bySusan Salk| Sep 21, 2017
The little Thoroughbred mare was introverted and disinterested in racing when she washed out early from track life. At a professional crossroads where others may have floundered, the roan-colored horse was given a chance at better things. Snapped up immediately by Sylvia Firestone of top polo training facility La Victoria Polo of Wellington, FL., and Middleburg, VA., the sweet OTTB Swipe Right blossomed as a polo star with only 60 days of training under her girth.
“When it was clear that the mare wasn’t making it on the track, my boss Sylvia looked at her and bought her right away,” says English-born polo trainer Dominic State of La Victoria Polo. “And that little mare went on to amaze me! As introverted as she was, she became the most in-your-pocket horse in a matter of 30 days. She quickly became the one who was the first to whinny at me from her stall in the morning and quickly came out of her shell.”
And once out of her shell, she found her true calling.
“She absolutely shined all summer long like a super machine,” State says proudly. “She turned out to be athletic, and brave, and very light in the mouth—a perfect polo mount I plan to work with [during] the Palm Beach season.”
Swipe Right, whose polo name is Tinder, is among a slew of racehorse-turned-polo pony successes guided along by horsemen who are retraining Thoroughbreds for careers in the international arena of the sport. We chatted with Dominic State about Thoroughbred athleticism, spotting a future high-goal star, and why you can’t beat a good mare on the polo field.
NF Style: Why Thoroughbreds? What makes this breed so good at polo?
Dominic State: They have all the power and speed that’s so important to the sport. In high-goal polo, a horse has to take off like they’re leaving the starting gate at a racetrack. Only, instead of once, they have to do this 15 times in a period. For the speed and strength it takes to do that, you can’t beat a Thoroughbred!
You’re already seeing impressive results…
Sylvia [Firestone] is the brains behind the operation, and before I came along in February 2016 to work as a trainer in her young horse program, she already had five OTTBs playing in the Argentine Open. And we now have another six American Thoroughbreds playing in top-level polo in the United States under top-level players.
How do you spot a potential polo star at Thoroughbred sales?
In terms of conformation, Sylvia and I have a similar eye. First of all, we want mares. I don’t want to say only mares, because if something exceptional comes along, we’ll consider the horse. But we prefer mares to geldings because they have a much stronger work ethic. And we’ve found they’re a lot more competitive at a younger age, so the training time turnaround is much quicker.
As for size, we look for between 14.3 to 15 hands, maybe as tall as 15. 1 or 15.2. This is because players are looking for their pocket rockets—smaller horses who have speed and agility, and who are close enough to the ground so that the mallet can easily hit the ball. Bigger players obviously prefer a bigger, stockier Thoroughbred, but most prefer the smaller package.
Other conformation we look for includes a short back, medium neck, and a small, pretty head with soft eyes. We also look for short pasterns and medium bone in the leg. We don’t want beefcake, but nor do we want spindles.
How much does personality matter in the polo pony?
Personality means a lot! When we go to the 2-year-old sales, we’ll look at every horse in that sale. The horses we put in our books at the Ocala Sale are ones that don’t stall walk, have vices, or display any signs of nervousness. Horses who crib are out. When we find a horse who stands calmly and looks squarely at you, we’re interested.
Sylvia also has some bloodlines she likes. She has an affinity for the Imperialism line and Valid Expectation has thrown a lot of good polo horses, and some of the Storm Cat line have been really good.
Hot-blooded horses are in your own bloodlines as well, aren’t they?
I grew up in England and both of my parents had horses. My mother did hunter/jumper and my dad did polo. I came up through the British polo club, fell in love with polo, and traveled around the world with the sport. But I came from a very modest background, so I learned early how to make my own horse by watching my dad.
He would scan the local classifieds every week, and go looking for Thoroughbreds. They could be backyard horses, riding horses— it didn’t matter as long as they were Thoroughbreds who suited us. Dad would purchase and train them. And I followed in his footsteps.
When I came to the U.S. in 1995, I worked for a lot of high-goal teams and polo professionals, including Pite Merlos of Argentina, before moving on to work for myself in polo as a low-goal professional.
How does it make you feel to give OTTBs a 2nd career?
I love that we’re giving these horses another avenue on which they can compete. In polo, they can be competitive into their early or late teens. Some horses are still in polo in their 20s. It gives me a great feeling to know we’re taking great Thoroughbreds off the track and making them top-level polo ponies and selling them to the best players in the world.
About the Author
Susan Salk has been blogging about OTTBs since 2010. Her blog Off-TrackThoroughbreds.com featured hundreds of stories and attracted thousands of readers. In 2015, the blog was sponsored by the Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation (TRF, inc.), with its stories republished on the charity’s website. Though the website was officially retired, Salk remains dedicated to noble Thoroughbred.
-All photos courtesy of Dominic State.
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