A Silky Start With A Blue Ribbon Finish

By Erna Adelson

I spoke with Lisa Thorpe about her latest venture, Silks to Show Ring Thoroughbred Foundation (SST), at a very fortuitous time. It’s the thick of Triple Crown season where the recent horse racing jewels include a long shot in Kentucky Derby victor Mine That Bird and a new pinup girl in Preakness winner Rachel Alexandra (a top ten Twitter trending topic on race day, in fact). Even though these two speed demons were ridden to thrilling wins and walked off the track unscathed, memories of the tragic Eight Belles and Ruffian accidents still come to mind. It was Eight Belles, the 2008 Derby runner-up who was euthanized on the track after breaking both front legs, who inspired Thorpe to start SST last year.

Some thoroughbreds, like Rachel Alexandra, are without a doubt born to race, but the ones that do not inherit a racehorse mentality are often left without many options. This includes those on the sidelines due to injuries and racehorse retirees who are finished on the track. If a new home isn’t available, these horses often end up at auction and at worst are sent to slaughter. Lisa, who spent much of her career riding thoroughbred hunters, has seen these non-racing horses find their forte, and from this experience, her program was born. “After reading about a descendant of Seabiscuit saved from slaughter and then Eight Belles died, I knew I needed to do something for these horses,” Lisa said. “Honestly, at the track, the horses are well taken care of, as they are on the show circuit. I’m not necessarily rescuing horses—ones who have suffered abuse—it’s just when they are no longer racehorses, there is nowhere for them to go, and it’s such a heartbreak,” she explained.

Lisa Thorpe is a former competitor who also ran a training business with husband Joe Thorpe after a successful junior and amateur career. She retired from competition to raise son Jonathon, now grown and married, as well as spearhead Show Circuit Magazine for over a decade. Establishing Silks to Show Ring is the next step in her equestrian evolution. Lisa adopted her first horse, the stallion Pink Hair, from the Del Mar Racetrack when he was sidelined with a sesamoid fracture in September of 2008. After several months of rest and rehabilitation, “Pink” is a total lapdog, and Lisa came out of retirement to begin riding him.

“Just handling and giving them a safe place to be is completely worth my time. Pink is a dream to hack, and the fact that he is happy is the biggest reward. It’s clear that he is proud of himself again. I just want these horses to be happy for the rest of their lives, and I’ve seen that it can happen.” It’s hard to miss the emotion in Lisa’s voice as she recalls re-training the once-successful racehorse. “It takes a lot of patience, kindness and a soft hand, but these talented horses are smart and great prospects. When I was competing, nearly all hunters and jumpers were thoroughbreds—that was when there used to be a non-thoroughbred class!”

Other trainers can attest; Rebecca Atwater, founder of Santa Barbara Stables, has a successful string of thoroughbreds in her hunter/jumper barn. “We did a clinic the other day with Laddie, registered as Easy Charm, and the clinician was completely taken aback when I told him that Laddie was a full thoroughbred,” she says. “He automatically assumed that this big guy was a warmblood. We call him the Seabiscuit of our barn—he’s been such a success with [rider/owner] Marina Da Silva throughout their hunter career together.” Da Silva and Easy Charm are now competing in 3’ 3” and 3’6” divisions at local and ‘A’ shows.

Ultimately, to get this sort of testimony from more trainers and to see thoroughbreds back in the show arena along with the warmbloods are the goals that inspire SST. “In the long term, I would love to have horses find new homes on a weekly basis, establish a fostering program with retraining for 90 days at other barns, and then getting thoroughbreds into the show ring up to the top levels again,” Lisa said. “There’s a high-score hunter/jumper thoroughbred award through San Fernando Horse Show Association at the B level, which is a start,” she noted, “but I would love to see them compete at the ‘AA’ shows.” She further explained in an enthusiastic tone “If I could get division sponsors, I would love to have a thoroughbred hunter class, and help to establish a funnel for these horses to have a second career.”

SST’s second horse, the filly Silver Scrumptious, came from Silver Charm lineage. She was with SST for just four months before she found a new home with a family in Yucca Valley. The adoption fee for the even-tempered mare was just $1,000, with the conditions that Lisa is given regular updates on her progress and she is never raced again. Thorpe ideally would have five horses at a time, but she is doing the best she can with present resources. Currently, SST fosters two horses, so since Silver Scrumptious found a home, Pink—still on his way to a full recovery—and another Silver Charm baby, Silverado Man, are currently kept at Bliss Canyon Investments in Bradbury Estates (previously the stables of late Saudi Prince Ahmed bin Salman’s The Thoroughbred Corporation). Along with Lisa, hunter/jumper trainer Amy Hess of Hess Equine, whose husband is racehorse trainer Bob Hess Jr., Barbara Thompson, Wendi Stone and others have helped to train and care for the horses. “Everyone has contributed so much. Amy is familiar with both worlds, so she really understands the horses,” said Thorpe. “Even my veterinarian has given discounts on treatments.”

“I think we have been able to do this on such low overhead so far because everyone likes to give back. Many of us who rode in the 80’s owe our success, even our careers, to thoroughbred horses. Just taking one on in their string or donating time makes a difference in a thoroughbred’s life and also how they are viewed as show horses. They still have so much to give. Silverado Man, my current project, came right off the track with his head up like a cobra, but in under a week of care he has mellowed and is a wonderful, sweet horse.” With adoption fees ranging from $500 to $5,000, Thorpe estimates, the benefits of adopting OTTB’s are multiple – certainly a reasonable investment in this economy, potentially more cost-effective than importing a warmblood. Plus many of the horses are solid competitors who would relish in a second chance to excel. The time spent training and bringing them down off the track creates a strong bond between horse and owner. And sometimes the alternative for these horses is death by slaughter, so a new lease on life is clearly a benefit.

“I know there are thoroughbreds out there who have already been successful in their second careers, and I would like to give them some recognition,” Lisa says. “So please send me your stories! Just knowing that there are others out there is important for the breed to reclaim its place.”

Lisa is looking for your stories, donations, or willingness to adopt. Contact her at 909-392-0838. Website: www.silkstoshowring.com.