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Duck 2Gretchen Bickel photoThanks to the Retired Racehorse Project, a Georgia foxhunter now has two superstar off the track Thoroughbreds that are hunting with the Live Oak in Monticello, Fla.

Gretchen Bickel, of Thomasville, Ga., bought a horse sight-unseen off the Internet last fall. Thanks to some savvy marketing on the part of Gate to Great Thoroughbreds, an outfit in Newell, South Dakota, that retrains OTTBs, Gretchen fell in love with Swingin’ Slew. Dale Simanton, Gate-to-Great’s owner and trainer, was also a participant in the Retired Racehorse Project’s Thoroughbred Makeover. Simanton and his marketing agent, Heather Benson of Back Forty Marketing, were posting updates on Slew, and Drake’s Dancer (aka Duck), another OTTB Simanton was training, on Facebook and on RRP’s website.

“I saw Dale [Simanton] on Slew working with cows,” Bickel says. “I thought, ‘God he’s gorgeous,’ I gotta find out about this.”

So Bickel started to correspond with Heather Benson of Back Forty Marketing, which manages marketing and public relations for Dale Simanton’s Gate to Great Thoroughbreds. Simanton has been involved in racing his entire life, but started retraining OTTBs when he needed them for ranch work. Today he trains them for all disciplines, but starts with ranch basics. At Gate to Great, the horses learn to work cows, travel fearlessly over a wide variety of terrain and calmly deal with all the issues a horse encounters on a ranch. Given the diversity of this training, it’s a good bet that Simanton’s horses make pretty good foxhunters.

So Bickel kept asking Benson, “How do I buy this horse?’ It’s definitely the most insane thing I’ve ever done. I didn't know Dale or Heather, or what they were doing with the horses. [Slew] just reminded me of a horse I had when was 19. He wasn’t most beautiful horse, with his ears cocked funny to the side. I said to Dale, ‘I know that you think I’m crazy, but when I send you a check you’re going to realize that I want him.’”

In what can only be termed a twist of fate, Simanton was slated to participate in the Retired Racehorse Project’s Thoroughbred Makeover, held TB cattleDorothy Snowden photoat Pimlico Racetrack near Baltimore in the first weekend of October. Slew, along with several other horses, was to be part of the demonstration Simanton was doing for the event on using OTTBs for ranching. Although Baltimore is a long way from South Georgia, it is, at least, on the same side of the country.

So Bickel vetted Slew. Simanton told her she couldn’t have him until the demonstration in Baltimore was over. Brookledge Horse Transport picked up Slew from Pimlico on Monday morning and drove him as far as a Brunswick, Ga., Tractor Supply parking lot, where Bickel loaded him up and took him home.

“The very next weekend I took him hunting and he has been stellar every single time we’ve gone out. ... He has done everything I’ve asked him to do. Everyone in the hunt has horse envy. The huntsman blew the horn almost right behind his ears, and he didn’t even flinch.”

At that time, Bickel told Simanton she also wanted Duck for her daughter. Duck was the star of Simanton’s OTTB demonstration at the event, and fans of the Retired Racehorse Project had been watching his progress on line.

Just a few months ago, Duck made the trip to Georgia, too. Although it’s too early to tell, Bickel is optimistic with some good schooling that Duck, too, will “slide right into hunting.”

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