Laura Sloan and Forthegreatergood, champions of the 2021 Field Hunter division, sponsored by MFHA and 2021 Thoroughbred Makeover Overall Champions. Photo by Canter Clix

By Josh Walker

Everyone seems to be playing catch up in 2021. This year’s Thoroughbred Makeover and National Symposium was no exception. As the Retired Racehorse Project’s (RRP) premier event, organizers wove two years’ worth of competition into the October 12-17 proceedings at the Kentucky Horse Park in Lexington, after the COVID-19 pandemic cancelled the 2020 event.

Laura Sloan had entered Forthegreatergood in the event’s 2021 Field Hunter division with relatively low expectations but found herself posing for photos clutching not only the blue ribbon, but also the 2021 Thoroughbred Makeover Championship trophy by the end of the event. For Cameron Sadler and Zapper, the observed winners of 2020 Field Hunter division, sponsored in part by the MFHA, the victory fortified her passion for the RRP’s mission and the family of off-the-track-Thoroughbreds at her own farm.

“Going into the Makeover, I was thinking I just didn’t want to embarrass myself,” Sloan, who served as one of the judges in the 2016 Makeover, admitted with a laugh. As she and Donna Verrilli’s flashy 6-year-old gelding (affectionately known as “Dom,” short for Dom Perignon) cruised through round after round in the Field Hunter division, “I was thinking, ‘Ok, so we didn’t embarrass ourselves, now let’s focus on doing well. Ok, wow, as long as we’re doing well, shoot, let’s go for the win!’ He was such a good horse the whole time.”

A member of Moore County Hounds in Southern Pines, North Carolina, Sloan has been training horses, namely Thoroughbreds, for more than 40 years. She has her colors with six different hunts, but the road hasn’t always been smooth. After her significant other retired in 2007, they moved to Berryville, Virginia, where she trained and rode until its owner moved to Montana.

“It was his house, his truck and trailer, and I knew I would have to go buy all that stuff if I wanted to keep doing it,” she remembered. “So, I had this 20-stall training barn and just had to shut it all down. That’s when I said, ‘You know, I’m going to do something else.’”

In 2016, she found her way to Southern Pines, North Carolina, where she worked for Richard Verrilli, who served as joint Master at Millbrook Hunt in New York for 15 years and split his time between the two states. His wife, Donna, owns Forthegreatergood, who ran 22 races in Maryland with his previous trainer, Donna Lockard (who raced Dom herself during his career).

In 2020, Richard died of pancreatic cancer. “He hunted every hunt until he started feeling bad in December,” Sloan explained. Richard and his wife shared a long and mutual love for Thoroughbreds and the RRP. “On the day he died, his wife said to me, ‘Go. Go get a horse.’” She wanted Sloan to continue to re-train Thoroughbreds, just as Richard had loved. After some intense searching, a couple vettings, and a lot of misses, Sloan put the word out on social media. That’s when a friend from Virginia introduced her to Dom. After a successful trial and vetting, Donna helped Sloan bring him home in February this year.

Sloan and Forthegreatergood competing at the 2021 Retired Racehorse Project Championship in Kentucky. Photo by CanterClix

Fresh off the track, he was quiet and willing at first. She showed him every positive experience she could from ring work to clinics, camps, combined tests, and hunter/jumper shows. The only thing he seemed to miss was hunting season, aside from a couple walks with the hounds.

So, with a willing heart but minimal experience, “It was kind of funny during the mock hunt,” Sloan said, referring to one of the phases of the Field Hunter competition. “He thought, ‘Oh, this is just another boring hound walk.’ Then we pick up the trot and he perked up, ‘Oh!’ Then we started cantering and jumping and he said, “‘Oh! You didn’t tell me about this!’ He had no idea what to expect.”

With his ears pricked and chest puffed, Dom and Sloan flowed across the Field Hunter track. They earned the top score in the division, as well as a top-20 finish in the show jumper division. “He’s been such a good horse,” Slone said, looking back on her decades of experience with Thoroughbreds and transitioning them from the track. “So much of it is preparation. He gets in the trailer five days a week to go somewhere. Whether it’s a little dressage lesson or a trail ride, a little jumper show or whatever, he just loves being busy; he loves having something to do.”

For Sloan, knowing Donna and her daughters were at the Kentucky Horse Park to watch Dom win the Thoroughbred Makeover Championship was an emotional moment. “They were so excited they didn’t know what to do with themselves,” she said. “Donna has always been the best; so supportive, and so excited about everything the whole way.”

Cameron Sadler and Zapper competing for the 2020 Retired Racehorse Project Championship. Photo by CanterClix

In contrast to Dom, Zapper had an extra season to hunt before this year’s competition due to last year’s cancellation. Sadler, Master at Moore County Hounds, carried her entries over from last year and rode the 6-year-old bay gelding in the 2020 Eventing and 2020 Field Hunter divisions. They won the Field Hunter division with a score of 89.50, and finished Eventing in 9th place, having earned their best dressage score to date.

“He performed even better than I could have ever expected,” Sadler said. “He is so versatile, he can lead first flight and still put in a very nice dressage test. Because his Makeover was delayed a year due to COVID, he was able to hunt all of last season.”

She bought him from Claire Dague in 2020 after seeing his huge stride and matching personality. Though she says he was a little silly upon arrival, he took to trail rides, hound walking, and local shows like a seasoned pro once he settled into his new groove. “Zapper is an amazing and fearless jumper,” she added. She had bought him as a 2-year-old with 22 starts and just over $8,000 in earnings. “He is bold leading the first flight and we have built a solid trust. I adore him and he is absolutely a treat to have at our farm.”

For Sadler, Zapper is part of a larger family of off-the-track Thoroughbreds and a larger purpose. The RRP’s mission has always called to her and this was her third time competing at their hallmark event. “I love the event and what RRP stands for,” she said. As a board member of the MFHA, one of the sponsors of the event, “I believe that our contribution counts and helps to ensure off-the-track Thoroughbreds have a great second career and life after racing. My husband and I have 10 off-the-track Thoroughbreds on our farm, mostly in training for fox hunting, and I do some showing and eventing during the non-hunting months. I love that we are able to give these horses a new purpose in life.”

Cameron Sadler and Zapper in the field at the 2020 Retired Racehorse Project Championship. Photos provided by Cameron Sadler