Like the majority of Thoroughbred racehorses, Forthegreatergood didn’t distinguish himself on the racetrack.
The six-year-old gelding, who goes by “Dom” around the barn, ran 22 times in claiming races, the lowest level of racing. He broke his maiden at Laurel Park in his tenth start, but only hit the board two more times.
Luckily for Dom, he was raced and trained by his breeder Donna Lockard, who wanted to give him a good chance at a second career when he was finished racing.
Enter Donna Verrilli and Laura Sloan.
Sloan has earned her colors with six different fox hunts in North Carolina, Virginia and Georgia over the last 40 years. She started training horses for Richard and Donna Verrilli in Southern Pines four years ago.
Richard Verrilli had one goal left unrealized when he passed away in December 2020: to develop a Thoroughbred foxhunter for the annual Retired Racehorse Project Thoroughbred Makeover. Held every fall at the Kentucky Horse Park, the makeover is open to off-the-track Thoroughbreds with less than one year of retraining.
“I had judged it in 2016 so I knew about it and I wanted to do it,” said Sloan. “We knew, with Mr. V being 87, there would be a time when he wouldn’t be able to ride. So we said ‘What else do you want to do?’ and he said ‘Let’s do the makeover.’
“The day he died, Donna said ‘Go get a horse.’ So I found this guy and we’ve been working hard.”
Sloan put out the word on social media that she wanted a quiet ex-racehorse, at least 5 years old and over 16 hands. A friend in Maryland had just the ticket in an elegant gray gelding named Forthegreatergood.
“When his racing career was over, they sent him to my friend,” said Sloan. “I like it that he wasn’t passed around, he wasn’t shuffled from one trainer to another. He’s always had a good base of people who loved him.”
Foxhunting is one of 10 disciplines included in the Thoroughbred Makeover. The event is open to trainers aiming their ex-racehorses toward everything from eventing and dressage to barrel racing and ranch work.
The 2020 event was postponed due to COVID-19 and held concurrently with the 2021 class in a “Mega-Makeover” that ran from Oct. 12-17. Each group competed separately to keep the playing field fair.
Sloan wasn’t the only Moore County foxhunter among the 430 entries.
Cameron Sadler, one of Moore County Hounds’ masters and a lifelong foxhunter, competed in the 2020 group with her horse Zapper. Zapper has a lot in common with Dom: he’s six years old and won a single race in 15 starts.
Sadler regularly brings off-the-track Thoroughbreds along to foxhunt. Zapper was the third she entered in the makeover after competing in 2018 and 2019. So she’s developed a relationship with trainers who trust her to capably retrain ex-racehorses for a new discipline.
“They know I’ll give them a good home and I don’t usually sell my horses unless they don’t hunt or trail ride,” Sadler said.
But Zapper was also a Facebook find. A friend noticed his ad and thought he’d suit Sadler as a prospect. She bought Zapper off of that ad and a veterinary check, and sent another friend up to Ohio to bring him home.
“His face was adorable and he jumps like a rockstar,” she said. “Even though it was really small jumps, you could see he really picks his knees up nicely. He’s very compact.”
Sired by Ghostzapper out of a Gone West mare, he also had a pedigree that indicated talent — even if it wasn’t on the racetrack. Zapper went through the Keeneland auction as a weanling and was bid up to $110,000, less than the reserve his consignor had set.
Economically, it was a bid they should have taken. Zapper went on to win all of $8,141 on the track.
Practice and preparation
Sloan and Sadler both got down to teaching their new horses about life outside the track. Foxhunting isn’t normally a competitive discipline, so the first priority was to establish confidence and willingness to try new things.
Zapper hadn’t been trail ridden when he came to North Carolina, let alone in deep woods like Moore County Hounds’ regular hunting grounds. But he adjusted easily. Sadler also tested her own boundaries eventing Zapper at the Carolina Horse Park.
“He just immediately loved being out on the trails and in the woods, and he has always really liked the hounds too,” said Sadler.
“That great brain is a huge priority for horses that are going to do the field hunter life. There’s a lot of stimulation when the horse is hunting, but they need to stay calm while everything else is going on: the horn is blowing, sometimes whip cracking, hounds, other horses. So it does take a uniquely calm-in-the-mind horse to do that.”
Sloan didn’t have much of an opportunity to actually take Dom foxhunting, since the season doesn’t begin until October. But they did everything else, from walking out with the hounds to swimming and cattle drives.
With a can-do attitude that Sloan attributes in part to his training history, Dom has taken each new adventure in stride.
“I’ve been doing this a long time. You go slow to go fast. I try to set all the horses I train to keep going forward and to be positive and not to have issues,” said Sloan.
“The thing with the makeover is you have to do a lot with the horses. It’s all preparation. It shows, the ones who get out and work with their horses and do things with them. Our horses have been indoors, they had been eventing. They’d done everything we could possibly do.”
Most wanted Thoroughbred
The field hunting competition at the makeover has three elements: a hack class, an individual jumping round similar to cross-country in eventing, and a mock hunt ridden in a group.
The top five horses then move to a final round held in the indoor arena that combines elements of show hunter and trail competition: jumping, adjusting strides, meanuevering to allow the rider to adjust rails and open a gate. Thanks to Sadler’s prior experience, she and Sloan had added competing at the horse complex in Raleigh to their training checklist.
“My horse had never been in an indoor ring, so that was my big lesson from the first time that I competed,” she recalled. “It’s not fair to take a field hunter horse that’s never been in an indoor and expect them to be calm.”
Galloping in the mock hunt was also a departure from what Zapper was used to, surrounded by other green horses in an open field that bore little resemblance to his forested home turf.
“We don’t hunt in very many open fields here. That said, I did take him to Virginia the week before so we had a chance to try it out and he was very good,” said Sadler.
“I don’t ever worry about him jumping. He’s really bold and he jumps everything. He’s just not afraid of anything.”
She and Sloan both made it to the final round in their respective year groups — and won the field hunting division. As a bonus, Sadler and Zapper placed ninth in eventing, their secondary discipline and one of the most popular at the makeover.
But the task of determining an overall champion is trickier, since a ranch horse can’t exactly compete directly against a hunter or dressage horse. So the judges from all 10 disciplines watch every discipline’s final round to determine which horse should be titled America’s Most Wanted Thoroughbred.
In the 2021 group, the name with the most votes was Forthegreatergood. He and Sloan came home with $18,000 in prize money: the $10,000 grand prize, plus $5,000 from winning the field hunter division and another $3,000 in incentive prizes as a Maryland-bred.
Dom will now get to go foxhunting for real, and Sloan said he’ll stay in the family for the foreseeable future. His real value, and the reason he won the makeover in a group of multitalented horses, is his virtually limitless potential.
“The whole thing about the makeover is it’s not about who can go the fastest or who can jump the highest. It’s flatwork, it’s gymnastics; they want to know you’re training the horses properly,” she said.
“Thoroughbred racehorse owners want to know that their horses have a good home, that racing is not the end of their career. That’s the wonderful thing about the makeover: it shows Thoroughbred breeders that their horses can go on and do great things and it also shows people who don’t normally pick Thoroughbreds that they’re so versatile.”