Conrad Helps Horses Be All They Can Be
After weeks spent double blanketing, hammering frozen water tubs, and watching the dog perform unintentional Triple Salchows while chasing deer from the pasture, I was ready for something that would warm — if nothing else — at least my heart.
Last Sunday, I ventured out to the Carolina Horse Park for the first Pipe Opener of the year.
The Pipe Opener series of unrecognized schooling shows was designed to help hibernating horses and riders get reacquainted in the show ring — riders can mix and match dressage and show jumping classes — before the onset of the official show season.
By early afternoon, it was a balmy 50 degrees, and most of the horses had come to an understanding with their riders that, yes, submission was indeed the better part of valor.
I was pleasantly surprised at the quality of horseflesh on display, and equally pleased to see so many young thoroughbreds on their best behavior.
At the dressage warm-up ring, I ran into one of my favorite people: Allie Conrad, founder and executive director of CANTER (Communication Alliance to Network Thoroughbred Ex-Racehorses) Mid Atlantic, which oversees seven racetracks and has helped thousands of horses transition into careers as eventers, hunter-jumpers, trail and even cutting horses.
Conrad, whose charm and powers of persuasion lead me to suspect she’s never held a traffic ticket in her flawlessly manicured hands (except maybe in Whispering Pines), had come to the horse park to watch six of her CANTER graduates take their first tentative steps toward becoming event horses.
A project manager for a D.C.-based consulting firm, Conrad, 36, relocated to Aberdeen in 2009. She became involved with CANTER in 1999, not long after buying a thoroughbred out of the ignominious New Holland Auction in Pennsylvania.
“Phinny,” now 18, inspired Conrad to help thoroughbreds at the end of their racing days get into the right hands … before they could end up at New Holland.
For five years, Conrad made Charles Town Racetrack in West Virginia a regular stop on Saturday mornings.
“Like clockwork, for five straight years, I was there,” she said. “I walked up and down the shedrows talking to trainers about retiring the horses that weren’t doing well instead of continuing to run them.”
Convincing racetrackers that there might be a better alternative to “injecting ’em and runnin’ ’em” wasn’t easy.
“I was an outsider,” Conrad said. “I wasn’t from the track. People just flat out wouldn’t talk to me for a long time.”
Often, after being chased out of a barn, Conrad would leave the track in tears.
“The hardest thing,” she said, “was convincing these people their horses had value beyond their claiming prices. This was back when the claimers were $2,500, and the purses were nothing. I would say, hey, if you stop on this horse, this nice, pretty, 16.2 hand gelding, you can sell it for $3,000. You get an open stall, and he gets a good life.”
Pretty soon, a funny thing happened. A trainer who had sold his horse through CANTER’s website told another trainer about his positive experience.
That trainer contacted Conrad, and sold his horse through CANTER. And so on. “We started having success,” Conrad said. “And racetrackers talk like crazy. So the word started to spread.”
Among Conrad’s early Charles Town acquisitions was a skinny, footsore gelding named Alex’s Castledream. Winless in 10 starts, Alex’s Castledream sold through CANTER for $500; eight years later, he is Anthony Patch, one of the nation’s top event horses.
“I used to walk in the shedrows, and people would say, ‘I can inject him and run him again, he’ll bring me a little money,’” Conrad said. “Then I’d hear, ‘Well, he’s not really in it much anymore, but what if I list him on your website for $500?’ I’d say, this is a nice horse, why don’t you ask $1,500? Then that horse sells the next day, and they’re calling me up going, ‘Oh my God … this works!’”
Each of the six CANTER horses I saw at the Pipe Opener could be, in racetrack parlance, any kind of horse.
Fortheloveofrita (“Vita”) is a 5-year-old daughter of Lido Palace who has been in work for three weeks. Yet she trots around the warmup like an old schoolmistress, much to the delight of her rider, Suzanne Konefal.
Marquet Rise is a flashy chestnut filly who has inherited not only the good looks but the unflappability of her sire, Marquetry.
Wild Jersey Boy, a $5,000 claimer from Charles Town, has a dreamy canter.
And then there’s Fisher, a 5-year-old gelding who, coincidentally, I first met in August, days after he left the racetrack.
He had just arrived at eventer Will Faudree’s Hoffman farm, and was relaxing in a lush pasture with his new friend and mentor, Antigua, now 22.
Veterans of Rolex, Badminton, and Burghley, Antigua (“Brad”) and Faudree never incurred a cross-country jump penalty while competing at the sport’s highest level. In 2003, they won team gold at the Pan American Games.
Fisher was making his off-the-farm debut at the Pipe Opener. Ridden by Faudree’s barn manager, Nat Varcoe-Cox, Fisher brought down the house in his very first beginner novice dressage test. Faudree watched from the sidelines, and let out a whoop and began to clap as Varcoe-Cox halted and saluted.
You’d have thought Fisher had just scored a 28.0 at Rolex.
Conrad now has 30 volunteers working at the CANTER tracks, which has allowed her more time to spread the word about the plight of ex-racehorses. She spoke at the Racehorse Welfare Summit in Lexington, Ky., last year, and attended CANTER’s annual meeting at the Breeders’ Cup at Churchill Downs.
“Racetracks are finally getting it,” Conrad said. “They’re realizing, oh, we do have a byproduct of this industry that needs care.”
She laughed. “I used to get chased out of the barns, crying, going, ‘Why am I doing this?’” she said.
Fisher. Fortheloveofrita. Marquet Rise. Wild Jersey Boy.
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