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Thoroughbred Aftercare at Gulfstream Park

Recently we posted an article about Raina Gunderson and the important work she does finding adoptive homes for retiring thoroughbred horses through the Gulfstream Park Thoroughbred Transition program. This week we are writing about Florida Thoroughbred and Adoptive Care (Fl Trac), another thoroughbred after care program supported by the FHBPA and Gulfstream Park.

Florida Thoroughbred Retirement and Adoptive Care (Fl Trac) was initiated in 2010 as a collaborative effort between the Florida HBPA and Gulfstream Park, to address the need to find suitable homes for thoroughbred horses at Gulfstream Park and/or Calder that had reached the end of their racing careers. The program is designed to transition these racehorses to an optimal post racing life through rehabilitation, retraining, and placement. Over the years FL Trac has successfully rehomed over 500 retired thoroughbreds.

FL Trac is primarily financed by the FHBPA and Gulfstream Park, but also receives grants from various industry organizations. It is currently managed by the Florida Trac Board coordinated through FHBPA office. The president is Adam Lazarus, the manager of Pinnacle Racing Stable. Adam is also on the Board of Directors of the FHBPA. The FHBPA appoints three seats on the Florida Trac Board of Directors. Along with Adam there is owner and horseman Troy Levy and trainer Patrick Bianconne. Gulfstream Park appoints two seats on the Florida Trac board. Currently they are held by Raina Gunderson, and Aidan Butler the COO of 1/ST Racing and President of 1/ST Content.

The FL Trac facility is located on leased land in Martin County, on the property of Box Ranch/Sunlight Saddle Club. There are 30 stalls, as well as several paddocks, 4 pasture boards, and 50 acres of pasture. There are currently 35 horses on the grounds, but there have been over 200 horses under their immediate care at various times. The person entrusted with overseeing this operation is the Head Trainer and Farm Manager Katie Schmit.

Katie possesses formidable equestrian skills accumulated through a lifetime of working with horses and riders in many different disciplines. Katie had her first pony at 9 and from there the die was cast. She attended high school at the Andrews School in Ohio, which has a well-known equine program. Katie then went to St. Andrews College in North Carolina and attended an abroad program in northern Italy where she would walk down a mountain early in the morning to exercise thoroughbreds at Merano Racecourse. After graduating from college, she learned to start yearlings for the track and sales in South Carolina and Virginia before landing back at a hunter and lesson barn in Maryland, where she managed the facility and taught students basic and advanced horsemanship and riding. While there she galloped for Hamilton Smith at Laurel Park and retrained her own NY bred OTTB (Off the track thoroughbred), competing through the levels of eventing and show jumping. After working for a time as a realtor and nurse, she succumbed to the siren call of the racetrack, and for several years was an exercise rider for such top outfits on the Florida/New York circuit as the Michael Matz, Jimmy Bond, and Bill Mott stables. Katie has been working as the farm manager and head trainer for FL Trac since 2017.
Senor Grande – Katie Schmit up Photo Credit: Lisa Madren

Katie evaluates each new horse in her care and designs a program specifically catered to what she believes to be that horses best potential. If a horse is sore or has soundness issues, she will work with the organization’s vets and put the horse on a rehabilitation regimen until the horse is fit enough to retrain.

Once the horse is ready for adoption, Katie relies on her connections and the huge online equestrian community to find a suitable adopter. All adopters undergo an extensive evaluation and screening process as per Thoroughbred Aftercare Alliance (TAA) guidelines. This verifies that the applicant has sufficient skills and accommodations for the horse in question. This type of screening has been vital to the program’s success in matchmaking. Generally, adopters submit a donation for adoption, although the program has been honored to donate some special graduates to other community programs such as police mounted units and therapeutic riding programs.

Unfortunately, not all former racehorses are good candidates for adoption. Issues such as age, temperament, heat sensitivity, or infirmity can render some of our retired horses unfit for riding and retraining. Over the years, the program has accumulated several such horses and accommodated them as best they could. FL Trac works with two farms in Virginia that specialize in maintaining just such horses. The weather is much cooler, and there is abundant pastureland. Here our retired equine athletes can live out their days grazing with the herd in comfort and security. Florida Trac currently has 50 horses residing at these facilities.

Thoroughbreds are one of the most versatile breeds and can readily be retrained to make excellent polo ponies, show horses, hunter/jumpers, mounted police horses and of course regular trail/pleasure horses. Katie excels in plotting the best path for each of the OTTB horses second career. “The most exciting part of what we do is watching these horses learn to just be horses again and seeing their individual personalities come out!,” She said. “They change so much in the first few months and once they can get turned out with other horses and just play, they really let down and become focused on learning a new job. It’s really amazing how mellow some become! Then, when they find their perfect person or family and the trailer pulls away, carrying them to an amazing happily ever after, it’s tears of joy…until we turn around and see all the sweet faces wondering when their day will come! So it’s back to work! There is always another horse retiring and needing a soft landing, so aftercare is something all of us in racing need to take very seriously.”

Involvement with and support for the Florida Trac program is another way that the FHBPA and Gulfstream Park demonstrate their sincere commitment to the health and wellbeing of the thoroughbred horses participating in training and racing in South Florida.