On October 5th at the Kentucky Horse Park in Lexington, Sara Katz’s 10-year-old gelding Diplomat took top honors in the Retired Racehorse Project Thoroughbred Makeover’s field hunter division, sponsored by the MFHA.
“Dippy,” as he’s affectionately known, was one of just under 400 off-the-track Thoroughbreds competing in the popular show and topped the field of 21 competitors in his division. Now in its fifth year, the unique event features three days of competition in 10 different disciplines, with the ex-racehorses all vying for a share of $100,000 in prize money.
No stranger to the victory circle, the Kentucky-bred gelding (sired by Kitten’s Joy, out of Waki Affair) was bred by Kenneth and Sarah Ramsey and earned over $350,000 during his racing career before retiring from the track in July of 2018. A few months later, he was back in work with his new owner Katz, a Maryland-based trainer with a love of foxhunting, steeplechasing, and showing. We caught up with Katz to find out more about Dippy and their experience preparing for and competing in the Makeover.
Covertside: Can you tell me a little bit more about Diplomat’s background?
Sara Katz: Diplomat won multiple grade ones as a hurdler. His biggest accomplishments include The New York Turf Writers Cup and The Carolina Cup. He was bred in Kentucky and then shipped to Ireland for several years before returning back to the U.S. where he continued success.
Covertside: Why did you think Diplomat would make an ideal candidate for this event?
SK: Just about a year ago, I finished fourth on another ex-steeplechaser, Big Feat. About a week later, trainer Kate Dalton (Diplomat’s previous trainer) approached me to congratulate me and discuss my experience at the Makeover. Later that evening, Kate and her husband Bernie Dalton (Diplomat’s jockey) made a suggestion to Adam Newman (Diplomat’s owner when he raced and a huge supporter of ours) that Diplomat should be my next Makeover project. Diplomat is just an overall class horse. Not to mention he is extremely attractive, willing, and kind. I knew a horse that athletic and beautiful should not be passed down!
Covertside: What’s your favorite part about the Thoroughbred Makeover?
SK: I love showcasing Thoroughbreds. There is no horse like the Thoroughbred horse! They are so capable and versatile, which obviously the Makeover does an excellent job of demonstrating. I love showing how trainable and athletic these horses are and I also want to show how lovely steeplechase horses are, as they are often overlooked. Many people want a young flat track horse with little race experience, so winning the division on an older chaser proves that these horses are never finished learning.
Covertside: Have you begun hunting Diplomat? If so, what’s he like in the huntfield?
SK: I hunted him with The Camden Hunt (SC) over the winter and took him out with Orange County Hounds (VA) before the Makeover. Before competing in the Makeover, the rules now require a signed letter from Master of Hounds stating both horse and rider are suited for hunting.
Diplomat is an amazing jumper and very patient to his fences. He does not mind sitting behind, and actually his running style was to sit quite far back, before making a closing run in the end. He is also very kind with other horses, never pins his ears or thinks of kicking.
Covertside: Can you describe what the horses have to do in this division at the Makeover? How did he handle everything? What were the highlights of the weekend for you?
SK: There are a lot of phases in the field hunter division. Day One consisted of two phases. First, an under-saddle class out in the open field. Walk, trot, canter, halt, back (in both directions). We were divided into groups, so it wasn’t too chaotic. I’d say around 12 horses flatting at once. Diplomat was an absolute delight. In fact, he had the highest under-saddle score.
The second phase is the individual test. This was probably the hardest part. It consisted of water, open gallop, gates, trot fences, ditches, and cross-country fences. It was definitely challenging enough for a green horse. Most hunters are used to following over fences, so being out there on their own separated the men from the boys and was also a test of trainer skill. Diplomat was a class act, yet again, and had the highest score.
Day Two is the mock hunt. It is a complete mimic of a real hunt and I think the Makeover did a great job. We jump, we gallop, we have checks, hounds, horns, you name it! Diplomat’s only weakness is what we consider “The Dippy Dance.” He gets excited and jigs when is meant to be walking. That is his only flaw. Not sure if I will ever be able to break him of it as he used to do it after winning his big races as well, he even did it after receiving his blue ribbon at the Makeover! It is more a “look at me, I’m so pretty” dance, than a naughty “I’m going to be bad” dance. That being said, the judges did not penalize much for it and we were able to maintain our lead heading into the finale.
We had one day of rest in between the preliminary rounds and the finale. The finale was just the icing on the cake for us. I have to say, second and third place finishers did not sit far behind us going into the finale, but that was before Dippy decided to make his “closing run.” He put in a near perfect test, besting the second-place finisher by 16 points. Leaving the ring after my last test was so emotional. I reminisced about the all the moments leading up to the Makeover, knowing that no matter where we finished, we came here fully prepared and did our best, and he just happened to be brilliant.
Covertside: What are some of the training aspects that you worked with him on this year to prepare for the competition? What were some of his strengths and weaknesses?
SK: I did a ton of flat work with Dippy. Since he is older and has been running for so long, it takes time for different muscles to develop. I basically had to change his whole way of going. He’s used to running flat over fences. Retraining a horse to canter a round jump is so different. Just like with people, when you start using new muscles, they get sore! So, I had to make this process slow and fair on him physically. I used a lot of gymnastics, ground poles, lunging, and trot fences to help retrain him, all in moderation.
I actually did not take him to a horse show until early August, and he was champion. When we first began training, he could not canter on a lunge line. Now he has an absolutely lovely show-ring canter and perfect lead changes. Aside from the physical aspect, Diplomat has a wonderful mind. He is so smart and absolutely loves to please. He is so willing, not spooky, and just straightforward. So, I definitely had the mental part of it working in my favor.
Covertside: How did you first get involved with horses?
SK: I was on a horse before I could walk! I think horses were always in my blood. My mother is a veterinarian and rode as well. I learned a lot about horse care and riding from her. I was a member of the Elkridge Harford Hunt Pony Club. I hunted, evented, and show jumped, but by age 15, I left Pony Club and became an avid junior show hunter rider. I had a young Thoroughbred I retrained off the track, and he became a very good show horse and took me to medal finals every year.
Mid-way through college I gave up the academic life to work at foxhunting/training/racing barn in Monkton, Maryland, under trainer William Santoro. I learned to break young horses, gallop, and was taught how to deal with difficult horses in any situation. “Billy” has been a great part of my success with Thoroughbred retraining. He dates my childhood neighbor and steeplechase trainer, Alicia Murphy. This amazing duo have given me opportunities in races, along with endless training opportunities. Last year’s Makeover project, Big Feat, was owned by Alicia.
Covertside: What’s your daily life like as a trainer?
SK: While I do have my jockey’s license, racing has been sidelined for me over the past year, due to now having my own training barn and business. This past summer I have actually spent a few months training in Virginia, as well as galloping for race trainer Richard Valentine, so I still get my fix of speed every morning.
A typical day in my shoes…Wake up around 5 or 5:30 to feed my barn, head to Richard’s and gallop a few before heading back to my barn to ride. I am very hands-on with my horses in training. I am a one-man show and do everything on my own. So, there are a lot of long days and a lot of sweat! I have several horses in training, mainly show horses and foxhunters, many of which are for sale.
Covertside: What are the future plans for Diplomat?
SK: Good question. I’m hoping to continue to campaign and hunt him. A horse like this does not come along often, so he will always have a stall in my barn.