Retiring Racehorses: Factors to Consider

Retiring Racehorses: Factors to Consider

The decision of when to retire is generally not an easy one. Here are some considerations for second careers after racing.

handler walking racehorse back to barn after workout (Credit: Bee Silva)

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By Denis Blake for the Quarter Racing Journal

The decision of when to retire is generally not an easy one, whether it’s a person or a racehorse. For people, at least there are some general guidelines – maybe it’s when you hit a certain age, or your nest egg reaches a targeted amount, or perhaps when the children are out on their own (and not coming back). For horses, however, there really are no hard and fast rules. A variety of factors come into play, besides the obvious one of the horse’s age.

“Usually, the horse will tell you when he is ready to retire; you just have to listen,” said Texas-based trainer Kie Mushinski. “If he starts to push around in the gates and won’t look down the track, he is telling you he wants to quit.”

An injury can end a horse’s racing career at any time, and even if a horse is enthusiastic about his job – but starting to slow – then he might be retired before age catches up with him.

“If he isn’t making money, it doesn’t make sense to keep trying and trying,” said Bobby Martinez, who conditioned world champion Oak Tree Special.

Like people, horses might lose a step or two as they get older, so with each passing year, it becomes more of a challenge to compete with younger foes. Plus, the fact that the majority of the races and purse money is for 2- and 3-year-olds only adds to the challenge.

“I love seeing older horses race,” said California trainer Christopher O’Dell, the reigning Blane Schvaneveldt Champion Trainer, “but there seems like there aren’t very many races for older horses anymore.”

Whether older horses retire because of a lack of purses and racing opportunities or whether the lack of such opportunities is due to a shortage of older horses in training is hard to say, but clearly the ability (or inability) of a veteran horse to earn his keep is often the deciding factor on how long he stays at the track. But other factors also come into play, such as the sex of the horse, breeding plans, the owner’s financial goals with the horse and how much the horse might be worth to a buyer in another discipline.

Extended Careers: Racing Older Horses

Martinez, O’Dell and Mushinski have all had past success with older horses, and they agree there’s no secret formula to keeping a horse in the racing game after many others from the same foal crop have left the track.

“There are a few keys to it,” opined O’Dell. “First, you have to have a nice horse. The second thing is you have to have good conformation, and you need to have good owners who will let you be patient and run the horse in the right spots. And a lot of luck, too.”

O’Dell points to Catchmeinyourdreams, an AQHA Supreme Racehorse and three-time racing champion, as a prime example. The Pritzi Dash gelding became a millionaire at age 8 and made a total of 51 starts during his career with 14 victories, including five in Grade 1 company.

Not even O’Dell could have predicted that the Utah-bred, who inauspiciously began his racing career just outside of Salt Lake City with a fifth-place finish at nonpari-mutuel Laurel Brown Racetrack and later broke his maiden in an $800 race at Wyoming Downs, would become a champion and a testament to longevity.

Certainly, though, Catchmeinyourdreams had a license to be a racehorse, as he was bred by all-time leading breeder Dr. Ed Allred out of a daughter of All American Futurity (G1) winner Elans Special. O’Dell is reticent to take much credit for his role while praising owner Kirk Goodfellow for having the patience to allow the trainer to race the gelding somewhat sparingly after he first got him as a 3-year-old.

“Kirk was really good about letting me take my time with him,” said O’Dell. “I kept him at my house during the offseason. I think we only operated on him once, but he was always in my sight because I was afraid something would happen to him. He was under my care from age 3 to 8, and Kirk never pushed much. He was awesome about it. If you get owners like that, it makes it so much easier.

“I don’t think there’s a big secret to it, but if you don’t run them too often, it helps them last longer,” he added.

Martinez used the same strategy with the late Zupers Quick Dash, who at age 7 won three consecutive graded stakes for Coulon Jumonville’s Ponderosa Ranch of P C Inc. and earned $126,000 of his $471,000 career earnings.

“I liked to keep him in the swimming pool and not pound on his legs as much,” said Martinez. “When I got him as a 3-year-old, he had some problems, so we gave him some time off and got him sound. He’s been pretty good since then. I let him tell me when he was ready for his next race. We tried to give him at least 30 days between races; 45 to 50 days was best. We tried to keep it under 60 so we didn’t have to work him.”

Having to work the horse is due to the many pari-mutuel jurisdictions that require an official workout for a horse that has not raced in 60 days. Even an iron horse cannot stay in training year-round. Mushinski said giving a horse some extended time off can also keep him at the track longer.

“We turn them out during the winter, and I don’t mean just in a stall,” he said. “They have a 3- or 4-acre pasture with a few other horses and they are outside for the winter. That helps their mind and helps them last a lot longer when you do that.”

Stakes vs. Claiming Horse

If you happen to own a stakes-caliber horse like Catchmeinyourdreams or Zupers Quick Dash, then you have the luxury of picking your spots because even just hitting the board in a six-figure stakes will pay a lot of bills. But that’s not the case with an older horse running in the claiming ranks.

“If the purses aren’t high enough and the horse isn’t making money, it’s hard for the owners to keep them going,” said O’Dell. “But sometimes if a horse doesn’t show some ability, they cut the cord on it right away and sometimes too soon.”

For Mushinski, the decision about when to retire a horse might be different depending on whether he’s training for a client who is paying a day rate, or a member of his family, such as Mushinki’s wife, Donna, who presumably gets the family discount.

“Donna had a horse a few years ago named Blue Ribbon Dash, and we ran him until he was 10,” Mushinski said. “We had him in an 870-race at Retama and he had the 1 hole, and he never got beat from there. But this day, he ran as hard as he could and he got fourth, so we decided to bring him home and make a pony horse out of him.”

Another of Mushinski’s top horses was Sue Fikes’ homebred Loves Brown Sugar, a 2009 daughter of Prime Talent who had 11 first, six seconds and five thirds in 28 outs and won nearly $145,000.

“We will flush some embryos, but she still wants to run,” he said in 2013, about keeping the mare in training. “She’s sound and solid and wants to play the game, so we’ll keep going.”

As with what O’Dell said about sometimes giving up on a horse too soon, that could have happened with Loves Brown Sugar.

“When we started with her, she didn’t want to play,” Mushinski recalled. “Her first race she bucked from the starting gate to the finish line, and I mean the whole way. The next day at my barn, I couldn’t get anybody to come over; they didn’t want to ride the bucking horse. Then she bucked the jockey off on the backside during the warm-up before another race. She started off so bad. When they broke her, she bucked them off every day for two weeks, but she’s gritty and got determination and that makes a difference in a race.”

The Texas-bred needed five starts before she found the winner’s circle, and then she apparently decided she liked it, as by 2013, she had won six of 14 starts.

Mushinski also said open and honest communication between an owner and trainer is an important part of the decision-making process. Some owners might be happy just to watch their horse run even when the prospects for profit are slim, while others keep a close eye on the bottom line.

Either way, both parties should discuss their goals and talk about retirement options in advance. Martinez said it’s not worth it for him to collect a day rate on a horse who is not getting checks on the track, and in that situation, he’ll advise the owner to move the horse along, either to another outfit at the track or into another discipline.

A Second Career for Racehorses

Former racehorse Patrionic Dash has made a successful second career with steer wrestler Stetson Jorgensen.

With a breed as versatile as the American Quarter Horse,  a second career often awaits racehorses when they leave the track, whether be it from losing a step with age or just not having the speed to earn their keep.

“I sell a lot of horses as barrel horses,” said Mushinski. “When we have one that can’t run or even if they can run some but are not making enough money, we have a place for them. (Barrel racers) want the race-bred horses off the track.

“It works best with ones that are not quite fast enough or have run out their conditions and can’t handle open company,” he added. “Then with the geldings, we have steer ropers looking for them. If they are a good horse, we can find a home for them. Some of them are just good riding horses if they are low-key enough.”

In the case of Catchmeinyourdreams, he did enough in his first career that his owner decided to retire him at home.

“Catchmeinyourdreams was starting to lose a step and he was having problems with his feet, so he was telling us that he had enough, even though he was still sound and in good shape,” remembered O’Dell. “We didn’t want to put him in claiming races so we thought it was the right thing to do to retire him. I have a picture in my office of him with the owner’s daughter riding him under western tack. He’ll spend the rest of his life on Kirk’s ranch. I ask about him all the time, I’m always saying, ‘How’s my horse doing?’ ”

Like your own individual retirement, the decision on when to retire a horse is not the same for everyone. But with communication between the owner and trainer, a review of the horse’s earning potential and an understanding of the options for the horse away from the track, you can feel better about making the right call.