It is a long journey from tiny Newell to the famed Pimlico Race Course in Baltimore, Md., but rancher Dale Simanton and his horse Rikim are ready to make it worth their while.
Simanton and the 8-year-old gelding will be competing in the America’s Most Wanted Thoroughbred Contest on Friday and Saturday, with a $10,000 prize at stake. The event will pit former Triple Crown competitors and Olympic performers against each other in events such as dressage, foxhunting, show jumping, and steeplechase. The 59-year-old Simanton and Rikim will be right there in the middle of it.
“Actually, I don’t really like to compete, to be honest. I’d rather stay home and ride my horses, and maybe do a bit of day work on ranches. And this competition in Baltimore has about got me tied in knots,” Simanton said. “But then again, if I’m going, I’d like to go out there and win the darn thing. I sure get nervous competing, but it’s not that I’m not competitive. I don’t care what it is, this or the local ranch rodeo in Newell, I want to win.”
The competition/popularity contest between 10 retired thoroughbreds and their riders — the $10,000 prize winner will be selected by an online vote open to the public on www.retiredracehorsetraining.org — will take place in conjunction with the Thoroughbred Makeover: A Marketplace and National Symposium, an annual event sponsored by the Retired Racehorse Project.
The purpose of the symposium is to better inform the general public on the versatility of thoroughbred racehorses and, through the display, demonstrate that once a racehorse doesn’t have to mean always a racehorse.
Simanton — a Montana-born horseman who has at one time or another worked at about every aspect of the horse racing industry — settled in northwest South Dakota and formed a partnership with Dorothy Snowden, resulting in Horse Creek Thoroughbreds, which was the beginning of the Gate to Great program in which retired thoroughbreds are retrained as ranch horses.
Among the purchases was Rikim — “I don’t have any idea where the name comes from or what it means,” Simanton said — who ran 75 races up and down the East Coast in his career, winning 12 times and earning more than $92,000 in the process.
“In 2008, when the bottom fell out of the horse market, I started looking for thoroughbred racing horses that I could train to become good saddle horses,” Simanton said. “We had bought a horse in Kentucky, and when he was ready to go they mentioned another horse they thought I would like … Rikim hadn’t finished his last race 30 minutes when he got on the trailer and headed this way.”
The match has been a good one from the outset, which is no surprise to Simanton, who isn’t shy in expressing his fondness for thoroughbreds.
“My dad always had horses, and as a kid I always wanted a better horse,” Simanton said with a chuckle. “And while most kids give up on horses as they get older, I never did. And if you keep looking for a better horse all of your life, sooner or later you are going to wind up on a thoroughbred.”
Rikim is one of 13 horses in the Horse Creek Thoroughbred stable, and an excellent example of why the Gate to Great training program has quickly established a market for its ranch-trained horses throughout the country.
“They have great athletic ability, and having been raced 40 or 50 times, have probably been ridden 1,000 times,” Simanton said. “My main clientele are middle-aged women that would like to get into riding or get back into it, and they don’t want to get bucked off. They want a horse that is safe, and thoroughbreds, once they get the racetrack out of their mind, are pretty darn dependable.”
As for this weekend’s America’s Most Wanted Thoroughbred Contest, Simanton admits to a little bit of stage fright despite having competed in the event once before. He and Rikim face a highly-formidable challenge as the event will include a number of competitors with world-class credentials.
Olympic gold medalist Phillip Dutton is in the contest with his horse, Icabad Crane, who finished third in the 2008 Preakness, and Olympian Armand Leone and his horse, Discreet Dancer, will also be in the field, which is selected by invitation only. Each horse will be led through its own newly learned paces by its trainer with the winner selected by online vote.
The weekend vote — votes may be cast at www.retiredracehorsetraining.org — is actually a continuation of an earlier voting period which ran from Sept. 25-28. The event will be streamed live at www.bloodhorse.com and votes may be cast at the Retired Race Horse Project website on Sunday from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. MST.
While facing off against more well-known horses, Dale and Rikim have nonetheless caught the attention of a thoroughbred community that doesn’t typically view Newell as a showplace, said Heather Benson of Back Forty Media and Marketing, who first watched Horse Creek Thoroughbreds in the American’s Most Wanted Thoroughbred contest.
“I felt that Dale has a more interesting story than about anyone out there, and so we approached them and they were drawn in immediately and still are,” Benson said. “Dale is one of only three trainers of the original 26 who competed last year that was invited back. That is quite an honor and shows you what good work he does with his program.”
And it shows that tiny Newell might not be quite as far from Pimlico as it appears at first glance.