Exploring Aftercare at Equestricon 2018
With many members of its board being avid supporters of racehorse aftercare and with the Thoroughbred Aftercare Alliance (TAA) as an official partner, it’s no surprise that Equestricon — horse racing’s second-annual convention, trade show and fan festival — is so focused on aftercare awareness. After a successful first year in Saratoga, which featured OTTB owner and media icon Soledad O’Brien delivering an “aftercare keynote” address, Equestricon plans to deliver another memorable lineup of speakers and an even bigger aftercare presence in Louisville this October.
For the TAA’s Stacie Clark Rogers, Equestricon is not only a vehicle to enhance racing’s popularity through fan-development and engagement, but it also uniquely provides an open-to-all arena where racing can demonstrate what it’s doing for horses when their days of racing and breeding wind down.
“Equestricon is a modern day way of thinking in racing,” she said. “I think in this day and age the accountability of the stewardship of horses is important to show that we care about our horses. You want to say, ’yes, we take care of the horses after they’re done racing.’ I think this modern day fan wants to know that. I think it’s important to recognize that social expectation is that we are conscious of the stewardship of the horse.”
Like last year, Equestricon will be holding a few different speaker sessions focused on aftercare, highlighted by TRACK Talks. Modeled after the popular TED Talks series, TRACK Talks will feature industry leaders, innovators and storytellers sharing insights, experiences and motivational stories with Equestricon attendees. TRACK Talks covering a range of topics will take place on Monday, October 29, and Tuesday, October 30, at the host site of the convention, the Kentucky International Convention Center.
The aftercare TRACK Talks series, “Leaders In Aftercare: Our Obligation to Racehorses After Their Careers on the Track”, will demonstrate (through the stories of four individual speakers who are scheduled to each deliver 10-15 minute speeches) how off-track Thoroughbreds have positively effected the lives of people who have interacted with them. Announced speakers include Michael Blowen of Old Friends Farm, Joell Dunlap of Square Peg Foundation, and former National Football League player and current retired racehorse owner Jeff Tow-Arnett. Clark Rogers will host the aftercare TRACK Talks series.
“I have two [off-track Thoroughbreds] that have changed my life,” she said. “My first racehorse bought my first house and my second OTTB was a horse that I was privileged to have great experiences with. So I think everybody’s story about their horse is an important one.
“We have people who have been affected in a positive way with being around the OTTB and horses in general. We’ve got people coming from a veteran program, we’ve got Michael Blowen from Old Friends and how that’s changed his life, we have a National Football League player coming and we have Joell from Square Peg whose focus is on kids with autism.”
For Blowen, his focus at Equestricon will be on how aftercare has improved over the years to help racehorses move on to a second career and on the work that still remains to be done.
“I’m going to try and talk about the value of these athletes after their racing and breeding careers are over, whether that’s in a second career with New Vocations or Rerun or it’s just to be simply retired. [Aftercare is] crucial to the long-term health of racing,” Blowen said. “I learned all of this because I worked as a volunteer for a trainer at Suffolk Downs for a couple years in the mornings. We used to call it racing’s dirty secret but it’s not a secret anymore that some of these horses end up in a bad situation and all we need are the tools to keep that from happening. It’s not a difficult problem to solve if people recognize that it is a problem.”
As to why aftercare is an important aspect of racing and should be focused on, Blowen points to how it could help other parts of racing such as ownership, via the demonstration of how horses are cared for after their racing careers.
“I do believe that if racing had a formal retirement plan for all racehorses that we could implement, because there are certainly a lot of groups that could implement it, a lot more people would get into racing,” he said. “I have people who have come to the farm who have never owned racehorses before and they got involved in the sport because they came here first and I think it has economic value and sends the right message to the people who want to get involved in this great sport.”
For anyone wondering how much of an impact can be made by sharing the stories and shaping a narrative around aftercare, look no further than the Thoroughbred Daily News article written just a few weeks after Equestricon 2017. Citing the awareness created around aftercare at last year’s convention, Clark Rogers noticed an uptick in donations to TAA and a noticeable increase in outreach from many who were interested in knowing more about the developing landscape of aftercare in racing.
Blowen also said that Old Friends reaped rewards from the event due to conversations that grew out of Equestricon. The event itself is fan-facing, in that it allows anyone with an interest in racing to attend and absorb information from experts in everything from aftercare to wagering to ownership. But since the convention attracts many of the most influential personalities in each field (aftercare, handicapping, ownership, breeding, etc.), Equestricon ultimately proved to be the largest industry networking opportunity on the calendar.
“The way it was put together at Saratoga was just absolutely superb,” he said. “They attracted people from all ends of the sport and they all came together and you got to meet everybody, you got to talk to them in both a formal and informal setting. I remember having a long conversation with the retired Hall of Fame jockey Ramon Dominguez about his favorite horse Fabulous Strike who’s at the farm. I also had a conversation with [West Point Thoroughbred’s] Terry Finley that led to us getting a John Deer Gator up at our farm in Saratoga. I got to go to a lot of the panels and I was very, very impressed and I think the one in Louisville this year is going to be even better because that was the first time these guys took this wonderful idea and put it into practice so I’m really anticipating a lot of support for it at this year’s Breeders’ Cup.”
In 2017, Equestricon also had more than 20 TAA-accredited organizations take part in various Equestricon activities including a number of booths within the convention’s trade show. For those who liked visiting the aftercare booths last year, they can start planning their next walk through the aftercare booths with many returning in 2018.Trade show access is available for a reduced price of just $10 this year. The trade show at Equestricon will feature more than 100 of racing’s largest and most popular companies, products, services, racetracks and advocacy organizations — See the full list of current exhibitors.
“We have a number of TAA-accredited organizations with tables in one designated area for attendees to learn more about the important work that the organizations do and show off the diversity in aftercare and the versatility of the breed,” said Erin Shea of the TAA. “Some of these TAA-accredited organizations specialize in retraining Thoroughbreds for new careers, some are sanctuaries, and others offer equine-therapy programs. We also have a those TED Talk-style presentation, and a couple of other fun things that will be announced soon.”
In addition to aftercare, other TRACK Talks sessions will feature prominent speakers discussing life on the backstretch, the world of ownership, breeding, training and various other topics. Last year, attendees were required to have a $125 ‘Panel Pass’ to attend speaker sessions. New for 2018, ‘All-Access Two-Day Convention’ passes have been slashed to just $65, making the TRACK Talks and dozens of other speaker sessions even more accessible and affordable.
The TAA organizations who will be participating are already planning on ways to show off the Thoroughbred breed in the hopes that those attending will learn there is more to the horses’ talents than just racing.
“One of the things that we are excited to show off is how much Thoroughbreds can do after their racing careers are finished,” Shea said. “The organizations represented and the stories they can tell are inspiring. I hope racing fans and attendees can learn more about what Thoroughbreds are capable of off the track. Not only are Thoroughbreds true athletes that can excel in any discipline, they’re also sensitive creatures that can make deep connections with humans in equine-therapy settings. Also, I hope attendees are inspired by the work that is currently being done in aftercare and want to see aftercare grow.”
Like many supporters of aftercare, Shea feels that Equestricon may open up more discussion about life after the track for the Thoroughbred and show that aftercare is an integral part of the puzzle to keep the sport thriving.
“Aftercare is an important topic to discuss when talking about the Thoroughbred racing industry,” she said. “Not only is aftercare imperative for the future of Thoroughbred racing in today’s society, but there are so many powerful stories to tell about former racehorses succeeding in new careers. It’s truly amazing what some of these horses are able to accomplish off the track, and that should be celebrated.”
While aftercare is a topic that Clark Rogers is passionate about, she also sees Equestricon helping every part of the sport and can’t wait until everyone comes together the week before the Breeders’ Cup.
“I think it’s important that Equestricon is outside of the box thinking where we should all work together to promote our sport and aftercare and the farms,” she said. “This is a big employer for several countries and we all love it. We all like to be a part of something this big and grand so why not all come together for a couple days and enjoy it?”
More information about Equestricon and its plans for the aftercare portion of the event will be announced soon, so stay tuned. But don’t wait to start planning your trip to Louisville soon for what promises to be the biggest week of the year in Kentucky — especially for fans of the sport and participants at all levels. Tickets are now on sale at equestricon.com, where visitors will also find exclusive specialty rates on hotel rooms starting at just $129.