All the right notes

A failed racehorse with quirky conformation, Jazz left a lot to be desired. But his laid-back personality won me over.
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When I met Jazz he was another racetrack has-been, standing on the precipice of a career change at age 4. I sized up the chestnut gelding, grimly adding up his physical shortcomings: The horse was slab-sided, straight-shouldered and narrow in the chest, with forelegs set close together. And his short neck was set too low on his body and accentuated by oddly sunken withers.

Of course, conformation flaws do not necessarily inhibit racehorses. Plenty of so-so-looking Thoroughbreds have burned up the track and amassed a pile of winnings. But Jazz was not one of them.

Instead, in two years he squeezed one win from 14 starts and never again finished in the money. It’s an abysmal record given his lineage: His sire ran in the Kentucky Derby and won the Belmont Stakes. Jazz’s race career began on hallowed ground---he started out at Churchill Downs---but poor results led him to less prestigious tracks. 

I had been casting about for a new “project” to train when I heard about Jazz late last year. And when I saw him, he was a horse I did not want: a 4-year-old recovering from some neurological illness, with conformation turnoffs, pin-fired legs and scars and scuffs that suggested a rocky past. 

“No thank you,” I thought, studying him. But his personality was appealing; he wasn’t just friendly, he seemed calm and thoughtful---unusual traits in a youngster off the track. Despite his appearance and checkered medical past, I tacked him up. 

I’d never bought a horse without watching him go, and I swore that I would never take a cribber, but after hacking Jazz and popping him over a few jumps, I decided to buy my first cribbing strap. “I’ll pick him up this weekend,” I told his owner. 

After riding so many Thoroughbreds with type-A personalities, Jazz’s laid-back attitude was too good to pass up. 

Five months after I brought Jazz home, he is pretty much the same. Initially I worried that his calm demeanor was due to lingering neurological issues. My veterinarian checked him out, and while we agreed that the gelding was weak and could stand to gain some weight, there was nothing inherently wrong with him. And after a few months of steady work, I’ve determined that Jazz is just a mellow fellow who’d rather graze than tear around with the other Thoroughbreds. 

With plans to fox hunt him this fall, I’ve taken Jazz to a few local competitions and training sessions. In his off time, he carts my kids around and puts up with their childish chaos. 

On a recent weekend I briefly left Jazz on cross ties with my 3-year-old daughter, Brynn, the latter perched on a stool, grooming the horse’s back with a hoof pick. When I returned Brynn was still busy but had been joined by her sister, who was pedaling her bike up and down the barn aisle, blithely ducking beneath Jazz’s cross tie. “Knock that off right now!” I roared from the house porch. Jazz pricked his ears, expressing more interest in me than in the kindergartener whizzing past on the one-speed.

So what are my plans for Jazz? Is he a project or a long-term resident? Will he stay this quiet or will he wake up when he’s fit and out with the hunt field? 

The jury’s still out. But for the time being, I’ll keep riding him and marveling at the oddly conformed but uncomplicated character that he seems to be.

This article first appeared in EQUUS issue #442. 

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