The final finish line the Thoroughbreds cross marks the start of a new beginning thanks to Katie Larsen.
Whether they happen to make their way to the winner’s circle, pick up a minor share of the purse, or finish double-digit lengths behind the first-place horse is of no importance to the 34-year-old Larsen.
Finding suitable homes for as many of them as possible, be they millionaires, claimers, stakes winners, rookies or warhorses, is her singular focus.
“I get the same fulfillment every time I rehome a horse,” said Larsen. “It makes me… I don’t really know how to describe the feeling. After 700-plus horses, you might think that feeling would change, but it hasn’t, and I know it never will.”
In June 2017, Larsen founded Southern Belle Thoroughbreds, a matching service that pairs off-track Thoroughbreds (OTTBs) who have competed at Woodbine or Fort Erie with new career and life opportunities.
For the horsewoman with deep ties to equestrian and show jumping worlds, how Southern Belle came to be is still met with a measure of incredulity.
“I shifted gears after I was connected to a an off-the-racetrack horse by the name of Mia Bella Amore,” recalled Larsen, who started her equestrian career at the pony ranks, going on to compete at the Trillium level and ‘A’ circuit in the 1.10-metre jumper division.
“She was my first Thoroughbred and I was just very interested in where she came from. I ended up going to Fort Erie – my first time ever at a racetrack – and got in touch with her old trainer. That sort of opened my eyes, the backstretch and how alive it is, and all of those beautiful horses. I ended up getting my exercise rider license, started galloping and fell in love with it. This wasn’t an intent, to start rehoming racehorses. It started with one horse of a trainer who I was riding for.”
It’s blossomed into something she had never envisioned.
Not long after rehoming that first horse, requests came in faster than a final quarter mile.
“Another horse came up at Fort Erie and then other people started asking me. I was able to do it very easily because of the connections I have. That’s when I thought, ‘This could be something.’ That’s when I started an official Facebook page and began to market the horses. Year one, it grew very, very quickly, not only the followers I had, but I rehomed over 100 horses in my first year doing it. And it just took off very fast. I guess you can say I fell into it. It’s been amazing.”
In 2021, Larsen found homes and new callings for 150 Thoroughbreds, bringing the total to over 600 rehomed horses at the time.
Soon enough, the sheer volume of horses and the time invested put her at a crossroads.
Larsen, who had worked in the financial industry for 10-plus years, recently went all-in on her racing-related career.
A big decision, but in the end, a no-brainer.
“I think I lost my mind a little bit in the process,” she said with a big laugh. “You have to be dedicated and committed in order to facilitate rehoming a horse. And I was from day one up until now, hundreds of horses later. When I sell a horse, I don’t walk away from my phone or my computer. I engage with everybody and I’m very laser focused when I post an ad for a horse and even after.”
Advertisements for each horse don’t have the same volume of information a past performance chart offers, but potential buyers have a wealth of information at their disposal.
After visual inspections of the horses, who are jogged in-hand to ensure soundness, photos of each horse are taken and then is uploaded to Southern Belle’s social media channels, accompanied by a well-researched description.
While her interactions with the horses are relatively limited prior to sale, Larsen’s conversations with those closest to them are quite the opposite.
“I make sure I go to see the horses first, get to know them a little, get a feel as to where they would be best rehomed, and ask a lot of questions,” noted Larsen, who doesn’t purchase the horse, but instead sells them directly to the purchaser. “I talk to the grooms and anyone who has a close association and spend the most time with a horse. I try to get as much detail as I can because every horse truly is an individual. I don’t want to match up a hot horse with someone who is just learning how to ride. It’s all about a perfect fit for horse and human.
“I’ll put in as much description as I can with the ads for each horse. Every horse is different, with their accomplishments, demeanor, and their fit for where they are best suited. The people in the show horse world, the wins or successes, it doesn’t mean that much to them. They want to know what the horse looks like, whether they are sound or if they’ve had any past injuries.”
Once a horse has been adopted, buyers come straight to the backstretch to take them home.
But that doesn’t signal the end of Larsen’s connection to the Thoroughbreds.
Southern Belle’s website has a dedicated page where new owners can share stories of their horses.
“I love the updates. Those are my favourite. I try to post an update every one to two days. I have had people say, ‘This horse has saved my life,’ or, ‘This horse has changed my life.’ Hearing those heartfelt updates really warms my heart. Seeing these horses thrive in their new lives, it just shows what these Thoroughbreds are capable of. They have some potential outside of their racing careers and they have so much more of their lives to live.”
And, as Larsen shared, she still has more work to do. Much more, in fact.
It’s why she reached out to Chelsea Clouter with the offer of coming on-board with Southern Belle.
Also an exercise rider, Clouter’s contributions, through her connections with Woodbine horsepeople, has meant more eyes on the organization’s raison d’etre.
“I want to keep expanding in the Woodbine market,” said Larsen. “When the volume of horses started picking up at Woodbine, I needed someone. We’ve been working together at Woodbine because there are so many horses. I want to rehome horses for some bigger outfits who are getting to know who we are and what we can offer.”
Larsen has also put her own money where her heart is.
She is the proud co-owner of a Thoroughbred who is currently competing at the Toronto oval.
“Her name is Ya Beauty. I bought her as a 5-year-old. You will see Southern Belle Thoroughbreds title alongside her name in the program. I’m involved in racing, so I’m on both sides of it now. I get to enjoy the thrill of racing alongside the safe placement of the horses after their running career has concluded.”
Regardless of how the bay mare, under the tutelage of trainer Nigel Burke, fares in her racing career, the well-traveled British-bred will have a new home after the finish line.
Just like the nearly 800 Thoroughbreds who have new leases on life thanks to Southern Belle Thoroughbreds.
“This breed, they are so athletic, disciplined, and regimented. You find in almost every case that these horses are craving to do something else when they are through racing. And they are good at it. They are truly beautiful.”
And in Larsen’s view, none of them different from the other.
“At the end of the day, the horses are equal in my eyes, and they all deserve the same landing once they finish racing.”
Her mission, in many ways, feels as though it’s only begun.
This winter, Larsen will be working horses in Florida, providing another opportunity to make new connections and share the story of Southern Belle Thoroughbreds.
“There is a huge push in the industry to find homes for retired horses and I want to keep expanding so we can help as many horses and people as possible. That’s what motivates me and pushes me every day. The end of one chapter for the horses opens a new one.”
Chris Lomon, Woodbine Communications / @WoodbineComms