Onetime star Page McKenney thriving in new job

The last time Mid-Atlantic racing fans saw Page McKenney, he was third in the Grade 3 Monmouth Cup in July 2018. Nearly a month later, after fifty-eight starts over seven seasons, this claimer turned Pennsylvania-bred champion said goodbye to the racetrack, a tendon injury ending his career. 

Following a career where he logged two graded stakes wins and over $1.9 million in earnings, this gelding, now 12, has found a new job after the racetrack, thanks to a foundation put in place from his earliest days by Jazz Napravnik.

Bred by Dr. Jim Bryant and Linda Davis of Jalin Stable, Page McKenney came to Napravnik who broke and trained the Jalin youngsters, in their third crop of yearlings. Sired by Eavesdropper out of the Yarrow Brae mare Winning Grace, the gelding’s pedigree carries connections to A.P. Indy, Secretariat, and Curlin. 

Page McKenney, named for a relative of co-breeder Linda Davis, won over dirt and turf, at distances from seven furlongs to a mile and an eighth. He broke his maiden in his thirteenth start and then was claimed for $16,000 out of his next race, landing with owner Adam Staple and trainer Mary Eppler. 

Staple allowed Bryant and Davis to buy back into the horse they’d just lost, with Bryant and Davis offering a landing spot for Page once his racing career was done.

As the gelding grew closer to retirement in 2018, Napravnik, the sister of retired top jockey Rosie Napravnik, inquired with Dr. Bryant about possibly taking Page McKenney to the Retired Racehorse Makeover after his retirement. When she was preparing the gelding for the racetrack, she’d approached his training as she had with all of the young horses she worked with, teaching him basic dressage skills, as well as jumping over small obstacles. 

Those skills were intended to help young horses understand how their bodies and their feet work and move. The goal was to build a foundation for their lives after their time on the racetrack was done. 

Napravnik thought that Page would be a good candidate for retraining once he was done racing, especially since he enjoyed such a high profile as a graded stakes winner. While Makeover candidates tend to be horses who had shorter or lower profile careers as racehorses, stakes winners like Page could demonstrate that champions also can go onto second careers in the ring. 

“He had such a following in the Mid-Atlantic, so I thought he would be a great representative for the versatility of Thoroughbreds,” Napravnik said of Page. “Even great racehorses can become great sport horses.”

About three hours after the announcement of Page McKenney’s retirement came down, Napravnik was on the phone with Dr. Bryant, seeking to add the gelding to her roster of potentials for the Makeover. His breeder/owners agreed..

Retirement had come to Page McKenney as a result of an old tendon injury that was not responding to treatment. The initial injury had forced the gelding to the sidelines for nine months in 2016-2017. When it flared up again, his connections decided it was time to call it quits for good. 

Page went to his breeders’ farm near Kilmarnock, Virginia. There, he was turned out with weanlings as he recovered from his injury. In early 2020, the gelding arrived at Napravnik’s Monkton, Maryland farm, ready to tackle training for the 2020 Makeover in Lexington, Kentucky.

Now Napravnik had to figure out what discipline would fit the former racehorse – and what to do about that tail. 

“The babies had chewed his tail,” Napravnik laughed. “There wasn’t much left when he got here.”

Barrel racing was out for Page because of his prior tendon issues. The gelding seemed to have forgotten his earlier lessons about jumping over objects and would not even step over rails. Whenever Napravnik tried dressage, Page seemed to treat it as a speed event. Neither freestyle nor polo were in her wheelhouse. 

But foxhunting certainly was an option. She tried Page on a hunt, and the gelding took to it immediately. He was fascinated by the dogs and enjoyed strolling along with the other horses. He proved to have great brakes when they needed to stop. 

“He understands what’s happening,” Napravnik observed, “He’s never in a hurry when he’s out hunting.” 

Page McKenney had found his place. 

As Napravnik and the gelding prepared for the 2020 Makeover, it was clear that the COVID-19 pandemic was going to change their schedule a bit. The 2020 event was delayed until 2021, so horses that qualified for both years would compete for their respective titles. This gave Page’s tail time to grow out and allowed the trainer more opportunities to work with her charge on his foxhunting skills. 

When the event did take place, Page McKenney came away with third place in the Field Hunter division and the Iron Horse Award, given to the highest scoring horse foaled in 2010 or earlier. Three years after he had said goodbye to his career on the track, Page McKenney was back competing at a high level.

At age twelve, Page McKenney is back at Napravnik’s Monkton farm, preparing for the fall foxhunting season. 

He’s “a joy to work with and a joy to ride,” Napravnik says. “I ride with so many horses that require me to be on and you never know what’s going to happen. I can just sit back and enjoy riding Page.” 

This Pennsylvania-bred enjoys his job too. The pair attended the Blessing of the Hounds at St. John’s Church in Reisterstown, Maryland this past Thanksgiving. The event features a gathering of hunters and hounds for the day’s hunt, as well as tailgating for those gathered to celebrate the occasion. 

Page had a pretty good idea what drew the crowds, Napravnik said.

“He was kind of convinced that all of those people were all there for him,” Napravnik remembered. 

Accustomed to the crowds of the racetrack, the gelding had no trouble with the gathering, even noticing the children reaching out for the passing horses. 

“Page stuck his head right into the kids’ chests and let them pet him for like a minute,” she said. “He was firmly convinced they were all there for him. There were photographers there, too. He was perfect.”

Now settled into the pattern of the hunting season, Napravnik aims to continue working with the gelding as long as he remains happy in his job. 

“You can’t force a horse to do anything,” she said.  “When Page doesn’t seem to be enjoying his job, that will be the day that he can go home and retire.”

For Napravnik, a lifelong horsewoman who was also an active trainer for more than a decade, Page McKenney stands as an example of all that the Thoroughbred can be. The breed’s versatility, intelligence, and athleticism make them ideal partners for those invested in the sport disciplines of the equine world.  

“OTTBs are gems. What they experience at the racetrack is different than what any horse has. They are exposed to so much there,” the trainer observed. “Thoroughbreds have these skills that a lot of other horses don’t have, and then they have skills that they need to learn and those that they need to shift.”

In his second career, Page McKenney continues to be a coolly confident horse who has settled into the excitement of fox hunting with the same aplomb he brought to his stakes-winning career. This fan favorite shows what the Thoroughbred brings to the experience of competing in disciplines like showjumping or foxhunting. 

“They are amazing animals,” Napravnik.