Breyerfest, a celebration of model horses and their real-life counterparts, rolled into the Kentucky Horse Park in mid-July for its usual annual extravaganza. Each year, Breyer chooses a different theme that largely directs which guest horses are invited, what the special models are, along with a host of other details.
I was thrilled that this year’s theme was “Off to the Races.” Not only did that offer opportunities to see demonstrations by people and horses in the racing industry that I admire, but it also presented chances to learn about facets of racing beyond the Thoroughbred industry.
Several top Arabian racehorses were in attendance, like Empres and Spin Doctor. Based on information presented during their daily demonstration at Breyerfest and during a panel of Arabian racehorse owners and breeders, I learned that many Arabian racehorses go on to top show careers after racing. It was interesting to hear that the Arabian owners on the panel, with 40 to 50 years of involvement, had only bred in the range of 40 to 60 horses during that time, even with Arabian racing being somewhat limited in the U.S. One of the owners and breeders, a veterinarian, said they don’t start racing their horses until age 3 or 4, and will see tendon issues or other problems from time to time but no fatal breakdowns.
Both Spin Doctor and Empres are perfect examples of the versatility of the Arabian breed. Empres was foaled in Poland in 1995, racing there for one year in 1998. He has also lived in the Netherlands, the U.S. and Canada, where he now resides with his owner. In each country of residence, he has had a successful show career and stud career, producing foals that went on to success at shows and on the racetrack. Empres himself has won numerous championship titles in the show ring, in dressage, western, halter, and trail classes, just to name a few.
Spin Doctor successfully raced for three years, and was noted to appear to have the conformation and movement to excel in both racing and dressage in his first year of life. He proved that assessment by owner Cathy Smoke to be correct, as he makes strides in his post-racing life to transition to a dressage career, where he has already won a championship after a short time of training in that discipline. He is now 11 years old, and has been competing as a show horse for four years, with the aim of continuing to progress through the dressage levels.
Other notable attendees were Harley, the renowned track pony, Rosie Napravnik, Blythe Miller, Donna Barton-Brothers, Zenyatta’s first colt Cozmic One, and the top money winner in harness racing history, Standardbred Foiled Again, who had recently won his one hundredth race.
Retired jockeys Rosie Napravnik and Blythe Miller appeared in a panel of Women in Racing, moderated by Donna Barton-Brothers. (Napravnik also appeared in demonstrations with her off the track Thoroughbred, Old Ironsides, and with horses being retrained after their race careers for the Thoroughbred Makeover.)
During the Women in Racing panel, Napravnik spoke about her career from its beginning to her unexpected retirement. She would ride ponies in pony races as a child but unlike most of the kids who participated, she didn’t just pull them out of the pasture and race them; she actually trained them like racehorses and rode like a jockey even then, with her stirrups high. She knew she wanted to be a jockey very early on. It was her burning ambition, and that was reflected in the incredible amount of success she achieved in a very short time, success borne out of hard work and lots of preparation and an intense focus on her goals evident underneath the calm, even serene, demeanor she often presents when aboard a horse. That demeanor, observed when she rode on the track, was one I thought the horses probably picked up on and responded to well.
When she began riding as a jockey, she said trainer Dickie Smalls asked how she wanted to be listed in track programs. They settled on “A.R. Napravnik,” so that if and when she rose through the jockey standings, trainers would see who was among the top jockeys at a track and want that jockey, not having any possibility of bias creeping in because of her gender before she became known.
She never let notions about what women could or couldn’t do hold her back during her career, and when she spoke of resistance she faced, it was not with malice or bitterness. Instead, encountering resistance further fueled her determination to excel.
At one point, she heard a comment about how women working at the track would rather be getting their nails done, and that drove her to never wear makeup at the track so that no one would question what she was there for.
She also said when she encountered trainers who told her they wouldn’t hire female jockeys, she eventually did ride for every one of those trainers and win for them, noting that they couldn’t ignore success.
Donna Barton-Brothers then said that part of what drove Naprvanik’s retirement was a “conflict of interest” rule in racing, made relevant when she married trainer Joe Sharp. The rule says that if two married people are both active in racing, their professional affiliation can only be with one another’s horses. In this case, that meant she would only have been able to ride her husband’s horses in races.
Later, Napravnik rode in a preview of the Thoroughbred Makeover that will take place this fall at the Horse Park, a preview that Cozmic One also participated in. I spoke to his young rider in charge of his progression for the Makeover. She said he hated racing but has taken well to show jumping. I followed him only sporadically, and standing next to him was a bit of a revelation, as I had either not realized or had forgotten he had inherited Zenyatta’s height, standing at 17 hands or a shade taller. He was a little antsy in his stall but once outside of it revealed a calm demeanor and seemed to take everything in stride. He is a nice mover, reminding me of how a lot of foundation work was put into him to get him to even be able to be tractable to be trained for racing. He is in good hands to go on to the next phase of his working life.
It was incredible to see how far the other Thoroughbreds in the Makeover had come already, with just a short time off of the track. They had never been in a rather open setting like the outdoor ring where the presentation occurred, yet they handled it well. One even was ridden around bridleless, though initially his rider was not sure how he would react to that. But after a brief warmup she saw it didn’t faze him and rode him in front of the gathered audience without his bridle.
Seventeen-year-old Brass Hat, Breyerfest’s Celebration Horse this year, was another nice mover as he appeared in the arena each day before attendees, and he appeared to love the attention from people who congregated at his stall to get acquainted.
It was an incredible three days of a celebration of racing and horses that have touched people’s lives because of it.
Harley and Brass Hat
Harley and Jack
“2015 SHN Rally in Raleigh.” Molly A. Benstein. Modern Arabian Horse: Issue 6, 2015.