After the Racetrack: Underscore and Natalie Voss
Sometimes the story starts with a chance meeting and ends with a big dose of happy.
On the racetrack, Thoroughbreds are athletes, their goal to be the first across the line. Whether they are running in an allowance race on a Wednesday or in a stakes on a Saturday, their job is to capitalize on the deep potential within and find the winner’s circle. What happens when injury and circumstance mean that a horse’s career is shorter than planned? Finding the next thing for that Thoroughbred becomes the big question.
For one off-track Thoroughbred (OTTB), his answer came long before he said goodbye to his racing career. This month’s After the Racetrack looks at the special relationship between Underscore, aka Blueberry, and his partner, the Paulick Report’s editor-in-chief, Natalie Voss.
A Connection Is Made
Blueberry first came into Voss’ life in a unique way: she groomed his dam, Unspurned, for her two turns at yearling sales in 2012. While Voss was in school at the University of Kentucky, she groomed yearlings for Cara Bloodstock during sales seasons, a job she continued after graduating and starting her turf writing career.
“I thought she [Unspurned] was fascinating,” Voss remembers. “Clearly very smart but good-natured, emotionally independent and had a great attitude.” The filly left an impression on Voss, who kept track of the filly after the sale.
When Unspurned did not meet her reserve, breeders Jay and Christine Hayden sent her to trainer Roger Attfield to prepare the filly for a racing career. In her 16 starts, Unspurned won four, including the Grade 3 Whimsical Stakes. When she retired, Voss was pleased that her favorite mare stayed with her breeders and went on to produce several foals to date, including a 2017 bay colt by Uncle Mo.
Like his dam, the colt went through the sales ring, with Voss dropping by for a visit before his turn at the 2018 Fasig-Tipton Saratoga Yearling Sale. “Obviously, I was curious to know how similar he’d be to his mother,” she says, “and Bernard [McCormack, consigner] said it was the same brain in a different body.”
Unspurned’s Uncle Mo yearling sold for $400,000 to Godolphin, whose Lifetime Care Program means that any horse they purchase or breed will have support after their racing career. Whether he went on to become a stallion or find a second career, Voss knew that Unspurned’s foal, officially named Underscore, would have a soft landing after his racing days were over.
Little did she know how much of a role she would play in it.
The names of horses you know and love, from Flightline to Epicenter, are the ones who show the precociousness and the soundness necessary for a top-tier career. Many of the thousands of Thoroughbreds born each year do not find the same success. Some may not be meant to race, and others may deal with injuries keeping off the track. Underscore was one of the latter: “He was one of those horses who spent more time on lay-up than he did in full training, always with pretty simple issues, but the timing just never worked out,” Voss says.
In his one and only start, Underscore finished fourth in a maiden special weight at Oaklawn Park. A condylar fracture in a workout soon after required surgery, which meant another layoff, and then ligament swelling after he returned to training meant that trainer Brad Cox would have to delay his return even longer. Instead, Godolphin opted to retire Underscore. Their Lifetime Care Program ensured that he would have a place to go once he was out of training. It also meant that one of Voss’ dreams was about to come true.
“It didn’t actually occur to me that I may be in a position to take her [Unspurned] son until my eventing coach pointed out that she works extensively with Godolphin’s aftercare arm, and usually gets some say in which horses she takes from them,” she remembers. “Then, I started daydreaming about what it would be like to own him one day.”
Voss’ name and number were in his file, so Godolphin knew that someone out there wanted him. Her time with Jitterbug, her rescued draft mare, was winding down so adding Underscore to the mix would be a great fit for Voss and her husband, Joe Nevills, bloodstock editor for the Paulick Report. In late 2020, she got the call: Underscore was hers.
Nicknamed Blueberry for his association with the Godolphin blue, Underscore is now Voss’ riding partner and her buddy. Much like Unspurned, Blueberry remains the same gentle personality off the track as he was when she first met him. Now, at age five, he is “very, very sweet. He’s used to being told he’s a Good Boy, and he approaches everything with the attitude that he should continue being a Good Boy and try his best.” Under saddle or in the barn, that same attitude and intelligence that bonded Voss to Unspurned a decade ago shines in her son, his lovable personality shining through in each photo Voss shares of him on social media. Their connection has made Blueberry’s transition a smooth one.
As for his second career, Voss did not have a particular vision for what was next for Blueberry until she tried him under saddle. That’s when she discovered he had a talent for dressage. “Dressage methods are used for a lot of strengthening and suppling in other disciplines, so I thought we’d be doing some of that no matter what his second job would be,” she says. “I figured I’d start with those basics and see how he liked it; as long as it went well, that seemed like a logical discipline choice for the [Thoroughbred] Makeover.” The two competed in the 2021 edition and now plan to compete in the upcoming Thoroughbred Incentive Program Central Region Dressage Championships.
Along with trainer Stephanie Calendrillo, Voss is looking to add jumping to Blueberry’s list of talents, another avenue for his post-racing life. She also aims to add more trail riding to their routine, always looking for ways to show others just what OTTBs can do when their racetrack days are over.
A Happy Ending
Thoroughbreds may spend only a handful of years training and preparing for their careers as racehorses. What they do after that has become one of the sport’s most important focuses in the last two decades, as the industry seeks opportunities for its athletes’ later years. Stories like Blueberry’s and Voss’ define what aftercare is all about: a horse need not be a champion to find the right place after the racetrack. All they need is a little bit of love and a partner willing to work alongside them.
“He's a great example of the notion that there’s a Thoroughbred out there for everybody,” Voss says. “I am not a brave rider; I can be a little in my head and nervous. He tunes all that out and remains patient with me, even though he’s still relatively new to his job.”
At the end of the day, Blueberry is what many of the horses featured here have become: an integral part of their new person’s lives. A high-class athlete on the racetrack and a partner in the show ring as well.
“He’s my whole heart,” Voss shares. “No matter what kind of day I’ve had, I can go to the barn, and he will make me smile.”