Once Forgotten OTTB Named Thoroughbred of the Year

POSTED ON  |  12-10-2020

Sir Gus at Brook Hill Farm
When we think about horses honored with hardware, champions on the racetrack and in the show ring typically come to mind. Horses with astounding athletic performances both on and off the track, tallying wins and racking up prize money.  But Sir Gus, recently honored with The Jockey Club Thoroughbred Incentive Program Thoroughbred of the Year award, wasn't an exceptionally gifted athlete. 

The Florida-bred gelding made his way to the winner's circle six times from 46 starts, mostly in claiming ranks at Thistledown and Mountaineer Casino Racetrack & Resort, accumulating earnings of $35,079. Not terrible, but not outstanding either. From there, he became a low-level jumper, running and charging his way around courses to blue ribbons but never having enough to make it to upper levels.

It wasn't until the son of Tammany came to Brook Hill Farm near Forest, Va., as a rescue case that his averageness paid off.  "I guess because we felt sorry for him. He's got the greatest personality, and I feel like nobody has ever given him a chance," said Brook Hill's executive director Jo Anne Miller, on why she nominated Sir Gus for the Thoroughbred of the Year Award, which honors Thoroughbreds in a noncompetitive career.  

"I thought I have a lot of fancy horses that have done a lot of things, but I just felt like 'Gus,' to me, showed what a Thoroughbred could do."

And what Sir Gus does is try his hardest when asked. He is a pleaser at heart, and although he wasn't always athletic enough or well handled enough at times, he puts his whole heart into what is asked of him. "Gus'' arrived at the Thoroughbred Aftercare Alliance-accredited organization as a neglect case with a 1.5 body condition score. Before coming to the nonprofit, he was retrained after his racetrack career by a young rider who used his speed and eagerness to make him into a jumper. 

"He was one of those Thoroughbreds that was not easy to ride. He would just run and gun, and nobody ever took the time to put some flat work into him," Miller said. "And it wasn't his fault, he was the sweetest guy, but he knew how to run and was fearless and would jump jumps. "(The rider) tried to sell him, and obviously he was not sellable, so they just left him at this farm and nobody fed him and nobody cared. He was skin and bones when I got him."

After being alerted by local law enforcement that the gelding needed help, the team at Brook Hill took Sir Gus in at age 17 in 2012 and began his long physical and mental rehabilitation. They started slow, refeeding him and working with him on the ground in a field before putting a rider on his back. He was then paired with a young girl who was part of Brook Hill's United Neigh program, which pairs horses in rehab with children who are at-risk, disabled, or socially disadvantaged to help the horses heal while teaching the children life skills. Once the student and "Gus" began trusting each other, it was time to start him under saddle.

"What we did to start with 'Gus' is he could walk once around the arena, and we were done for the day because that's all he had to do was walk," Miller said. "Then we started to trot, and you asked him to trot and he'd immediately canter, so we'd circle, and we'd circle one cone and get off and be done for the day. Then two circles and then three circles until there were cones around the arena. So just very gradually installing those pieces that nobody had bothered to teach him."

Next, Sir Gus went through a desensitizing-type of training to be suitable for the organization's therapeutic riding programs. He took to it easily, learning to adjust to sidewalkers moving around him, encounters with toys and bubbles, and being able to walk on a loose rein. Now at age 25, Sir Gus is still happily participating in the therapeutic riding program.  During his years at Brook Hill, the gelding has helped a number of young people grow their relationship with horses, whether its a first-time equine experience through United Neigh or as a local Pony Club member working through the levels. 

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