by Sylvana Smith
It is a long way from Manhattan to Yanceyville, North Carolina, the county seat of a rural area once made great by bright-leaf tobacco, only to see its economy ruined by the Civil War. Yet that is just where Manhattan designer Elizabeth Macdonald found her second calling—helping retired racehorses from Northeastern tracks find their ways into new homes in the South.
Macdonald is executive director of Blue Bloods Thoroughbred Adoption and Placement, the 501(c)(3) organization she founded in 2013. Before that, Macdonald served as North Carolina director for the New Jersey-based ReRun program. Through both of these organizations, Macdonald has placed more than 300 retired racehorses into new careers.
The need is never-ending. The headlines herald the tiny fraction of Thoroughbreds who win Grade I stakes races, where the purse is $75,000 or more. Everybody has heard of American Pharoah, but Triple Crown winners are true statistical outliers. Of the more than 20,000 Thoroughbreds born and bred for the U.S. racing industry each year, most will be also-rans, running in relative obscurity and retired by age six or younger. What will they do for the remaining 20 or 25 years of their lives?
American Pharoah’s future is set. He now stands at Ashford Stud in Kentucky for a breeding fee of $200,000. Top mares become broodmares, raising the next generation of racehorses. But others need intermediaries such as Macdonald to help them adapt to post-racing life and find new homes and jobs.
Despite her lifelong love of horses, working with them was the last thing on Macdonald’s mind as a career when she was younger. Macdonald earned a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree in communication arts and design from Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, and then moved to Manhattan, perhaps one of the least horse-friendly places in the United States.
“As soon as I graduated, I headed to New York City,” she says. That was in the early 1980s. She built a successful career as a designer, working as an art director for Estée Lauder and at CBS Television. She also worked in the music industry, designing album covers, which is where she met her future husband, Holland, who was creative director at CBS Records.
Macdonald collaborated with other designers and ran a design business in Manhattan for 18 years. “My husband and I got married after I’d been there 15 years or so. Then we commuted in and out of Westchester County. I didn’t have horses then, and he didn’t know anything about them because he had always lived in and around the city,” says Macdonald.
As exciting as New York City can be, “it just felt like we were going to be tied to the city forever,” says Macdonald. So they sold their home in Westchester, thinking they would move to Atlanta and work there. However, Macdonald had grown up in North Carolina, still had family there, and the Research Triangle Park area was booming with business opportunities.
The couple bought a Revolutionary War-era home on the National Register of Historic Places near Yanceyville, North Carolina, close to the North Carolina-Virginia state line. With the advent of the Internet, a design business could be run from anywhere, even rural Caswell County.
Now Macdonald was in a perfect place for horses, but with 160 acres of overgrown fields and tumbledown fences to restore, a good show horse or hunt horse was not in the budget.
“So I went online and found out I could adopt a racehorse,” she says. “Nobody wanted them because everybody in the show world at the time had European Warmblood horses, which are purpose-bred for horse show disciplines and tend to have more mellow temperaments.”
Macdonald saw an opportunity. She had grown up with her family’s Thoroughbreds and understood their personalities. She knew how to work with them. Here was a source of quality horses at bargain prices.
Macdonald fell in love with and adopted her horse, Ollie, who raced under the name Colonial Times in his early life. She adopted him from the ReRun Thoroughbred adoption group in New Jersey. Since it is so expensive to board horses in the Northeast, the group had a hard time finding adopters. Macdonald became friends with ReRun’s founder, Laurie Lane, and Lane soon asked if she could take another horse.
“I said, ‘well, okay, I’ll take another one.’ So they sent one down, and within a week that horse was adopted. That opened the floodgates. Then they said, ‘Well, we’re going to send you a few more if that’s okay.’ So at 3:00 in the morning one day, an eighteen-wheeler backs up, and I have eight horses. It was like Christmas.”
Macdonald soon became ReRun’s director for North Carolina, a role she held for eight years, which gave her the experience she needed to start Blue Bloods.
It proved to be the right niche at the right time. For one, Thoroughbreds are gaining new favor for non-racing careers.
“There is a resurgence of sorts in the horse show world; the mighty Thoroughbred is getting a second look,” writes blogger Ann Taylor of Horse Country Chic. “Some of the greatest show hunters of all time came off the track, and that movement is again taking hold.” Taylor recommends turning to Thoroughbred adoption and placement programs to find promising show hunter prospects at bargain prices.
Here’s where the economics can get interesting. One of the horses representing the U.S. at the Rio Olympics was an off-the-track Thoroughbred with modest beginnings. Blackfoot Mystery raced three times, never finishing better than sixth in the sport’s lowest level of racing. His career was over, yet he passed through a Thoroughbred adoption program like Blue Bloods, moved up the levels in eventing and was syndicated as a sport horse for $300,000.
Granted, not every horse that comes off the track is a potential Olympic ride. Every year, thousands of ex-racehorses need new homes. It takes a good product and a good process to meet that need and place these horses responsibly.
Macdonald’s location gives Blue Bloods two key advantages: North Carolina has a strong horse community and does not have pari-mutuel betting, so the state does not have the glut of ex-racehorses found in the Northeast.
Even with those geographic advantages, “we work to make the horses as adoptable as possible,” Macdonald says. “They have to be ready for jobs.” Macdonald has collaborated with the equestrian studies program at nearby Averett University in Danville, Virginia. In a class on retraining former racehorses, students are assigned an adoptable Blue Bloods horse to ride all semester. For three years now, all of the horses used in the program have been quickly adopted — some by their student riders.
“Our horses shattered all misconceptions and stereotypes of the typical off-the-track Thoroughbred, and I fell in love with the breed even more,” said Averett senior Jess Stipic. “This semester truly proved how diverse, athletic, smart, and willing these horses are. Also, this organization and Elizabeth are such good people with big hearts. They truly want the horses to go to good homes that will match the rider and horse. She is so appreciative of any time spent with the horses helping them become more adoptable.”
Stipic’s assigned horse, Winged Delite, was swiftly adopted. “I’m grateful to Blue Bloods for providing me with my very first horse, the broodmare with so much to offer,” said Winged Delite’s new owner, Catherine Carter. “She is a true blessing to me, and I wouldn’t trade her for anything.”
Another Blue Bloods also-ran is Meet in Khartoum. Unlike her famous brother, American Pharoah, Khartoum had only one win in five starts for career earnings of $23,915. She found herself out of a job, retired at only four years old — not ambitious enough to be a racehorse and too slow to be prized for breeding more racehorses.
Thanks to Blue Bloods, Khartoum landed in very good hands. She was adopted by Denny Emerson, a gold medalist at the 1974 Eventing World Championships. Emerson, named by Chronicle of the Horse magazine as “One of the 50 Most Influential Horsemen of the Twentieth Century,” is a vocal proponent of off-the-track Thoroughbreds for second careers as sport horses.
Khartoum is now decompressing from track life and enjoying a thoughtful reeducation at Emerson’s Tamarack Hill Farm in Southern Pines, North Carolina.
For the horses’ original owners, Macdonald provides a valuable service and new channels to create awareness and place their horses. “We evaluate the horses’ abilities and temperaments and seek to pair the right person with the right horse,” Macdonald says. “We want it to be a happy home with a good match.”
The key to Macdonald’s success is arranging the right pairing. Some of the adoptable Thoroughbreds are high-octane athletes best suited for advanced riders to take to the upper levels of horse sports. Some are workmanlike prospects for riders who want to hunt or show at the local levels. Others are retired broodmares ideal for beginner riders, “husband horses,” and therapeutic riding programs.
For a modest adoption fee of $1,000 to $3,000 (based on the horse’s age and abilities), adopters can get a horse that once cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. “The second horse I adopted sold as a two-year-old in training for $250,000,” says Macdonald. One of the retired broodmares adopted in 2016 originally sold for $1 million. For a horse lover, this is thrift store shopping at its best.
Of course, the true value of a sport horse is not about money; it is about partnership. Consider the 27-year-old mare Purer Than Pure, who won $55,000 on the track and spent most of her life raising foals. “She hadn’t been ridden in quite a long time, but once we brought her into the program, we had volunteers riding her, and she was so good and easy and very nurturing,” Macdonald recalls. “That mare went to a little girl with cognitive issues, and she looks after that girl. The mother told me, ‘This mare is absolutely incredible.”
Blue Bloods Thoroughbred Adoption and Placement
Established in 2013, Blue Bloods Thoroughbred Adoption and Placement, Inc. is a 501(c)(3) organization dedicated to providing Thoroughbred racehorses a healthy life and second career after retiring from the track. Services include assessment, rehabilitation, training, and rehoming of horses to approved adopters.
In 2015, Blue Bloods received a TCA grant to help support the mission of retraining and rehoming ex-racehorses. In 2016, the North Carolina Thoroughbred Association presented Macdonald with the Thoroughbred Charities of America (TCA) Award of Merit.
Blue Bloods Thoroughbred Adoption and Placement
2305 NC Hwy 62 North | Blanch, NC 27212
For more information, visit www.bluebloodstb.org.