“He’s that guy that wears shiny tights and chases the leather ball,” said Kira Andersen as she described her thoroughbred, Saint Reade. Her face lights up within the first few seconds of talking about her handsome sidekick and I can’t help but notice the dark bay gelding’s mighty frame and striking face grinning over at us from his stall door.
The former racehorse (who also goes by the nicknames Reade or Champ) watches Andersen intently as she walks towards her tack box to grab his leather halter. Approaching his stall Reade eagerly greets her and lets her put the halter on without any fuss before we head out to take pictures in the indoor arena.
I had heard about Reade and Andersen from Melanie Klose, a horse trainer and riding coach who currently works with the two at Dunbordin Farms in Queensville, Ontario. Even though Reade had broken down on the track Klose had mentioned that the dark bay gelding had moved onto a second career as a jumper.
Eager to know more about the dynamic duo, I met up with Andersen at Dunbordin to hear her story and how she crossed paths with her four-legged love.
“I started when I was five in the hunter jumper world and I went on to buy my first pony when I was 12 and we competed on the endurance team,” said Andersen as we chatted with Reade close by. Dressed in a blue shirt and jeans, the vet tech, horse rider and new mom, explains how she soon found herself immersed in the world of racing. “I got introduced to thoroughbreds when I was 18 and started for a very good friend of mine and ended up at the racetrack.”
Andersen worked as an exercise rider at various tracks in the U.S. and in Ireland, but found herself working out of Woodbine from 2000 to 2009. While at Woodbine she rode for several trainers including Roger Attfield, Mike Keogh, Catherine Day Phillips and Reade Baker. In 2008 while she was working with Reade Baker she got to ride a two-year-old colt whose racing named followed suit with his trainers own name. Although Reade was anything but a saint to get on, Andersen enjoyed taking him to the gate and breezing him.
“As big as he was and as obnoxious as he was, he never took a hold. (He) galloped the fillies and was just a super smart horse. And then you’d turn him in and he stand and watch everybody train and then you’d get him off the track and the first thing he wanted to do was eat grass. He was that horse that was just so cool to hang out with.”
Watching him grow up on the racetrack she recalls how the frisky and chubby youngster turned out a great performance on one of his racing days. “One of biggest memories of him is when he ran in a stakes races (the Display Stakes) at the end of his two-year-old year and was fifth. He went off at 25 to 1.”
Racing at both Woodbine and Gulfstream Park, Reade ran a total of eight races between 2008 and 2009. He finished first in a $72,000 maiden race but went unplaced for the rest of his career.
In 2009 after breaking her kneecap Andersen decided to retire from exercise riding. Little did she know she would be receiving a life-changing call the following July about Reade. “A friend of mine was riding him and he broke down on the dirt track at the three eighths pole and they called me and said ‘do you want him?’”
She of course said yes and took him home shortly thereafter.
Sustaining a massive slab fracture to his right front cannon bone, Andersen had to determine what type of treatment would be best suited for the four-year-old colt. “We were actually going to send him for surgery at IIderton and we didn’t. We just opted for stall rest and if he recovered then awesome for us and if not, then we did the best we could.”
The colt remained stall bound from July to December of 2010.
He was casted and bandaged for the first three months,” said Andersen as Reade continued to stand quietly in the background. She was impressed with how mentally strong the youngster was given that they used a minimal amount of drugs (pain killers) during that time. “The fact that he was mentally capacitated… that made a huge difference.”
Reade was also gelded in the fall to ensure that when, and if he began working again he would be easier to handle.
Starting in January 2011 Reade was hand walked and turned out in a round pen. In April of that year Andersen began the next stage of Reade’s rehab – line driving. “He line drove for thirty days just to get his legs back under him.” Once the summer season began, she started working Reade lightly under the saddle.
Working in a five day program over the next couple of years Andersen has built a solid foundation for the racehorse to transition into a riding pony. While doing so she noticed his newfound love for jumping.
“I have an eventing background and where he was living before (pre-Dunbordin) there was a couple of natural obstacles outside and we started popping over those just for entertainment and I thought ‘huh, he really quite enjoys this.’”
In 2014, Andersen decided to begin showing Reade in the baby jumpers (.60 metres or 2ft) division. Finding his stride early she is super happy with how much progress Reade has made since starting out last season and how much her horse loves what he does.
“He goes into the ring with this air about him where everybody notices him. And he’s quite enthusiastic I guess is the word so it makes me enjoy his company because he’s not a plug and play. He’s a horse that I can work with and educate and develop and that’s a huge part of what I do and it’s been pretty fun.”
This season the two will be soaring to new heights in the .75 and .9 metres (2.5ft and 2.9ft) division. Andersen also currently has a co-boarder (Victoria) who is working on her jumping skills with Reade.
While Andersen tells me about her show plans for this year I can’t help but think how miraculous it is for Reade to be jumping at all given the injury he sustained.
Reading my thoughts she is quick to point out how people are always surprised by how well Reade has adapted to his second career in life. “I laugh because people always say he broke his leg you shouldn’t do anything, but I say that the unfortunate thing is I’m sure it calcified a lot stronger than it would have been in it’s original state, and it’s no quality of life to turn this type of horse out into the field and just say ‘you’re a retired thoroughbred, thanks for your contribution.’”
Even though Reade is Andersen’s first off the track thoroughbred (OTTB) she is well acquainted with the breed and knows they can do a lot more than just run. “They are racing animals but that doesn’t incapacitate them once they are no longer able to go around a circle. I mean if anything…they’re super safe because they’ve seen the flags, they’ve seen the people, they’ve seen the tractors, they’ve seen the trucks, they’ve ridden on the road. They know and they have a little bit more sensibility to them because they have been exposed to so many things.”
Going five years strong it’s amazing to hear how far they have come since his racing days. Towering over me at his stall door, the dark bay gelding quickly acknowledges me before returning his attention to Andersen. “He’s a got a bravado about him,” said Andersen as she gazed back at him.
With her by his side it’s amazing to see the loving bond that has formed between horse and rider.
Carrying his head high and stepping into his new career proudly, it is easy to see that Andersen has also given Reade the confidence he needed to realize he’s more than just a racehorse.
Race three on Woodbine’s evening card is about fifteen minutes away when a handful of track ponies walk towards the paddock to pick up their assigned horse and jockey. A tall and proud bay thoroughbred in the pack of ponies stops to nibble on some grass before his exercise rider Anthony ushers him over to the entrance of the tunnel to accompany a racehorse by the name of Katya to the starting gate.
Curious eyes and legs for days, the bay gelding and former racehorse known as One Big Gator pins his ears back slightly as he senses Katya approaching. Without any fussing they head into the tunnel and off to the polytrack.
In the post parade, I watch One Big Gator walk quietly alongside Katya. He pins his ears back a few more times and gives Katya a look as if to say ‘stay focused’ before resuming his nonchalant march before the grandstand.
I wondered as he led her to the gate if One Big Gator misses racing.
“He’d probably be fit enough that he could race again…does he miss it? No I don’t think he does,” laughed Caroline Trudell, as we chatted about her pony. Not only does Trudell own One Big Gator, but she also owns and operates the track pony business at Woodbine racetrack. “In 2009 I lost my job and came back to Woodbine. I worked with my dad for four years and I lost him in 2013 to cancer and I decided to take over this business…and I love it.”
Trudell’s pony barn is tucked away on the backstretch behind the hustle and bustle of the racing stables and the main track. Walking through the barn I found her sitting outside in the sunshine washing down the legs of Chippy, her Appaloosa pony. “It’s not like coming to work when you come here,” said Trudell as we talked about her ponies.
Currently Trudell has eleven ponies in her barn. Some work in the mornings, some work in the afternoons and some work a bit of both. Aside from Chippy, I noticed a mix of different breeds in the barn, including a handful of thoroughbreds. “We have three thoroughbred ponies. I just retired one - he was an old racehorse. We’ve got One Big Gator, we’ve got Scatland, he’s just training to be a pony and then we have Louis who was a racehorse.” Trudell also points out a thoroughbred by the name of Gopher, who was trained by Reade Baker.
I was eager to hear their stories but One Big Gator’s story stood out among the rest. Especially since this track pony had run in The Queen’s Plate in 2011.
Curious to know more about him I asked Trudell how the former racehorse fell into her hands and into the track pony life.
“It was 2013 and (trainer) John Ross called me and said “Caroline, I’ve got a horse for you, do you want him?” and I said “Who is it?” and he said it was One Big Gator.
I was like “sure I will take him!”
With thirty five starts in three years, Gator had seen his fair share of racing. He won six races and placed ten times between 2010 and 2013. Running in several stakes, he made a go for The Queen’s Plate in 2011 but finished fifteenth. Nonetheless his previous owners, Brenda and James Passero (who bought him from Jackie Reynolds) spoke highly of Gator and his brazen character during his racing days. “My husband was there the day he ran in the plate and always loved him…he is a very proud horse and has a mind of his own. Also known to bite! Our whole family loves him.”
Gator remains one of the most seasoned and classiest former racehorses in Trudell’s barn.
Coming off the track at the end of 2013 Trudell took Gator back to her farm for some down time before transitioning him into his second career. Unfortunately Gator didn’t get to meet his pony pals right off the bat. “Poor guy, he was all by himself all winter because he was still a horse and we couldn’t turn him out with these guys.”
The following spring Trudell had Gator gelded (castrated) to ensure he would be calm and quiet enough to work with the other ponies. After his procedure was done, Trudell took him over to the sales barn everyday to exercise him and keep him moving. But she admits at that point she had doubts about his pony career. “I was walking him in the evenings and I kept saying to myself ‘this guy, how is he going to make a pony?’ because he’s like a thoroughbred, jumping all over the place and giving me a hard time.”
Willing to give him a shot, Trudell started training him right away with the help of several different riders. One of those riders was Daniel Bast. Both an exercise rider and jockey, Bast has worked with thoroughbreds for several years now and understands the importance of implementing a training program soon after they retire from racing. “You school them right, you’ve got a good pony and you don’t have to worry.”
One of the very first things Gator had to do was say goodbye to his racing reins. “These thoroughbreds, they just go English, so you have to teach them how to neck rein,” said Trudell. A western discipline, neck reigning teaches the pony how to change direction by adding slight pressure of the reins against their neck.
On top of learning that discipline, Gator also had to learn how to deal with horses on the track. “He had to learn to go beside another horse and to pony and take some of the abuse that a pony takes, like knocking and biting sometimes and the thoroughbreds will lean on the ponies so he had to learn to deal with all of that.”
After a couple of months of training, Trudell decided it was time to see how he would fair on the main track. And what she saw from Gator impressed her. “He stood up there nice and quiet and he didn’t have a meltdown and he went out there and ponied one and he was perfect.”
Calm and collected on the polytrack, while his racehorse buddies galloped around him Trudell began working Gator as a track pony during the 2014 thoroughbred racing season. Although the track ponies work every race, Trudell’s ponies are rotated between races so each one only works six, seven or eight races of the racing card.
Working the track from a different perspective, Trudell has not only watched Gator’s confidence grow over the last year but also recognizes how valuable he has become to her team. “Last year he only started off with a few races and he would take easy horses, but this year he’s a soldier. He will go out there and do everything.”
She admits that the bay gelding isn’t a push button pony and needs the right rider to keep him in check. “Anthony works for me and he rides him in the afternoon and he does a great job with him because he’s a very smart horse - you have to have a really good rider on him. You can’t put anyone that falls asleep on him.”
Watching Gator from the rail walking alongside his pony pals, it’s hard to picture him doing anything else but his current job. It’s also amazing to think that he has adjusted so quickly to his new life. “He’s a smooth moving horse. When he’s moving, he just floats on the track, you never see him take a wrong step, he picks up his right leads, he won’t check any horses, he’ll drop them off at the gate and stand over there with them if needed and then turn around and do his thing,” said Bast as he talked about him riding Gator last season.
After the racing day is over the ponies return to their barn on the backstretch where they are tended to by each of their riders. “When they come back at night they are all bathed and cleaned properly. We scrub the polytrack off and then we do them up all around,” Trudell informed me.
Walking through the pony barn earlier this week (before I saw Gator in action) I was pleasantly surprised at how serene and calm the barn appeared. Happy faces met my gaze as I walked to each stall. Standing by Gator’s stall, the bay gelding sauntered over to me with his ears pricked forward and an inquiring eye.
“He’s very smart and he will tell you when he wants something. If he could talk he would talk - this guy is so smart,” said Trudell who has bonded with the gelding over the last couple of years.
Around horses her whole life, Trudell knows it takes a special and particular kind of thoroughbred to be a successful track pony.
“Thoroughbreds make some of the best ponies. Some ponies have an attitude and some thoroughbreds will never make ponies but if you get the right one like Gator you’re lucky because he’s going to make you a pony for many years, he’ll do his job and never complain and he’s just a great horse.”
Although Gator’s racing days are long gone the tough and sprightly bay still holds a special place in the hearts of the Passero family. According to Brenda Passero they are very glad that his second career and his loving home remains at Woodbine racetrack. “So happy he is with Caroline and loves his new job. She takes great care of him and we stop to bring him and his friends mints and carrots every time we come to see our other horses.”