Charlie Caldwell entered the 2017 Thoroughbred Makeover, presented by Thoroughbred Charities of America, on a whim. He was already retraining Thoroughbreds off the track for polo, and his friend and fellow polo player Clare Pinney convinced him to enter. After winning the initial round of the Polo division on Thursday, the 17-year-old unexpectedly found himself in the position of competing his mare Old Tavern in the Finale for the title of America's Most Wanted Thoroughbred and a share of $100,000 in prize money.
To prepare, Caldwell talked to Tommy Wayman, the legendary horseman and polo player with whom Caldwell and "Taberna" trained all summer in Big Horn, WY.
"He said to just speed her up, speed everything up, that’s what the judges are looking for now," Caldwell said. "So I just did everything I did on Thursday, just a little quicker."
It must have worked, because not only did he win the division, one of the judges offered to buy his horse.
The top five riders in the initial round returned for the Finale, first demonstrating their horses' skills -- rollbacks, quick turns, lead changes, and lateral movements -- and then picking up a mallet and making some shots.
The judges chose Caldwell over Buck Schott, last year's winner, who finished second, third and fourth. (He was catch riding his father Trey's two mounts, since the elder Schott sustained an injury and couldn't compete.)
Then it was up to the spectators -- both those in the arena and those watching the livestream at home -- who were asked to vote by text message and choose among the winners of each of the 10 disciplines for the America's Most Wanted Thoroughbred title.
Caldwell's fellow finalists were up against a teenager in a texting competition. They never stood a chance.
He earned 27 percent of the overall vote and $15,500 in prize money, thanks to a big in-person cheering section and putting out word on Facebook.
"I have a lot of polo friends who know a lot of people," he said with a smile. "So thank you to all those people!"
Caldwell, of Coldwater, TN, purchased Taberna from her breeder, Larry Curtis of Middleburg, VA, in November. The mare is just 3 years old; she trained to race, but never had an official start. She's by Peak Dancer and out of Modest Madame (by King Cugat).
"I’ve never ridden a Thoroughbred with as good a mind as her. She’s incredibly patient and calm about everything," he said. In fact, the mare has already started playing in games, which most green polo ponies don't do until their 4- or 5-year-old year.
Caldwell has only been playing polo for four years, switching over from the sport of polocrosse.
The soft-spoken teenager was measured in his responses, but his big grin told the story. "I’m very happy. Very pleased with the results," he said with a smile.
Caldwell also beat his identical twin brother, Harry, who finished ninth. "I think he kicked everyone’s butt pretty good," Harry said of his brother, adding that they'll have to have a rematch at next year's competition. The brothers are extremely competitive, but also love to play on a team together, he said.
This year's Makeover saw about 300 off-track Thoroughbreds compete in 10 different divisions.