Retraining racehorses as jumpers

Posted: July 25, 2014

Until he stole the sneaker, Bold Hawk was as well-mannered as a horse could be, standing for half an hour this week in the tack room at Covert Farm in Nottingham, Chester County.

Maybe biting into a sneaker, there for the taking on a table in the tack room, was a reminder that he'd had a past life. Bold Hawk earned $364,826 in 14 career starts and was considered one of the top turf horses in the country.

The gelding had won a couple of times at Belmont Park, won the Grade III Hawthorne Derby outside Chicago, and finished third in the Grade I Hollywood Derby. He once had come back to run after a three- year layoff.

The 10-year-old horse doesn't know that he got lucky, that retired racehorses can end up in all sorts of circumstances. But he had done right for his owners, and they wanted to do right by him. So he is learning this new life: jumping. If Bold Hawk eventually takes to it as well as he did to the track, he could end up at the Devon Horse Show.

Retraining starts from scratch. Sometimes, his new trainer will put a bar on the ground and wait an hour for a horse to jump over it.

"Generally, you present an obstacle in front of a horse, their first reaction is not to jump over it," said Priscilla Godsoe, who is retraining a dozen racehorses at her Covert Farm.

Racehorses aren't trained to be docile. Bold Hawk also had been in a 2012 van accident that he was lucky to survive. When he got to Covert Farm, kicking and biting was a routine part of his grooming regimen. It was all a front, Godsoe eventually decided.

Bold Hawk has made it to some entry-level jumping events, the most recent in Cochranville, Chester County. He did fine, Godsoe said, although his co-owner, West Chester's Justin Nicholson of Ninety North Racing Stable, noted with a laugh that, for a couple of strides, the horse "thought he was at Belmont again."

Bold Hawk has a buddy from the same racing stable here, too. Candy Feat, a son of locally bred 2007 Kentucky Derby runner-up Hard Spun, had earned $56,273 with one win in five career starts but was retired last year after a couple of setbacks. Candy Feat had been in that same van accident two years ago. In fact, he had landed on Bold Hawk. He broke his maiden five months after the accident. (Two horses died, after the van driver swerved off a road in South Carolina and the van overturned because it had been cut off by a car.)

Candy Feat has taken to his new life so well that he rode around Fair Hill with the Easter Bunny on his back for a couple of hours on Easter Sunday. (With his name, he was the perfect horse for the job, Godsoe had decided; she was the one in the suit.) He also hung out in the tack room at Covert with Bold Hawk this week, each tethered to a wall, while their new trainer and owners talked and photos were taken.

"The day he came here, he was galloping three days before," Nicholson said of Candy Feat. "He was coming back from a bowed tendon and he had made it basically all the way back, was doing half-mile breezes, and we could see it start to inflame again."

Their recent trip to a jump competition together was kind of a comedy act.

"He was in the class [competing], not talking to anyone," Godsoe said of Candy Feat. "Bold Hawk was waiting outside, screaming for him the whole time, knowing he was out there somewhere."

They are learning how to be professional, Godsoe said. She starts out with new racehorses by making the new regimen as boring as possible, to get them to forget their previous life.

"They have a lot of fitness they have to catch up on. Literally, the muscle groups are totally different," Godsoe said.

They go to the ring each day for practice, but practice the act of jumping only a couple of days a week. Godsoe believes horses have only so many jumps in them in a lifetime.

Once he was untethered from the wall in the tack room, Bold Hawk just kind of wandered over to a table in the room and grabbed one of Godsoe's sneakers from it. It took her several minutes to free it, which she kind of enjoyed. Finding their personalities and allowing the horses to keep them is part of her job, Godsoe said.

As with Candy Feat, she said: "Trying to convince him that having a new job, you kind of have to work a little bit - at first, he liked the idea of moseying around, and he loves trail rides. He kind of got fat for a little while, which is a good thing. He didn't really want to get fit again."

She thinks that Candy Feat's full story is yet to be written, that he could have a future in his new sport. He's only 5 years old.

"He's starting to have a little bit of fun with jumping," the trainer said. "They need to be proud of themselves to keep training. What we train them to do is just as hard as being at the track."


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