Blazing Through Barriers: The journey is just beginning

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Evidence of the love and enthusiasm for off-the-track Thoroughbreds was easy to see during the last week of October in Central Kentucky. In Lexington, hundreds of such OTTBs, their owners and admirers gathered to celebrate the second careers of former racehorses at the Retired Racehorse Project’s Thoroughbred Makeover.

The group included Nicolette Merle-Smith and Blazing Beryl, a Family Calling mare who made her first start in May 2014 at Great Meadow before going on to be a steeplechaser with Doug Fout. After failing to hit her stride, Blazing Beryl was adopted out by Fout and her owner and breeder, Margaret White. A good friend of Merle-Smith’s adopted the mare, but when her friend had to give up her plans to retrain Blazing Beryl for the Thoroughbred Makeover due to a career change, she landed in Merle-Smith’s care.

Though it was Merle-Smith’s first time entering the Thoroughbred Makeover, it was not her first time retraining an ex-racehorse. To say she is quite experienced with project horses is a bit of an understatement, but the road to the Thoroughbred Makeover was still filled with ups and downs. At times, quite literally.

While making the 400-mile journey from Virginia to Lexington, Merle-Smith encountered problems with an axle on her trailer, and after being forced to pull over on the Interstate at night, received help from friendly truck drivers and was able to complete the trip.

Merle-Smith and Blazing Beryl, affectionately nicknamed “Emmie,” were ready to compete as the Thoroughbred Makeover began Oct. 27 at the Kentucky Horse Park.

For all of the horse and rider pairs, this was their opportunity to display what they had been working on for months. Of the ten disciplines offered at the competition, Merle-Smith entered Emmie into eventing and show jumping.

Their first class at the 2016 Thoroughbred Makeover was dressage, which presented itself as a bit of a challenge. Emmie’s proven to be an excellent jumper, with tons of scope, but getting her to relax on the flat and correctly use all of her 16.3-hand frame has not come as easily. Though Emmie walked to and from the dressage ring calmly, she was very excited in the show ring.

“Something had her keyed up,” Merle-Smith said. “I just couldn’t really get her to relax, but she did pick up her left lead canter flawlessly, and I couldn’t be happier about that.”

Merle-Smith and Emmie went on to excel in the cross-country and show jumping phases. Merle-Smith described her as a “bold beast” in cross-country, where she had the chance to gallop Emmie, an opportunity the Thoroughbred mare relished. She galloped 520 meters per minute, a pace that would hang well in the upper levels of three-day eventing.

In show jumping, the pair was asked to perform a flat test, then trot a cross rail and a short grid before completing a full 3-foot jumper course. Emmie was more than up to the challenge and performed like a “rock star,” according to Merle-Smith.

Merle-Smith was ecstatic with their overall performance, but it was not enough to earn Emmie the title of America’s Most Wanted Thoroughbred. The competition was steep and this year’s highest honors went to Lauren Turner and Fairway King, a flashy dressage prospect by Leroidesanimaux that wowed everyone in the Makeover finale.

Merle-Smith wasn’t in it for the ribbons, however, and said everything she and the mare accomplished in the past several months was the greatest victory of all.

Back home in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia a few days after the competition, Merle-Smith looked at the ​sleek bay mare, grazing peacefully in her paddock with some of her homebred mares. She can now think back and remember how it wasn’t always that way.

The first week she brought Emmie home and turned her out with a few other mares, she ran around the pasture wildly, to the point where Merle-Smith feared she might hurt herself. She’s a different horse now.

The road to the Thoroughbred Makeover was long, and although they didn’t come home with any grand prizes, it had been more than amazing.

Merle-Smith knows that her journey with this special mare has only just begun. In a few weeks, Emmie will move with Merle-Smith to Ocala for the winter, where they will be based at the family’s newly acquired Silver Trophy Stables. Their work together will continue, as Merle-Smith prepares to make Emmie a USEF/USEA competitor.

“This has been an amazing experience and I cannot wait to see where Emmie goes from here on out,” Merle-Smith said.

Editor’s Note: This is the fifth and final in a multi-part series following the progress of Nicolette Merle-Smith and Blazing Beryl as they prepared for and competed in the Retired Racehorse Project’s Thoroughbred Makeover at the Kentucky Horse Park in Lexington in late October. Check for more updates on the pair’s progress. You can also follow Kaitlin Christopherson on Twitter @kaitlinceqins


Read the other installments in our Flying Changes section, presented by Herringswell Stables.