“I love his attitude - he doesn’t get shaken up over anything,” said horse trainer David Bell as we watched former racehorse Ojibway Signal and his rider Val Topp fearlessly tackle an eventing course at Myrddin Equestrian Centre over the weekend.
While the crisp fall weather nibbles at my ears Bell and I snap photos of his fiancé galloping Ojibway or “Oj” across the course. Topp steers Oj uphill, then downhill and back and forth across the field while the former racehorse soars over giant logs and obstacles with ease. Smiling from cheek to cheek, Topp trots over after finishing the course to chat about her majestic mount.
“I always said I wanted to event him,” said Topp who only began training Oj for his second career as an eventer earlier this year.
It’s only their second show but Topp and Oj have been together for the last six years. “We bought Oj out of the CTHS yearling sale (in 2009),” said Topp who currently works at Bell’s barn at Woodbine racetrack. Topp vividly remembers the first time she set eyes on the yearling. “He was striking, very tall and pretty.” Bell also recalls the moment they met their four-legged friend. “He had a big frame and a really good walk…I just kinda liked him as an individual.”
The dark bay thoroughbred gelding made his racing debut in June 2010 at Woodbine. The track would be his home base for the next four years and forty career starts of his life. Placing third in the Kingarvie Stakes (in 2010), he went on to compete in several other stakes including the prestigious Queen’s Plate (2011) and the Gr. 1 Northern Dancer Turf Stakes (2012).
According to Bell, Oj wasn’t the easiest horse to train, but Topp who bonded with him from the start would gallop him throughout his entire racing career. “He was lovely to ride, in that he never tried anything mean, but he was extremely tough to gallop. He always wanted to go full tilt!” Working in the racing industry for the last fifteen years the seasoned exercise rider also spent a good chunk of time hacking with him around Woodbine’s backside (backstretch).
Not surprisingly, Oj became Topp’s main squeeze at the barn. “He was always my favorite! He's a really happy horse, very curious, he loves to do new things.” Whether it was in the stirrups or on the ground, Topp came to learn a lot about the horse including his sweet tooth tendencies. “He’s a ridiculous mooch. He begs for any treats constantly! He loves mints most of all.”
After Oj finished tenth in a claiming race last November both Bell and Topp knew it was time to retire him. “He just didn’t want to do it anymore,” recalled Bell as we chatted about the couple’s decision to transition him off track into another career. Although people had expressed interest, Oj and both Topp and Bell had rehomed many racehorses the couple knew he would become part of their family. “We’ve always had a soft spot for the horse and he kinda looked that sort of horse that should go on and do something like this rather than going down the tubes as a racehorse and wind up running for $5,000 somewhere and hurting himself. We always thought he should be doing this after his race career,” said Bell with camera in hand eagerly ready to snap shots of Topp and Oj in their dressage warm up.
Oj was turned out for December at Kinghaven where Bell keeps his racehorses over the winter. In January 2015, Topp moved him to Clear View stables, which had an indoor arena where she could train and work with the gelding during the winter months.
Despite being ‘green’ (a horse with little training outside of racing) Topp was pleasantly surprised to find Oj adapted well to his new work routine. “He learns really quickly and he loves hacking!”
In hopes of giving Oj a second start as an eventer, Topp soon found herself entering the Thoroughbred Makeover Challenge, a competition which features dozens of recently retired racehorses showcasing their skills in disciplines such as dressage, jumping, and eventing. The makeover challenge will take place in Kentucky later this month. “I decided to enter him in the makeover because it was advertised right around the time I moved him, and we met all the requirements, so I thought it sounded like a great opportunity.” It will also be a great opportunity for Topp, who rode as a three-day eventer prior to working in the racing industry.
In lieu of the challenge Topp began taking lessons over the summer with coach Garry Roque. “I'm rusty and Oj is green so it took us a bit to get the hang of jumping, but he really enjoys it.” Switching gears from racing to eventing also meant a change of clothes and tack for the duo. “We had to get everything lol. I'd sold all my equipment from when I used to event!”
Watching Oj move elegantly around the dressage ring earlier in the morning and pick up the correct canter leads each time it’s still hard to believe this is just their second show together.
The Myrddin show was one of their last preps before they head south for the makeover challenge. Even though Topp intends to take him off property to train a couple more times she is more than happy to let him just be a horse in the meantime. “Oj loves his new life! He's fat and sassy. He has turnout buddies, and he's a barn favorite.”
On his toes, veins popping and eyes peeled on the competition, Oj finally stands still for Topp as she discusses the horse’s performance with her fiancé. Although they didn’t bring any ribbons home from Myrddin, the horse mom rewards her boy with a big pat and a long rein.
Beaming inwardly, Topp already knows Oj has his eye set on the prize and will make her proud when they make their debut in Kentucky later this month.