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Life After Racing: Living the Life

Communications Specialist at Racing Victoria, CHRIS KENNER introduces their innovative Off the Track Community program.

Since the importation of pureblood Thoroughbreds from England to Australia in the early 19th century, the use of the breed, while varied, has predominantly been for racing. However, over the decades the Thoroughbred’s versatility, speed and smarts has made it not only a terrific racehorse, but also a breed much sought after for various other vocations.

The majority of Thoroughbreds today can be found in a racing stable before going on to other careers after their time on the track, including the stud farm, the equestrian circuit, and non-competitive pursuits such as trail riding, or as equine therapy horses to assist adults and children in need.

A breed that craves purpose, the question still remains as to what becomes of a Thoroughbred once it has fulfilled its primary purpose on the race track, whether it has been successful for its owners and trainer or not.

As far back as 1898, renowned racing journalist Herbert Buckley (better known as Ribbledon) penned the article ‘What becomes of old racehorses?’ for The Australasian newspaper. While he delved into the longevity of some racehorses, Buckley also explored anecdotes of retired horses transformed into hunters, assisting baker runs, joining the circus, or heading for the breeding barn.

OTT Another Option with Lucy Kolomanski (Image by Michelle Terlato Photography)

More than 120 years on from Buckley’s article, understanding and providing the best opportunities and a genuine purpose for every Thoroughbred following their racing career is still a work in progress.

The challenge starts with understanding the Thoroughbred population dynamic. With thousands of horses leaving the racing industry in Australia each year, the visibility and traceability of a horse’s movements beyond racing is paramount to ensuring their well-being. However, the existing data has traditionally been unreliable. To address this situation, the National Horse Traceability Working Group was formed in 2020 and was tasked with developing recommendations on the feasibility of a National Horse Traceability Register.

While this work is underway, with further details on the Register’s framework and operating model anticipated this year, Racing Victoria (RV) has already taken steps to create greater visibility for off-the-track Thoroughbreds in Victoria. In May 2021, the organisation introduced the Off The Track Community, an online space for OTT owners, riders looking to buy their first retired racehorse, and OTT enthusiasts wanting to engage with like-minded horse lovers.

In what is believed to be a racing world first, RV is paving the way to better understand the movement of retired racehorses across the state through this innovative program. There are thousands of off-the-track Thoroughbreds enjoying second careers in Victoria, and in just eight months of the Off The Track Community being active, RV has already gained greatly improved traceability of many of them.

With 3,900 members registered on the platform, many of whom have 20 or more years riding experience, more than half have ‘claimed’ an off-the-track Thoroughbred. To make a claim, members search for their horse in the online database, and once found, provide RV with branding images and associated details to confirm their ownership. Along with claiming their horse, members can also provide updates on how the horse is progressing in its career after racing. To date, more than 2,000 horses have been claimed, 50 per cent of which are aged 10 or over.

Well-supported by Victorian equestrians, over 2,000 Off The Track Community members have identified as owner-riders: dressage (1,097) followed by showing (1,027) and then eventing (1,005 ) are the most common disciplines.

A very focussed Robert Palm and Honey Steels Gold (Image by Michelle Terlato Photography)

The Community is also popular with those who own less competitive horses, with more than 1,000 members indicating their interest in pleasure and trail riding. However, unlike the 1800s, no horse claimed through the Off The Track Community has yet been identified as enjoying a secondary career in the circus, or as working for a baker!

Through information provided on the platform, details for nearly 100 horses have been corrected on racing’s National Register, and 145 horses that previously had no specified owner or address at the point of retirement have now been located – small steps to further improve the visibility of Thoroughbreds in Victoria.

In addition to being able to claim their horse, Off The Track Community members can also register as a Full Circle emergency contact, offering an important safety net for retired Victorian racehorses found in a poor welfare situation. The Full Circle program enables interested members to nominate as a contact for any registered Thoroughbred in the Off The Track Community. If a situation arises in which the horse is in need of assistance, RV’s Equine Welfare team contact the nominated Full Circle member (and there are now more than 700) to ascertain whether or not they might be able to help. Often this is simply to care for the horse until a new home is found.

The incentive-based platform, while focused on improving RV’s ability to track retired racehorses across the state, is also an important tool to support owners and riders of off-the-track Thoroughbreds through educational offerings, webinars, news, and video updates. These benefits, created following feedback from members, have been gradually added to the platform over the past eight months. The community’s exclusive content has proved to be an important tool for many off-the-track owners who wish to access tips and tricks to improve their care, training and general enjoyment of Thoroughbred ownership.

With many keen equestrian competitors in the Off The Track Community, a function was recently added to provide access to event calendars and entry information. The function will be upgraded this year so members can register for events through the platform – yet another mechanism to help improve the visibility of retired racehorses.

And for owners and trainers looking for ways to transition their horses out of racing, there’s information on RV supported pathways and programs, as well as contact details for the RV Equine Welfare team, who are happy to offer advice on a horse’s best options.

The Off The Track Community platform is also an important resource for Thoroughbred owners to access RV’s statewide network of acknowledged retrainers, who support the retraining and rehoming of horses as they transition into second careers. Additionally, owners can use the platform to register their horse for industry supported initiatives such as the RESET Program.

Wilbur enjoying life off the track at Nikki Cook’s Shory Park property (Image by Michelle Terlato Photography)

As the community grows, so will the features offered. There’s an ever-expanding library of educational tools and owner stories to immerse in, growing engagement functionality, and general support for those wishing to learn more about off-the-track ownership.

While the Off The Track Community will never replace the scope of a national traceability register, the online platform is making great strides towards not only increased understanding of the movement of retired racehorses in Victoria, the potential gaps, and where welfare efforts are best directed, but also to expanding and improving the skills and knowledge of the off-the-track community.

The response to the Off The Track Community platform has been so positive that it now includes members from other Australian states and territories, and even a couple of overseas owners wishing to claim their horses.

To check out the Off The Track Community and claim your Thoroughbred, visit ottcommunity.com.au. If you have any questions about the platform, contact RV’s equine welfare team at offthetrack@racingvictoria.net.au.

Feature Image: Louise Abey with six-year-old mare Mareeza Brown on their Mornington property (Image by Reg Ryan Photography).