In July 2018, when eventer Kendal Lehari brought home the OTTB Remember Gizmo from trainer Bob Tiller’s stable at Woodbine Racetrack to her family’s Reindalyne Farm in Uxbridge, ON, she gave him the unassuming barn name ‘Mitchell’. Later, she discovered the name is derived from Middle English words meaning ‘big’ or ‘large’, which absolutely fit the three-year-old, 17.2-hand chestnut, “who’s got a definite presence,” says Lehari, 32.

“I’ve never had a Thoroughbred like him or seen one like him. He basically looks like a big fancy warmblood. He is the coolest horse I’ve ever had,” she says of the gelding by Giant Gizmo out of Bear Memory, bred in Ontario by Paul Buttigieg.

The duo competed in the 2019 Retired Racehorse Project’s Thoroughbred Makeover, held at the Kentucky Horse Park October 2-5. In this, the Makeover’s fifth year, 673 professional, amateur and junior trainers were accepted to compete for more than $100,000 in prize money in 10 disciplines. Entries are judged on training progress within a 10-month period and how suitable they are for the disciplines in which they’re entered.

Lehari and Mitchell placed fourth out of 95 horses in show jumping and won the best-conditioned horse award in that division. They were also 14th in eventing.

This was Lehari’s second Makeover experience. In 2016, she and Coltnamedsue achieved an impressive fourth-place in eventing. Now called Max Power, the gelding is owned by Elise Hicks, 18, of Trenton, ON. They competed this year in the CCIJ 2*-L division at the North American Youth Championships.

Lehari knew well the cost and time involved in participating, so decided she would only take another horse if it had a chance at winning or placing well. She knew Mitchell was special and had Makeover potential the first time she rode him.

“He’s uphill, really balanced, and he’s got such a great brain. When he gets excited, he doesn’t really do anything. He just looks fancier.” Plus, she adds, “He’s super easy and laid back in the barn. He’s just a dude – nice to handle.”

After a couple of rides that July, she let him be until January 1, 2019, as per the competition’s rule stating all trainers start working their mounts on the same date. During the winter in Florida they competed in the Young Event Horse Program’s four-year-old classes. Back in Canada they started eventing in May at pre-training level. It was a good first season for El Capitan (Mitchell’s show name); they had just come off a sixth-place finish in the open pre-training at Grandview Horse Trials before the Makeover.

“Going into it, I thought I had better chance in the eventing, obviously, because that’s our forté. But he was a little bit babyish. He just had some green moments. He hasn’t really had a rail before, and he had two rails in the show jumping and didn’t score as well as I’d hoped we would have on our dressage test. He was still 14th out of 80 horses, so considering his little mistakes he did pretty well.” Lehari thinks it worked out well for show jumping the following day as he was “just a little more mellow and ridable and settled in the ring.”

Overall, Lehari enjoys the Makeover because it’s different than other horse shows. “It’s kind of cool to see all these Thoroughbreds who probably raced last year. You’ve got some in English tack, you’ve got some in Western tack, some are playing polo, there’s barrel racing, ranch horsing. I mean, I’m used to seeing the usual dressage, show jumpers, hunters, eventers, so to see all these horses looking great in different disciplines is awesome.”

Lehari says the atmosphere among competitors is upbeat and the camaraderie is unique. “It’s just kind of fun. Even in our aisleway, everyone was from a different sport, so you actually get to know other people from all over in different sports and hear about what they’re doing with their horses. There’s just so many different ways to do things.”

At the end of the event, fans choose America’s Most Wanted Thoroughbred from among the discipline winners via text voting. This year, the overall champion was Cowboy Swagger, ridden by professional U.S. barrel racer Fallon Taylor.

Of 27 Canadian trainers competing, other notable results included a third place in eventing for the seven-year-old mare Boggie (War Cry x That’s Just Wrong), ridden by Ontario’s Eleanor Godson. The pair also finished 11th in the field hunter division. And, competing in his second Makeover, amateur James Phillips piloted four-year-old Hidden Storm (Signature Red x Lady D’Wildcat) to a third place in dressage out of more than 100 entries. Phillips also received the division’s top amateur award.

Meanwhile, Lehari plans to take it relatively easy with Mitchell for the remainder of the year, do the Young Event Horse five-year-old classes in Florida in the winter, and work on bumping him up to training level. There’s no doubt she’s “definitely keeping” Mitchell and has pegged him as a potential team horse.

“My goal is to go as far as I can with him. Right now, he’s showing all the right qualities. He’s a good mover. He’s got a great brain. He’s a good jumper and super brave. As a four-year-old, he’s showing all the right qualities to be an upper-level eventer.”