Retired Racehorse Project Showcase: Meet the Riders Part II

Time to meet the other half of our spotlight competitors!

Last week we introduced you to five of our ten featured competitors who will be facing off with some of the nation’s best talent at the Retired Racehorse Project’s Thoroughbred Makeover this year. This week, we are wrapping up the introductions with the rest of our talented crew of riders who are dedicated to showing off the flexibility of the off-track Thoroughbred. Between their heartwarming stories of partnership and their struggles in the short retraining process, you are bound to fall in love with each one as they make this dream a reality!

Nicole Valeri- Barrel Racing, Professional

“Ever since I was young, watching Road to the Horse, I have wanted to participate in trainer challenges- a venue where I could showcase my abilities and put my talents to the test against some of the top trainers in the industry.

With over 15 years in the saddle, Nicole Valeri had the horse bug from an early age despite the fact that her parents were far from horse people. At nine years old, Nicole got her first horse — a rowdy auction pony that taught her hard work and patience. Since then, she has devoted her time and energy into furthering her abilities within the equine industry. She began training professionally in 2012 through her barn in Plum, Pennsylvania — Pinnacle Stables. Her heart lies in barrel racing where she regularly competes with her OTTBs.

Nicole was granted her wish when she was selected to participate in the Ultimate X Showdown trainer’s challenge. Similar to the Thoroughbred Makeover, competitors were given 100 days to retrain an OTTB for barrel racing and a freestyle event — and that is how her love was born. When it was announced that the RRP would be taking entries from the public, Nicole was ecstatic. “I couldn’t wait for the chance to showcase the Thoroughbred in the Western discipline, where they are often overlooked as an underdog.” Nicole competed in the 2015 RRP and won the barrel racing portion. High on her excitement, she made plans to compete again in 2016, but unfortunately she and her horse did not make it. After a year away, she is itching to get back and perform.

Nicole found her 2017 Makeover mount, Sligo Girl, after stumbling across a rather short and uninformative Craigslist ad for a 14.3 filly for $400. A few emails were exchanged and Nicole was left with an ominous threat that the filly would be “leaving on a trailer” the following morning if not purchased. With the help from a friend on the track, Nicole was able to get more information about Sligo and despite the gamble, she sealed the deal. With little idea as to what she would look like or how she would behave, she picked her up the next day. Thankfully, Sligo was not a disappointment. Sligo is a compact little filly with a nice shoulder and hind end. Her legs, however, leave a bit to be desired. She is recovering from a few track formed osselets and stiffness, but with time off and patience during her retraining process, Nicole has high hopes for her new partner.

Nicole and her gorgeous RRP partner, Sligo. Photo credits to Steve Kienzl

Nicole and her gorgeous RRP partner, Sligo. Photo credits to Steve Kienzl

A fun fact about Sligo Girl: she is the half sister to Lacey Tomasiks’ mare Bayside Sassy who won the Extreme Retired Racehorse barrel race in 2013.

Beth Stelzleni- Eventing, Professional

“I have always had the soft spot for the OTTB. I feel like I owe it to these horses to help spotlight how amazing they can be.

Despite being born into a non-horsey family, Beth’s mother jokes that she came out of the womb loving horses. For years she begged for riding lessons and was finally able to start taking them at the young age of seven. As most parents do, Beth is sure that her parents were hoping this was just a phase she would grow out of, but that wasn’t the case. Over the years, Beth has dabbled in hunters and dressage, but found her true love in eventing. Her horse of a lifetime was an OTTB with Seattle Slew blood. Together, they competed to the upper levels of Eventing and Dressage before she sadly lost him in 2010. That horse was what sparked her passion for the OTTB.

Beth has been teaching professionally since 2011 at S-Squared Eventing. She has recently taken some time off for the birth of her daughter and is hoping that this will be her year to start moving her way back up to the upper levels again. It’s not all fun and games, though. On top of training Beth also is a full time Technical Nutrionist with Seminole Feed. Balancing training others, being a new mom, her full time job, and working towards the Makeover isn’t always easy, but she makes it work thanks to her great support team!

The Makeover was never really on her radar until one of her students, Lauren Turner, decided to compete last year with her horse Fairway King. As Beth watched Lauren and King’s journey, she began to fall for the event as well. And now, Beth has some large shoes to fill after Lauren and King were crowned America’s Favorite Thoroughbred! Even though it was one of her students who ultimately led her to the RRP, Beth truly feels that her passion for the Thoroughbred would have taken her down that path eventually. With her riding career built on the back of OTTBs, she wants to do everything she can to showcase their talents.

Beth is eager to showcase her two horses at the RRP her first year, but it will be Gift at Noon that she will be showing in Eventing. Beth found Gift through a friend of hers, Sarah Davis of Sarah Davis Eventing, who has built a business sourcing horses off of the track. It was love at first sight, however Gift sold before Beth could sort out all of the details. Life has a funny way of bringing those that are meant to be together, however, and when Gift’s sale fell through two of Beth’s clients (Christina Dayton Wall and Robert McCain) purchased him for her to take to the Makeover. When shopping for potential eventing mounts, the first thing she is looking for is a good brain. She liked that Gift is short coupled with a great shoulder, a nice hip, and great feet! With his level headed nature and his sturdy build, she hasn’t had a hard time retraining him so far!

Afternoon Gift, one of the best 'gifts' Beth could have received. Photo credit: Bridget Bott

Afternoon Gift, one of the best gifts Beth could have received. Photo credit: Bridget Bott

Gift is a special guy and oddly enough sports a parrot mouth! It doesn’t affect him physically, he has no trouble eating and drinking, and Beth finds it hilarious and adorable. Thanks to the parrot mouth and his quirky personality, he has earned the nickname “Jimmy” at the barn (as in Jimmy Buffet) and “Parrot Head.”

Savannah Ranes- Dressage, Junior

“Raising awareness about OTTBs is something I am really passionate about and definitely something I want to continue doing in my future.

Despite just being 15 years old, California native Savannah Ranes has had quite a bit of equine experience in her life. She grew up in Pony Club which opened many doors for her and she currently has her C2 certification. Working with green horses isn’t new to her, she has competed at Pony Club Championships with a horse she brought along in dressage herself. She is passionate about two things: dressage and OTTBs, so pairing the two just seemed to make sense!

After getting her first Thoroughbred off of the track, Savannah realized how much she loved the breed. From that point she was sold — it was her new goal to do as much as she could to raise awareness for these ex-racehorses and the potential they offer. And she decided that the best way to reach that goal was to enter the RRP and show off her skills and the adaptability of her makeover mount.

Savannah began shopping for her RRP horse when her current horse began displaying signs of lameness that ultimately led to him being restricted to a light riding horse. The search was on! She was looking for a horse that would be sturdy and remain sound during a competitive career. Her previous horse had fantastic movement, but was not very proportionally built which led to his unsoundness. While movement is everything in dressage, she wasn’t ready to take the leap on a great mover with potential issues. Savannah’s mother actually came across Afternoon Ghost (now Bentley) on Craigslist and immediately inquired about him. In just five short days, Bentley was hers. His balanced build was the overall factor in selecting him as her dressage mount!

The handsome Bentley and Savannah. Photo by Christina Ranes

The handsome Bentley and Savannah. Photo by Christina Ranes

Interestingly enough, Bentley retired from the track due to a fracture of his sesamoid bone. After a brief healing period, this handsome hunk is ready to become a dressage star.

Linsdsy Behrend- Hunter, Professional

“When Fergie arrived she looked broken, sad, with a small sparkle of hope in her eyes.

Lindsy grew up on a horse farm in Salado, Texas where she started riding in the hunters and jumpers as a child and later expanded into western pleasure. As a teen, she became very close with her veterinarian, Dr. Teresa Dwyer, who allowed her to spend her extra time at the clinic and became later like a second parent to Lindsy. She began showing on the AQHA circuit in 2015 with Mike Massey as her trainer and by the end of 2016 she had competed all over the state with several out of state Circuit Championships in AQHA, USEF, and USHJA. She competed in her first National Hunter Derby on December 15th while six and a half months pregnant! Even with a baby due in March, she is determined to keep her career going and make it to the Makeover.

The RRP was not something Lindsy had planned for with her full plate, but she started researching how to enter after rescuing an eligible OTTB mare who she named Fergie. She truly didn’t think that Fergie would be well enough to compete because of the condition she arrived in; however the feisty little mare has bounced back from the horrible shape she was once in. It was Christmas Day and as Lindsy removed Fergie’s blanket, she stared at her in amazement. A transformation had taken place and she decided it was time to see what this mare had in her. After 3 days of gymnastic work, Lindsy dropped everything she was doing and enrolled her rescue mare in the RRP.

But how did these two find each other? Lindsy is not new to working with auction rescues; in fact she has rescued and retrained 12 ponies and placed them all in wonderful homes working as children’s hunters. She decided to rescue a full-size horse and see what she was capable of — on October 7th 2016 Saja Bayes (an auction worker) reached out to Lindsy about 6 Thoroughbreds that had just walked off of a trailer. All were three or four years old with tattoos, but no known history. Upon seeing the photos of a sick and starved mare, Lindsy called the vet immediately to get her set up for a pre-purchase exam as she only had 24 hours until the mare shipped to Mexico. Fergie passed her vetting and was immediately placed in quarantine in hopes her sickness would not spread to other horses.

It took 12 days to find a shipper who would haul her from Kansas to Texas. When she arrived, she was 300 pounds underweight and was so weak that she had fallen in the trailer on the way home. The shipper took great care and made extra stops along the way to allow her to rest. Her first month was rough — Lindsy packed her stall with extra bedding to prevent bed sores on her hips, hocks, shoulders, and elbows. After two weeks, her personality started to emerge and she showed her gratitude to have found such a loving new home.

Several weeks later, after having selected the show name of Forget Me Not for the once forgotten mare, Lindsy discovered her true story and name: Fiery Orator. She was able to make contact with Fergie’s original trainers who were heartbroken to hear what had happened to her. It appears as if she was sold to what they were told was a great home and she fell through the cracks. With Fergie’s poor shape and the photos from the auction yard having terrible angles to assess confirmation, Lindsy didn’t have a lot to go on when picking this mare. She just saw a walking skeleton that needed help. Lindsy allowed Fergie to choose which discipline she liked most and she gravitated towards the Hunters. She has a calm and easy going personality and has really loved jumping.

The photo Lindsy was sent of Fergie waiting at the auction pen.

The photo Lindsy was sent of Fergie waiting at the auction pen.

Her rough past aside, Fergie isn’t lacking in the personality department. When eating, she tosses her head up and down like a rockstar at a concert! And she has now taught a few of her neighbors this hilarious head bob and it brings a smile to Lindsy’s face when she is feeding.

Fergie now after an immense amount of love and care!

Fergie now after an immense amount of love and care!

Oliver Keithly- Polo, Amateur

“He just knows who he is, with unbelievable self-confidence. He walks around the barn like it has been his home his whole life.

Everyone learns how to ride somehow: Oliver Keithly decided to go with the motto of “learn as you go.” He was first introduced to horses when he started dating his now wife, Mellissa, who was raised around horses (and is also taking a horse to the RRP this year in dressage). He began riding with Mellissa and later purchased a Belgian mare to ride around the farm. For his birthday, they went to watch a polo match and Oliver was hooked! Mellissa purchased Oliver his first polo lesson 7 years ago and so the obsession began. Mellissa jokes that he began collecting polo ponies from that day forward. In the beginning he opted to “hold on and hope for the best” but as the years have gone by his skills improved enough for him to branch out and try new things, including the Makeover.

Oliver is no stranger to the challenges at the RRP; in fact he is returning this year with a vengeance! He entered last year with his horse Smugglers Hold, but unfortunately they had what he claims was “not their best day of work.” Despite the rough show at the RRP, Smugglers Hold has become a great polo prospect and he is eager to try again this year and show off what he and his new mount are made of.

He began searching for his 2017 Makeover horse in December after being accepted to the RRP. When shopping for a polo prospect, Oliver knew exactly what he was looking for. He is a larger guy and wanted to feel some horse beneath him, but was also seeking a horse with a wider chest who is balanced with a shorter back. Every day he searched online for a horse who would easily transition into the polo field and eventually found Hugh and Me through CANTER in Pennsylvania. It was his race history that drew Oliver to Hugh and Me, now called Fitzy: with 25 races and an average of over $10,000 a start, this 9 year old gelding has lived and seen enough to be settled — exactly what makes a good polo pony! Plus, Fitzy was already off the track and being let down at the owner’s farm, so Oliver could jump right into the retraining process without having to calculate additional downtime in the already small window the candidates have to retrain.

Hugh and Me, now named Fitzy in memorial of a friend and mentor, with Oliver. Photo by Mellissa Keithly

Hugh and Me, now named Fitzy in memorial of a friend and mentor, with Oliver. Photo by Mellissa Keithly

Fitzy has earned respect from the other horses without even trying. He is the king, without resorting to kicking, biting, or pushing the other horses around. He just gives them a look and they know!

We are more than excited to share these 10 amazing horse and trainer combinations and their journey to the Makeover with you each month. Countdown to the RRP: 9 months!

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