While a crisp breeze swept through the mare barn at Sunset Hill in Woodbine, Md., Friday afternoon, Smash And Grab stood quietly on crossties as owner Sabrina Morris finished tacking for their dressage school, making final preparations for their venture to the Retired Racehorse Project's Thoroughbred Makeover at the Kentucky Horse Park later this month.
The pair strolled through the maple tree-lined driveway to the outdoor arena, ears pricked and back swaying. Morris's reins shortened as they entered the ring, and the lanky 17-plus-hand gelding lifted his back and assumed a supple frame, moving through the three gaits in a business-like fashion.
"This horse really likes work," Morris said as she came to a square halt, dropping her reins and giving the gelding a pat on the neck. "He is exactly my type of ride - light aids, I don't have to tell him something 15 times. I say it to him once and he's got it. He likes doing stuff.
"Part of the reason I wanted to take this horse to the Retired Racehorse Project is not because I want any accolades or awards or anything, but I feel like this horse would be passed over time and time again because he has injuries, because he has a big ankle, because he's run however many times. And that really, really irritates me."
Growing up in Maryland as the daughter of veterinarian Sallie Morris, Sabrina began riding at an early age. An A graduate of Pony Club and successful upper level event rider, Morris worked at Adena Springs before taking a position as assistant trainer for Tim Tullock three years ago, bringing her back to Maryland where she now gallops for Rodney Jenkins at Laurel Park. Morris is known for her special eye for placing retired Thoroughbreds in new careers, and keeps her barn stocked with OTTBs, including her upper-level event horse Irishreunion and 3-year-old East Coast Reserve Champion FEH filly Slim N Trim.
Morris acquired the 6-year-old Sharp Humor gelding Smash And Grab from trainer Damon Dilodovico last October following a three-year racing career comprised of 36 starts and $405,840 in earnings. The stakes winner was elected Laurel Park's leading horse in 2014, with five wins from seven starts and $146,140 in earnings. The gelding made his final start at Laurel Park March 15, 2015.
"His last start he technically broke down," Morris said. "He fractured a (left front) seasmoid right near the wire. He was winning, but the jockey felt it and tried to pull him up but he was like, 'Hello, I'm winning! Excuse me?' They ended up vanning him off anyways, and his personality was just like, 'I'm fine I don't know what everyone's problem is.' "
Smash And Grab underwent surgery shortly after the race and was cleared to return to racing, although his connections were unsure of the decision.
"He had a couple of owners at the time and they all had to sit down and figure out what the next course of action would be, because he was a very good racehorse," Morris said. "He's a really big horse. I call him 17-plus because I refuse to stick him. They decided trying to bring him back to racing was going to do him more harm than good. He's big and full of himself and I saw his antics on the racetrack, he liked to terrorize people. They thought it would be too hard on him."
Following eight months of stall rest from the surgery, he graduated to being turned out until sidelined again by a fractured splint bone in the same leg. That injury earned an additional surgery and more stall rest. Nearly a year since his last start, Feb. 15 marked Smash And Grab's first ride towards the Thoroughbred Makeover.
"Considering it's October, he's a really intelligent horse, so he's come pretty far pretty fast," said Morris. "I always err on the side of going too slow with my horses and this horse would kind of get to a point where he was like, 'Look, lady, I'm done. This is boring, this is annoying, I'm tired of trotting circles and I'm going to do something stupid because I'm bored.'
"He's funny because he's not a hot horse at all, he's not reactive to things, it's kind of like his brain slows down and he overanalyzes how he should handle the situation. He's definitely different and surprises a lot of people. When I first started with him my biggest problem was just continuing moving forward. I would be trotting and he would be like, 'I don't want to do this anymore,' and would walk, and I'm like pony kicking him and everyone's laughing like, 'Now I see why he's not a racehorse.' Guys, he won 12 races actually."
Smash And Grab made his show debut at a schooling jumper show in June, and has competed in four recognized events since, finishing 11th of 20 in his second recognized novice at Morven Park Sept. 30.
"Run two novices and bored to tears in both of them," Morris laughed. "And Morven's novice was no slouch! He's very much a clown; he very much has a 'look at me' personality. Every show we go to I swear to God he's like, 'Oh, are my fans here?' "
The pair will join 301 other rider combinations at the $100,000 Thoroughbred Makeover in a short two weeks, entered in eventing as their primary discipline and dressage as their secondary.
"I would like for everything to go well, and have him rock around the upper levels eventually," Morris said. "Talent wise, I know he can. Scope wise, absolutely. The flat work is amazingly not that difficult. Considering he's so big, he's very self-aware. The jumping is definitely the best part; he is a freak over fences. I'd like to see what he wants to do, but I'm not going to be upset either if he wants to stay at a lower level or do dressage or whatever.
"There's a lot of nice horses that might have a screw in their leg, might have ugly ankles, and it's just annoying to me because so many people think they can't have the injuries. This isn't like Build-A-Pony. It'll kind of be nice for people to see this horse. He's a very nice horse and deserves the recognition."