After months of preparation, 13 polo trainers and their young prospects prepared to set foot in the TCA Covered Arena at the Kentucky Horse Park in Lexington, Kentucky, with hopes of winning the Retired Racehorse Project (RRP) Thoroughbred Makeover Polo Division sponsored by the United States Polo Association. Hosted October 4-7, The Thoroughbred Makeover is a $100,000 competition in which hundreds of trainers acquire a recently retired racehorse and prepare it over a period not to exceed ten months for competition in one or two of 10 riding sports. Formats for competition are designed to test the quality and progress of each horse’s training.

On Thursday, all polo competitors participated in the first round of competition where agility was tested through a series of riding patterns consisting of a figure-eight with lead changes at the canter both directions, two roll-backs, two turns, two tight circles, a check and release and two complete stops and step-backs. The competitors were then asked to perform a three-minute stick and ball session in front of judges USPA President Tony Coppola and USPA Director of Services Carlucho Arellano. Players demonstrated a nearside forehand, an offside forehand, a nearside backshot and an offside backshot. Following Thursday’s competition judge Arellano noted “Courtney Asdourian’s agility was exceptionally good. I was also impressed with Harry Caldwell and Hookedatfirstsite as well as Andrea Groubert’s bay mare Goldhunt and Buck Schott’s Tweeter in Chief.”

Polo competition in the Kentucky Horse Park TCA Arena.
Polo competition in the Kentucky Horse Park TCA Arena.

Once judging concluded on Thursday, the top five scoring horse and rider combinations (Courtney Asdourian, Harry Caldwell, Andrea Groubert, Buck Schott, Frank Stubblefield) advanced to the finale for a two-part performance. Part one consisted of individual agility work and part two involved all five horses plus a sixth volunteer competing in a seven-minute chukker. “The crowd loved the match,” Arellano commented. “It was one of the first times in the two days of competition that the crowd was cheering and getting into the play. The chukker was a great addition for the polo competition, and it was a great test of the horses too. Being able to judge them in a chukker made it easier for the judges to see who stood out.”

After two days of competition, it was decided that Courtney Asdourian’s 2014 mare Tanyas Pride (by Our Celebration out of Grey Beth by Wekiva Springs), now known as Harper, would be crowned the 2018 Polo Division Champion. “I bought her from Laurel Racetrack (Laurel, Maryland) back in September of 2017,” Asdourian shared. “Getting a new Thoroughbred off the track is like getting a new toy on Christmas morning. After two or three rides I knew she was going to be special. The willingness she had and the sensitivity she demonstrated led me to believe she had all the talent to play polo. She is the kind of horse you can ride for hours and never get tired because she never fights you. She is so comfortable and sensitive and you just have to ask and she will try her best to accomplish the task. From my experience success in training young horses comes from time spent in the saddle. There are no short cuts when it comes to training, no quick fixes that can substitute the mileage you put into them.”

Courtney Asdourian's Harper.
Courtney Asdourian’s Harper.

Harper’s road to the Retired Racehorse Project Thoroughbred Makeover had a few bumps along the way, but that did not discourage Asdourian from achieving her goal. “Preparing for the competition I had a few setbacks that made me question whether Harper would be ready to compete. We battled a bacterial infection that caused her to lose two months of summer training combined with a minor injury two weeks before the competition. I decided to bring her back into work and told myself I would take things one day at a time. I was confident that she would let me know whether she was ready to compete or not. After working with a chiropractor, Harper felt better than ever days before going into the competition so I knew she was going to do well. My objective has always been to make well-rounded horses that are geared for polo. I wouldn’t say I was training for the competition but rather training Harper like I do all my other thoroughbreds. Ten months is not a very long time to retrain a horse for polo so I wasn’t going to push her abilities in order to make the ten-month time frame. I went at her pace because ultimately my goal is for my horses to have longevity in their polo careers.”

The Retired Racehorse Project has proved to be a great avenue for many polo trainers and the United States Polo Association would like to encourage participation in the competition. “As a horse lover, it is really inspiring to see how all the different disciplines have uses for Thoroughbreds after their careers are finished in racing,” Arellano said. “Each trainer has different needs. We polo trainers typically like mares, jumpers gravitate towards geldings, and so on. When going to the track to find a horse, there is a Thoroughbred for every discipline. I was honored to be a judge and I was very impressed with the horses that were entered for the discipline. Sadly, we could only choose one winner, but I am fully confident that they are all going to be great polo ponies.”

Courtney Asdourian exiting the ring after her win.
Courtney Asdourian exiting the ring after her win.

Asdourian echoed Arellano’s sentiments about the competition. “Competing at the RRP Thoroughbred Makeover was a bit out of my comfort level as I have never entered a competition like this before. Everyone at the event was very encouraging and enthusiastic about their passions for giving Thoroughbred’s second careers. Overall it was a great experience, one that I encourage everyone to participate in. It is my hope that there will be more polo competitors in the future in order to showcase how Thoroughbreds really excel in the sport.”

Harper will now have two months of rest and relaxation before going to Wellington, Florida, in December. Asdourian looks forward to continuing to work with her towards being a well-rounded polo pony.