Written by: Nicole Kitchener

It’s been a busy year for Mike and Jim Phillips.

Thumbnail for I Like Mike: A Thoroughbred Makeover

Andrew Bailini Photo

Mike, the modestly named off-the-track Thoroughbred and his owner, Jim Phillips, a recently-retired animal health executive and avid equestrian, not only trained for and competed in the Retired Racehorse Project’s Thoroughbred Makeover at the Kentucky Horse Park this fall, but through the process also raised tens of thousands of dollars to ensure other OTTBs land in happy homes once their racing careers are over.

Jim, 58, of Mono, Ontario, is an avowed fan of OTTBs. In fact, most of the horses he has shown over the past 30 years in his chosen disciplines of eventing and show jumping have been Thoroughbreds.

But his new partner Mike is particularly special.

The splashy five-year-old, 16.3-hand chestnut gelding is the namesake of Jim’s close friend, Dr. Michael Colterjohn. Mike was bred by Colterjohn, a well-known Ontario veterinarian and longtime president of the breeding operation at Gardiner Farms and later his own Paradox Farm Inc., and his wife Dr. Moira Gunn. Born March 28, 2013 – a year to the day after Colterjohn died of brain cancer at age 55 – Mike has a most fitting moniker.

In the beginning it seemed Mike could have had an auspicious racing career. He possessed a strong lineage to make it so. His dam, Uproar (by Hail the Ruckus), and leading sire Philanthropist had already produced his full brother Pender Harbour, a $1.9-million earner and 2011 Sovereign Award winner. Mike topped the 2014 Canadian Thoroughbred Horse Society yearling sale with Gunn and her partners Marv Chantler and Hugh Sutherland buying him back for $325,000. He went on to win his debut race as a two-year-old at Woodbine in November 2015, but his next two seasons were largely unremarkable. Mike’s owners knew what to do.

“Because of my relationship with Mike [Colterjohn], and with Moira and the folks that owned him at the time, Marv and Hugh, they gave me the horse on the basis that he wouldn’t race and I wouldn’t sell him.”

July 2017 marked the start of Mike and Jim’s relationship. Right away, Jim considered his new partner a prime candidate for the $100,000 Thoroughbred Makeover in Kentucky in October.

Presented by the Thoroughbred Charities of America, the event – now in its fourth year – showcases the trainability and talent of off-track Thoroughbreds. More than 600 trainers, professional, amateur and juniors were granted the opportunity to compete for more than $100,000 of prize money in 10 disciplines. Entries are judged on the progress of training in the prescribed period of time and how suitable they are for the specific discipline. All horses must have fewer than 10 months of retraining. At the end, fans choose America’s Most Wanted Thoroughbred from among the discipline winners via text voting.

Jim started working Mike in the winter of early 2018. Over the competitive season, they tackled a number of horse trials, starting at entry level and moving up to pre-training. They also did the A-circuit low-level jumpers at Palgrave.

“He is almost ideally suited for riding,” says Jim. “He’s very trainable, very quiet, which is probably one of the reasons he wasn’t a great racehorse – he’s very mellow.”

At the Thoroughbred Makeover itself, October 4 to 7, the pair finished an impressive 18th out of a field of 100 in eventing, receiving one of the best cross-country scores. They also competed in the show jumping division, coming in 29th out of 120 entries.

Preparing for and participating in the Makeover was a “fantastic experience,” says Jim, one of 16 Canadians taking part in this annual event. “One of the most enjoyable things I’ve done. It gives you something to shoot for and the event itself was just great.”

Jim particularly enjoyed meeting the other OTTB enthusiasts who were competing in various disciplines. “There were so many different competitors. We were stabled next to barrel racers or people doing freestyle or dressage. It was a real hodgepodge of people. Normally, you go to a horse show and people are all doing the same thing. Every barn really had its own microcosm of competitors. We would cheer each other on or help each other. It was a great atmosphere. There were some really nice horses there, too. It was a really positive experience.”

Leading up to the Makeover, Jim launched the “I Like Mike” fundraising campaign, with donations going to the LongRun Thoroughbred Adoption Society, an Ontario organization that retrains and rehomes OTTBs. The original goal of $15,000, with Jim pledging to match donations, was reached early on, so he pushed it to $20,000. Equally as significant as the money raised was the publicity generated, as it has brought awareness to the value of retraining racehorses for second careers and highlights the minimal investment required compared to other breeds.

“I just think that, as long as you’re patient with Thoroughbreds, they are as good an athlete as any horse out there and they have a lot of heart as well. When they set their mind on something, they’re triers,” he says. “Another thing I really like about them is, contrary to popular belief, they’re pretty safe to ride, because they seem to be able to stay on their feet and have a lot of self-preservation built into them.”

So, what’s in store for Mike in 2019? Jim wants to upgrade him to training level in eventing and also take on larger challenges in the jumper ring. In other news, Jim says he enjoyed the Makeover experience so much, he currently has an offer on another OTTB to train toward next fall’s event.