By Francis LaBelle

            He was called “Poorpete” at the races, “Guest of Honor” in the show ring and “TJ” at the barn.

            But no matter what name he answers to these days, one thing is certain: the 13-year-old Thoroughbred now has it made in Virginia.      

            Although he only managed one victory and $13,000 on track, Poorpete has had a busy career off of it. He became a successful show horse, and then was injured and retired to the Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation. Not quite three years ago, he was adopted and now he is back in the show ring, enriching the life of his 17-year-old owner, Hayden Rogers.

            Lately, all they do is win.

            “That’s fair to say,” said Hayden, who has started her senior year at Orange County High School in Virginia. “We’ve been getting a lot of ‘Champions’ and ‘Reserve Champions,’ but what I really want is to focus on equitation and fences and place high with him at the VHSA this fall.”

            The Virginia Horse Show Association (VHSA) Associate Championship Horse Show will be held in Lexington on Nov.14. If all goes according to plan. Poorpete and Hayden will compete in the Children’s Hunter, Thoroughbred Hunter and Junior Equitation divisions.

            He really shouldn’t be addressed as “Poorpete” anymore. Although that was his Jockey Club name–the one that he raced under–his name was changed to “Guest of Honor” when he became a show horse several years ago for Patricia DeCaprio.

            “My own horse died in 2012, and I was looking for another horse,” said DeCaprio, a life-long equestrian and fitness trainer in Glenville, N.Y.  “I showed horses forever and I prefer Thoroughbreds for the show ring. I am committed to them. They are smart, they want to please and they are very athletic.

            “A trainer that I knew saw a horse for sale at Double B Farm in Rexford (N.Y). I went to take a look at him, and at first, I wasn’t too impressed. But he was a very kind horse and I decided to make him my project.”

            The first part of the project was to change Poorpete’s name.

            “No one liked the name ‘Poorpete,’” DeCaprio said. “My trainer had a horse named ‘Top Honors,’ who was a good horse, and we wanted to name this one with the word ‘honor’ in it. So, we came up with ‘Guest of Honor.’ Around the barn, we called Top Honors ‘Tipper’ because he once had frostbite on the tips of his ears. Guest of Honor looked a lot like him, so at the barn we started calling him ‘TJ,’ short for ‘Tipper Jr.’”

            Guest of Honor began competing in green, lower division shows. He wasn’t exactly a hit at first In spite of his new names and a new career, he couldn’t forget that he was a racehorse.

            “That first year wasn’t a very good one,” DeCaprio said. “We took him to the Ocala (Florida) Horse Show and the ring was on the grounds of an old racetrack. He got very worked up. You want your hunters to be very mellow. He was distracted. We had to walk across the old racetrack to get to the show ring, and it took two people to get him there. He thought he was going to race.”

            Gradually, Guest of Honor got the idea and began to perform well in his new discipline. He traveled to different shows, including one that would change his life.

            “We started to notice that something was not quite right with his right-hind leg, but it would come and go,” DeCaprio said. “We would rest him for a few days, and he would be fine. Then it would come back again. We had a lot of people look at him, but no one knew what the problem was.

            “We took him to a show in Vermont and he was quite off. So, we sent him to Rood & Riddle (Equine Hospital) in Saratoga. It only took 45 minutes for them to come up with what turned out to be the correct diagnosis: he had a tear in the proximal suspensory ligament. That’s not good. It looked like he would never jump again.”

            Because the horse needed several weeks of stall rest before he could even be hand-walked, Guest of Honor was sent to a farm in Ballston Spa, just south of Saratoga Springs. The farm’s owner, Dr. Stowe Burke, is a fourth-generation horseman whose grandfather, Bobby Burke, was inducted into the Show Jumping Hall of Fame in 2001.

            “I felt so good leaving him there because he was in good hands,” DeCaprio said. “It is a beautiful place, and he had a great stall. He was there for nine months, and Stowe even started riding him out on the trails. Gradually, it started to seem that TJ would be okay for flat work and maybe would even be able to jump again. Stowe thought he needed to find him a home, because he had done all he could for TJ, and there was no sense in leaving him there.”

            DeCaprio decided to send her horse to the Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation. The TRF had adoption, sponsorship and fostering programs, but best of all, it was a sanctuary organization. If he was ever adopted, Guest of Honor would always be able to come back to the TRF if his situation didn’t work out.

            Guest of Honor was retired to the TRF on September 1, 2017, at its 200-acre farm in Montpelier, Va., on 200 acres once owned by James Madison, the fourth President of the United States. Not only did the location suit Guest of Honor but so did its history. Through the years, many TRF Montpelier horses were adopted out as event horses, hunters, companion horses and pets. 

            It turned out to be the right place at the right time for Guest of Honor and Hayden Rogers.

            “I had been asking for a horse for a few years,” Hayden said. “My older sister, Autumn, worked at Montpelier and she knew that our Mom was looking for a horse for me. Mom saw Poorpete on a trailer, took one look and said, ‘That’s the one.’

            “Becca Pitzmouht, who happened to be one of my coaches, worked at Montpelier and had ridden him. She thought he would be a good horse for me. I respected her and trusted her judgment. So, we adopted him.”

            The adoption was completed on October 20, 2018. Although Hayden had been around horses for most of her young life, she and Poorpete had to take time to discover one another.

            Learning was gradual. As they worked together on patterns and circles, maintaining their focus on the task at hand and blocking out all other distractions, Poorpete and Hayden bonded.  

            “It took some time,” Pitzmouht recalled. “Hayden had only ridden lazy ponies before, but Poorpete was a racehorse who had a successful career as a show horse. He taught Hayden the ropes. He taught her how to ride, and they are doing so well together. It’s a dream adoption and a dream horse for a kid. This is one of those times in life where everything worked out. “

            For Hayden, her own horse has justified her initial impression.       

            “My first thought when I saw him was that he had a really kind face and a kind eye,” Hayden said. “He was also my favorite color, dark bay. He is still very kind. He is always in your pocket, wanting to sniff around and he wants to be close. But he is also pretty interesting. Sometimes, he is all chilled out and acts like he’s half-asleep. Other times, he’s alert, making faces and even picking fights out in the field. He’s very curious, and he loves knocking things over.

            “I had him at my house for a time, but we don’t have a schooling ring. This summer I started boarding him at a farm that has a ring and even trails in the woods. We’re paying more attention to his feeding. He’s happy and our showing has really improved.”

            He also seems to love his barn name.

            “I just call him “Pete,”” Hayden said.