Quinn Scala led Gill Johnston’s Mr. Hot Stuff to the winner’s circle after he won the biggest steeplechase race of his career in 2017, and she has continued her relationship with the distinguished Thoroughbred as his trainer for the 2019 Thoroughbred Makeover at the Kentucky Horse Park in Lexington Oct. 2-5.
It takes a special horse to make the transition from the flat tracks to steeplechase racing, and it’s certainly a further accomplishment to take up a third career in the show ring or the hunting field.
Among approximately 450 Thoroughbreds transitioning into new competitive careers at the Thoroughbred Makeover are three notable steeplechase competitors: Mr. Hot Stuff, 2015 Eclipse Award winner Dawalan, and Diplomat, also a Grade 1 race winner.
The Thoroughbred Makeover, now in its fifth year in its current format, is a creation of the Retired Racehorse Project, a nonprofit charitable organization that showcases off-track Thoroughbreds who have found new avenues for their talents.
The Thoroughbred Makeover is sponsored by Thoroughbred Charities of America and also includes educational seminars on strategies for helping Thoroughbreds make the transition from the track to new endeavors.
Ten different categories of competition are offered, with horses competing in one or two—Mr. Hot Stuff is entered as a show jumper, Dawalan as a show hunter and dressage competitor, and Diplomat as a show hunter and field hunter. The horses must be in training for their new disciplines.
Champions are selected in each discipline, and then fans vote by text for the overall champion, who is crowned America’s Most Wanted Thoroughbred.
Rules for the competition require that the horses raced or had a workout after mid-2017 and began preparations for their new careers no earlier than last December 1.
Multiple careers for steeplechase horses are by no means a new development. Most were on their second careers when racing over fences, and an informal NSA survey in 2016 found that three-quarters of more than 400 retirees were involved in some other sporting activity, led by hunting.
The remaining 23% were retired to pasture. Steeplechase horses train in the country, and they often retire on the same farms where they were trained.
What is novel about the Thoroughbred Makeover is that three winners at the top level of steeplechase racing are competing in new disciplines at the same venue.
Mr. Hot Stuff’s greatest moment as a racehorse came on Oct. 21, 2017, when he closed relentlessly after the final fence of the Grand National (Gr. 1) at the Far Hills Races in New Jersey and prevailed by a nose to win the $240,000 first-place purse. At age 11, he was the oldest horse in a top-shelf international field.
That big payday lifted him to the National Steeplechase Association’s Lonesome Glory Award as the year’s leading earner. Trained by Jack Fisher, he raced twice in 2018, concluding with a fourth-place finish in the Calvin Houghland Iroquois (Gr. 1) in Nashville before Mrs. Johnston decided to retire her veteran.
Before his jump-racing career, Mr. Hot Stuff had been competitive enough in flat racing to finish third in the 2009 Santa Anita Derby (Gr. 1) and then run in two of the year’s three-year-old classics. He finished 15th in the Kentucky Derby (Gr. 1) and eighth in the Belmont Stakes (Gr. 1) for owner-breeder WinStar Farm.
Acquired by Mrs. Johnston and sent to Fisher in 2011, he turned out to be hot stuff over fences. He won at the top level of competition in 2013 when he traveled to Saratoga Race Course and was victorious in the A. P. Smithwick Memorial (Gr. 1).
He missed the 2014 season to injury, won the 2015 Temple Gwathmey Handicap (Gr. 3), and missed the 2016 season before returning to top form at just the right time for his Grand National victory.
For the latter years of his racing career, his exercise rider was Scala, who also took care of him in Fisher’s barn. She transitioned to his trainer over show fences, and they have been competing and learning together this year.
She will be in the saddle when Mr. Hot Stuff undertakes his third competitive career in Lexington. “I’m very excited for Kentucky and am just hoping to go down there and have fun with him,” she said. “He’s been trying very hard but can still be too excited at times.
“No matter what, he tries his best and usually gets things done when it comes down to competition time, so fingers crossed!” said Scala, who also is a steeplechase jockey and won a race earlier this year.
Like Mr. Hot Stuff, Dawalan won the Grand National. He was imported in mid-2015 by prominent owner Irvin S. Naylor and scored his first U.S. victory in the New Jersey race. Trained by Cyril Murphy, he won the Marion duPont Scott Colonial Cup (Gr. 1) in his next start and was voted the year’s Eclipse Award as North America’s champion steeplechase horse.
He missed two racing seasons to injury and was retired after a comeback try in 2018. He is in the care of trainer Rosie Allen for his new career at the Thoroughbred Makeover.
Sara Katz, a steeplechase jockey like Scala, is the trainer for Diplomat, who secured his top-level victory in 2017 with an upset of Saratoga’s New York Turf Writers Cup Handicap (Gr. 1). He made one further start, a Suffolk Downs flat race in July 2018.
Then owned by Richard and Adam Newman, Diplomat was trained by Kate Dalton and ridden by her husband, Bernie Dalton.
Learn more about the Thoroughbred Makeover and the Retired Racehorse Project at tbmakeover.org.