100 Day Thoroughbred Challenge Training Report #1
By Steuart Pittman
Monday, December 10, 2012
The four horses arrived at Dodon Farm Training Center on the weekend and began work on Monday, Dec. 3. All are in at night and turned out during the day. Alluring Punch and Suave Jazz go out with some other geldings but stick together as new horses often do. They are very calm both in turnout and in the barn. Declan's Moon has private turnout in a paddock that connects to his stall, so he can go in and out at will during the day. He is a very confident horse and seems happy with this arrangement. Gunport is turned out with two other mares during the day. She is full of energy and rarely seems truly settled, but has not become particularly attached to the mares in her field.
Day one was filmed and is on the RRTP You Tube Channel. I was in Arizona Tuesday through Thursday, so Michelle Warro, our very competent assistant trainer rode all four on those days and kept me informed. I was back Friday. We normally give the horses both Saturday and Sunday off, and they returned to work today.
This horse is three and ran ten races, the last on September 1. He is owned by Barbara Ryan and is representing Northview Stallion Station where his great sire Two Punch stood until his death last year at the age of 28.
On the first day he longed well and offered no resistance to being saddled and ridden at all three gaits in the indoor arena with Michelle in the saddle. He struck me as a very good mover in all three gaits with a good work ethic and uncomplicated personality. Like all horses trained to race, he showed dullness to the leg aids and a tendency to brace against the bit at first. Michelle rode him both indoors and out during the next few days and reported that he learned to accept the bit by the second day (less bracing against it and a rounder neck with a connection in the bridle) and each day got better about bending laterally. In the sport horse world we expect horses to stay upright in turns and bend their spine in a curve from poll to tail on the track that they travel. In racing the horse stays straight and leans into the turn more like a motorcycle.
I had the pleasure of riding this horse for the first time today. He felt quite ready and willing to learn whatever I had to teach him. We spent a good deal of time working in the walk, giving me an opportunity to do some shoulder fore on the long sides, where we allow the shoulders to travel a little inside the track of the hind legs and use our inside leg to create a bit of inside bend while the horse maintains an even and soft connection in both reins. It's a way to ask for a little something with leg aids while maintaining the round frame and even connection in the bridle that was created in day two. He caught on quickly and I rewarded him each time by letting him go straight again. That little bit of time working to get quality in the walk allowed us to pick up a trot that felt quite balanced and comfortable. There was no rushing, not too much leaning, and very little resistance in the bridle.
I love teaching young horses with no distractions, but it's not always possible. After our harmonious warm-up a certain young horse of European descent entered the arena with Michelle in the saddle and Scarlett at his head. We don't know whether he was born with a lack of generosity and absence of work ethic or if he just spent too much time in a roundpen with his head pulled to one side, failing early on to experience the joy of going forward and straight, but he is a talented five year old with a large bag of tricks. I suggested to Mr. Punch that he not even look at Eric Cartman, but like most young horses he was distracted. He forgot what I had been teaching him and started drifting sideways through my leg aids and dragging me in the direction of Cartman whenever he was close by. Nothing dangerous, but also nothing very constructive.
I decided that the best way to get AP to focus would be to canter on. Forward and straight. It worked. He had to figure out how to get around the turns and keep from falling over. I was really pleased with his canter. Around and around we went. A nice big stride with very little tension in it. Sure we were on the forehand a bit, but that's an issue to deal with in a few weeks. I was happy. We ended with some better trot work and then let him stretch down in his walk. I was smiling. Michelle was not. Mr. Fancy Trot over there was still being led until the arena cleared out and they could get back to kindergarten class.
Commercial break. Next time you are shopping for a horse consider one that is trained to go forward and loves doing so. Thoroughbreds are bred to do that and racetracks are a great place to learn it.
Michelle and I will both have to keep reminding ourselves that Alluring Punch is only three and that there is no hurry. He will do everything we ask of him as long is it feels good to his body. Our job is to show him how to use his body efficiently. We also appreciate the talents of Cartman, but know that the training with him will take longer.
This is the horse who ran 70 races and won $651,000. His last race was at Finger Lakes in August. He is representing the partners at Walnut Green Farm, led by Mark Reid. I spoke on the phone yesterday to Kim Dutrow, whose husband Tony trained the horse, lost him in a claim, and told the new owners he would take him back when he was done racing. Kim sounds like the kind of barn girl who falls in love with all the horses, which I've found is how a lot of people in racing are despite what the press wants us to believe. Anyway, she clearly adores Suave Jazz and considers him part of the Dutrow family. There is something very, very loveable about this horse. Michelle loves him. My wife Erin loves him. And he loves everybody. Michelle reported to me on day two that she would happily take this horse to a show and is convinced that he would do exactly what he was asked.
My first ride on him was today. They say racehorses don't stand to be mounted. He stood like a statue. They say they don't move away from your leg. Suave Jazz does. They say that a horse who has run a lot of races is too set in his ways to learn a new job. Suave Jazz begs to differ.
I expected to feel a lot of stiffness in his back and soreness. I felt a little, but not much. He was so cooperative that I was able to supple him in the walk and the trot with overbending, a little should fore, stretching down. The trot felt good, but like there would be more swing if we could stretch, loosen, and then rebuild his topline. His canter was obedient, but a little rougher than it had looked when I saw Michelle ride him. He was on his forehand, like a racehorse, although not at all out of control. Unlike the younger Alluring Punch, this horse hardly noticed when another entered the arena. He is all focus all the time.
Our job with Suave Jazz will be to stretch and rebuild muscles that have been used for only one purpose for a very long time. If we want him to learn to jump and do it well, we need him to learn to canter with a soft, strong back with more of his weight on his hind legs. A horse with his good conformation, clean legs, and trainability has so much to offer. He owes nothing to anybody and has already earned his retirement, but I have a feeling that this horse has a message for all of us. We will listen and learn.
This is the baby of the bunch. She is the same age as Alluring Punch but only ran one time, placing 11th in a field of 11 at Colonial Downs during the summer. She is representing Sagamore Racing, where Kevin Plank of Under Armour fame is breeding and training horses to compete at the top of the sport. Gunport spent very little time at the track. She was born, raised, and trained on the farm. She has not seen much of the real world but has been handled by true professionals.
The fascinating thing about Gunport is her high level of anxiety when she is led into the indoor arena, or anywhere new, and that she has not really settled while in hand or on the longe line. She never does anything wrong, but she stays on her toes and does everything with a nervous spring in her step...until she has a rider on her back.
On day one we put Michelle in the saddle and only led her around briefly before dismounting and calling it a day. On day two, Michelle had Natalie cut her loose to see what would happen and low and behold they were walking, trotting, and cantering around the ring brave, focused, and elegant within minutes.
Somebody did a very good job starting this filly. For her to take comfort in being ridden when she is so scared that she literally shakes is a testament to good training. Unfortunately Gunport rubbed her face against something in the field and cut her lip where the bit goes. She will be fine in a few days, but she missed a couple days of training and today we put on the Mecklam bridle with the bit detached. It is basically a hackamore with no leverage. Her performance under saddle was magnificent. She carries herself in beautiful balance all the time, is very forward and brave, and a thrill to watch. She has quality and class written all over her, maybe for the hunter ring but who knows yet. She ends her riding sessions much more relaxed than she starts them, so we can expect her to settle gradually as she adapts to life away from Sagamore. The fact that she is brave and not herd bound at all is a good sign for a mare. I can't wait to see her jump. With her it will all be about keeping her settled enough that she is learning and enjoying. I think we can do that.
Declan's Moon won the 2004 Two Year Old Male Eclipse Award and was headed toward the 2005 Kentucky Derby with an undefeated record when he was sidelined for knee surgery. He had been gelded as a youngster because he was said to be difficult, so rather than going to stud, as most male horses of his caliber are, he returned to racing and then later retired at the Pons family's Country Life Farm. He enters the Challenge as the entry of Country Life with the support of his long-time owner Samantha Siegel of Jay Em Ess Racing.
Declan's Moon is a phenomenal mover. His walk, trot, and canter are exactly what sport horse breeders strive to achieve. They claim that modern racehorses do not possess these gaits. They will learn otherwise from Declan's Moon.
I must admit that I was a little concerned about how this horse would take to training. Even as a gelding he had a reputation for being territorial and tough on other horses in turnout. Horses coming right off the track are usually manageable because they are handled so much. Take a champion racehorse with a high opinion of himself and let him run wild for a few years and, well, who knows?
Lucky for me, this horse seems to actually enjoy being ridden. He took to the longe line as though he'd done it all his life. I think he actually likes showing off his trot. He did it when I went and visited him in his big field at Country Life. He went round and round laughing at our inability to get a hand on his halter. He carried me on his back the first day like I fit. He is built to be a riding horse. He is a bit longer in his neck and his back than most Thoroughbreds and that makes him comfortable and elegant. His time off allowed his muscles to relax, and the hills in his beautiful pasture allowed him to stay strong and healthy. His trot on the first day felt good. I decided not to ask for canter. Michelle cantered the next day and reported that it felt great once he was doing it but that he did a little kicking out and resisting the leg aids at first.
When I got back on him Friday he felt like his trot had already grown. There was a lengthening like you normally get from horses after a year or more of really good dressage training if they are good movers. The canter felt great, even though I could feel that there was a limit to how much leg you could get away with. We rode indoors and then went for a hack around the outdoor jump ring and jump field with a buddy. Declan was fascinated by everything but not really scared. I let him stop and stare (it always looks like posing in his case) when he found things that looked interesting. Then he would take a breath and continue on without me even asking. It was a successful first outing.
Today was Monday after two days off and we had set jumps up in the indoor arena where there had been none the previous week. I also had the radio blaring and the lights were on. That was enough to lift his 16.2 hands to about an 18 hand passage with a little half pass into my shoulder. I led him around to sniff the jumps, turned off the radio and got on for our ride. He was a little more up than the previous days, and did a couple of almost attempts to buck, but was able to find his hypnotic trot rhythm that settles him into the focused, consistent ride that I know he will become.
Declan has all the talent in the world for dressage and probably any of the jumping disciplines. But I also sense that there is a bratty pony in there that will emerge at some point in the next 100 days. If he says no, he might just say it with conviction. Or if he finds something more interesting going on than that conversation with the person on his back, he might just check out and tune in to another channel. But part of the thrill of riding and training horses is that they are bigger and stronger than us. We have no choice but to treat them with respect, so we do. Declan will keep me sharp, but if I manage to keep him interested in these new games he will put big smiles on lots of faces and send chills up a whole lot of spines. There is a lot riding on this one.