After the Racetrack: Imperative Dances to a New Beat

August 8th, 2022

When dressage queen Louise Atkins first met Imperative, she was unfamiliar with the stakes-winning gelding.

The two-time winner of the Grade 2 Charles Town Classic had just come off the racetrack in late 2019, as owners Ron Paolucci and John Guarnere decided that their multi-millionaire was ready to move on from his racing career. Though a spot at Old Friends awaited Imperative, his owners knew he would thrive in a second career, sending him instead to the National Thoroughbred Welfare Organization as an ambassador for the breed.

Atkins’ chance meeting with Imperative turned into a love affair between this special horse and his human, a partnership that has turned this graded stakes winner into a dancer who sometimes likes to move to his own beat.

Tenacious on the Track

Sired by Preakness and Travers winner Bernardini out of the stakes-winning mare Call Her, Imperative was bred in Kentucky by Glencrest Farm and Darley. At the 2011 Keeneland September Yearling Sale, Darley bought Imperative outright for $325,000 and put him in training with Eoin Hardy. He broke his maiden in his second start, but never really progressed at age two and three, eventually dropping into the claiming ranks. Kenji Morinaga claimed the gelding at the end of 2013, trying this son of Bernardini in stakes company the following year.

For Morinaga, Imperative finished second in the Grade 2 San Antonio at Santa Anita before upsetting Game On Dude in the Grade 2 Charles Town Classic. The gelding would log another Charles Town Classic three years later, this time for owners Paolucci and Guarnere, who had purchased Imperative from Morinaga at the end of 2016. After 50 starts with 19 wins and in-the-money finishes, the wear and tear of racing ever-younger competition prompted the partners to retire the nine-year-old Imperative.

When Atkins encountered Imperative in 2019, the gelding was part of the NTWO’s retraining program. NTWO was hoping someone would take him to the Retired Racehorse Project’s 2020 Makeover, where off-track Thoroughbreds, also known as OTTBs, compete in several disciplines, including show jumping and dressage. Months after their meeting, the NTWO asked Atkins to take on the task of retraining Imperative for the Makeover, and she agreed.

“I knew it would be a good story if I could ride this famous horse and take him to the Makeover,” this lifelong equestrian says. “The goal was to show people how far these horses can go and how well they can perform.”

Determined to channel the passion that had carried Imperative through his racing career and earned him a loyal and enthusiastic fan base, Atkins brought the gelding to her Cobalt Stables in Pennsylvania to prepare him for his next challenge: the dressage ring. 

Imperative during a dressage test with Louise Atkins (Photo courtesy of Louise Atkins)

And Talented Off of It Too

During her childhood in England, Atkins had eschewed dressage for the more exciting pursuit of show jumping. Her time working as a barn manager for international dressage rider Susan Dutta changed her mind about that equine discipline. She soon traded show jumping for the elegant movements inside the ring. When she started Cobalt Stables near Glenmoore, Pennsylvania, she put her emphasis on dressage training and the rehoming of OTTBs. Her time preparing former racehorses for their second careers gave her the perfect leg-up for working with Imperative.

First, though, she would need to get to know the newly retired gelding. “When we first got him, he was very withdrawn and wasn’t particularly friendly,” Atkins shared. “He would not really interact with you. He would stand at the back of the stall while you were working.” She gave him down time, a chance to be a horse and to get to know the new routines of his post-racetrack life. Soon Imperative was thriving in his new job, eager to learn anything she threw at him. When the COVID-19 pandemic prompted the Retired Racehorse Project to move the 2020 Makeover to 2021, this gave her even more time to work with her new charge.

With her focus on dressage, she started to train Imperative in the discipline, and he took to it immediately. “He loves to work. He is very smart. Once I’ve taught him something, he says ‘I’ve got it. You’ve taught me this and now I need to do this.’” Atkins laughs. That intensity he showed as a stakes winner on the racetrack continues to show in his work in the ring, which can cause a few problems in his new discipline. “We have to be careful with him because he just wants to go. He doesn’t wait for his cues. He has a lot of energy.”

Imperative’s fire and familiarity with a big stage made his dressage test at the 2020 Makeover an interesting experience for Atkins. “He was wild. The event was in the Rolex arena, and I truly think he thought he was back at the track,” she remembers. Though their test did not quite go as planned, it did show her that the gelding had potential to move up to the next level as an official dressage competitor. The joy in the work that Imperative has shown certainly promises more for this team.

Imperative and owner Louise Atkins (Photo courtesy of Louise Atkins)

A Team of a Lifetime

In their years together, Atkins and Imperative have built a relationship that she has described as “like an old married couple. We know each other inside and out. I don’t think I’ll ever have that again.” Cobalt currently houses nine OTTBs and several boarders, with the gelding happily serving at the mayor of them all. He watches what everyone is doing and wants to see everything that is going on around the barn. Imperative also enjoys neck scratches, and, like any former racehorse that has had his picture taken on big days, he loves attention.

His status as a stakes winner with a following has reaped dividends for Atkins as well. “I didn’t realize quite what it was like to have such a famous horse in the barn. It has opened up a whole new group of people to us,” she says. “He has changed my business here. We focus more on retraining and rehoming more Thoroughbreds.”

With three candidates for the 2022 Makeover, Atkins is grateful for what Imperative has brought to her life and for what he shows others about OTTBs. She hopes his example will lead more people to look at Thoroughbreds and consider what they can bring in their lives off the racetrack.

“He has a job to do to promote this breed,” she says. “We want to show people how far Thoroughbreds can go and how good they can be if they are given the chance.”

Imperative and owner Louise Atkins (Photo courtesy of Louise Atkins)