Olympic medalist Phillip Dutton isn’t the first professional event rider to develop retired racehorses to the top levels of the sporting world, but he might be one of the few to invest in a Thoroughbred while it was still racing. The perk? When it came time for the horse to retire from the track, Phillip was ready and waiting for the hand off.
That's exactly what he did with one of his latest recruits from the track, Ring Weekend. It was a risk, to be sure — the horse could have gotten hurt while still racing, or could have been a total lemon when it came to transitioning into life as an event horse at such a prestigious rider's stable.
But Phillip not only sees enormous opportunity in a fast Thoroughbred that knows how to gallop its heart out, he also knows exactly what he's looking for. So when he sees it, he bites.
“There is a certain type of Thoroughbred that most event people or sport horse people are looking for, and that’s the more rangy, bigger-boned, loose-moving Thoroughbred horse,” Phillip says. “They are certainly out there, and if there is a way to invest in a horse early on, then you have more of a chance to be able to get control of the horse once he finishes racing.”
Phillip has retrained countless OTTBs (off-track Thoroughbreds), notably partnering with Graham and Anita Motion of Herringswell Stables on retired racehorses that have made it to the international level of eventing, such as Icabad Crane and Sea of Clouds. It takes a keen eye to recognize which horses will excel on and off the track, and Anita has it. If a horse is indicating they’re ready to retire from racing, she considers a few specific features in an eventing prospect.
“First the temperament must be good,” Anita says. “Obviously athletic, and no physical limitations. Usually Phillip and [his wife] Evie will agree to take them for a month, which will give Phillip enough time to see if they have any talent and if he likes them.”
Icabad Crane. Photo by AK Dragoo Photography.
Icabad Crane was a $110,000 two-year-old purchase and won nearly $600,000 in his career on the track, but that was no guarantee that he'd become a star in eventing. To give it a shot, the Motions sent “Icabad” to Phillip in 2013 for evaluation as an eventing prospect. Phillip quickly recognized Icabad’s potential as an eventer and went to work developing the gelding for his second career. The pair went on to win the America’s Most Wanted Thoroughbred contest in 2014, and in their first international outing in 2015, Phillip piloted him to a win in the Plantation Field CCI2*-S. Most recently, Icabad has been campaigned by Phillip’s teenage daughter, Olivia.
The same went for Sea of Clouds, another OTTB that found his way into Phillip's barn. "Socs" was destined for success on the racetrack as a $170,000 yearling purchase, but after two second-to-last place finishes, Anita sent him to Phillip. The pair have steadily climbed the ranks in eventing, recently placing seventh in the 2019 Jersey Fresh International Three-Day Event CCI3*-L.
Faith in a Fast Horse
Given his experience with the breed already, Phillip needed no further proof that Thoroughbreds have the DNA to do the job. So when the opportunity arose for the Duttons to buy into an active racehorse, Ring Weekend, they jumped at the chance.
“I didn’t pick out Ring Weekend so much as a possible event horse when we got involved, it was more that Terry [Finley, West Point Thoroughbreds CEO] made it pretty affordable for us to have a small part in it,” Phillip says.
Nevertheless, the chances of securing a well-bred racehorse for a second career wasn't lost on Phillip. Both Icabad and Socs were expensive yearling and two-year-old purchases. Their quality breeding led owners to believe they would be successful racehorses. When those careers were finished, what was left was still a high-quality bred horse looking for a new job.
Sea of Clouds. Photo by AK Dragoo Photography.
Ring Weekend won a total of $1,571,576 over 33 starts during his career spanning from August 2013 to June 2018. He had been gelded due to his occasional naughty antics, which left no option for life as a stud. When it was time for him to retire from racing, Phillip was waiting in the wings.
“We got to know the horse well, watching him train from time to time,” Phillip says. “When it came time for him to finish racing I certainly put my hand up and said, ‘Let’s see how he takes to having a different career and jumping.’”
Knowing the Whole Story
For Phillip, having insight into Ring Weekend’s complete history and getting the chance to watch the horse train allowed him a longer, more detailed look at what he was working with.
“Ring Weekend is a very correct mover,” Phillip says. “Obviously, for the dressage we are looking for suspension — that time in the air when they trot and canter. Above all that he goes on the bit easily and he rounds [his frame]. He’s a very supple moving horse; he’s not a tight horse. He is very confident about himself. He’s not a meek kind of horse. Within reason, he’ll try whatever you put in front of him.”
Gathering information about Ring Weekend from those who worked closely with him on the track was helpful in launching the process of training for his new career and introduced Phillip to a new way of looking at aftercare and sourcing prospects.
Ring Weekend. Photo by Maggie Kimmitt.
For the Duttons and Motions, the transfer of horses from the racetrack to the professional eventing barn has been mutually beneficial.
“The great thing about getting horses from Graham and Anita is that they have been really well handled and they’ve got good manners and they are not difficult to transition,” Phillip says. “That is something to take into account when you are contemplating getting a horse from the racetrack.”
On the hunt for a Thoroughbred of your own? If investing in a racehorse isn’t in the budget, there are other ways to secure a well-bred Thoroughbred. If analyzing prospects independently isn’t in your toolbox or you simply don’t have the bandwidth for the legwork required, there are plenty of knowledgeable horsemen out there with racing contacts who can help.
“We have people contacting us all the time,” Anita says. “If they are interested in any of our horses, we keep their information on file. Anyone who stresses an interest, we contact them if that horse ever becomes available.”
As for Ring Weekend? Phillip has been methodically bringing him along for eventing and is preparing for his first horse trials this summer.
Feature photo by Maggie Kimmett.