goal of breeding Thoroughbreds is to create an athlete, and breeders Jay and Christine Hayden did that. One of the goals of a commercial consignor is to be a source for Thoroughbreds with a lot of potential, and Cara Bloodstock achieved that in selling him. One of the goals for responsible owners is to be caring stewards of their horses’ welfare, and Godolphin did that, backing off on his training at the first sign of trouble and providing me a sound horse with no limitations on performance. One of a trainer’s worries is ensuring that they keep their horses physically and also mentally sound, and Johnny Burke and Brad Cox ensured their staff preserved Blueberry’s kind impression of humans, allowing me a relaxed 4-year-old gelding who sometimes gets groomed by my trainer’s 4-year-old little girl.

Horses with second careers are simply those who found renewed purpose in a different job. When humans do this, it’s called resilience. Let’s give our OTTBs the same credit for finding their calling.

The post The Blueberry Bulletin Presented By Equine Equipment: My OTTB Did Not Fail appeared first on Horse Racing News | Paulick Report.

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