The sun is beating down on Woodbine’s backstretch as dozens of horses and exercise riders hustle back and forth from the track to the various barns.
As I switch on my camera a tall, dark and handsome four-legged fellow by the name of Stunning Stag approaches me. His rider Jamie Attard eases the dark bay gelding to a stop just in front of their barn where they routinely wait for the next racehorse to pony to the track.
Stag’s quiet and patient demeanour gives you the impression that he’s being ponying racehorses his whole life. But, underneath the Western tack stands a former racehorse and multiple grade stakes winner who Attard stumbled upon in a $40,000 claiming race in 2007.
“I decided to take a look at him and not to sound cliché but my dad (Sid Attard) always says you follow your heart when you see a horse and when you are claiming a horse its either yes or no right away…he was so pretty, so handsome and right away we fell in love with him,” said Attard who at the time worked for his father at Woodbine.
Shortly thereafter, the three-year-old gelding by Running Stag and Midday Fun came home to the Attard’s barn where they prepped him for his next race. In December 2007 they entered him in an allowance race and despite the shorter distance, Stag crossed the finish line first under his new jockey silks.
“He broke his maiden going seven furlongs, he won going a mile and a sixteenth and there was a race going six and a half so we thought it might be a little too short for him. But sure enough we ran him and he went two-fifths off the track record and he won.”
The following year Stag ran in a handful of races including the Grade 2 Autumn Stakes where he finished second. “It was at the end of his four-year-old year when we ran him in his first stakes race and he ran second, beaten half a length behind Marchfield who won the Breeder’s that year and whole bunch of nice races. So we thought we might have a nice horse moving forward,” said Attard recalling his first couple of years getting to know the gelding.
In October 2009, Stag won the Mt. Sassafras Stakes marking a very memorable moment for the Attard family. “At that point my mom had owned racehorses for thirty years with my dad and had never won a stakes race with a horse that they had solely owned on their own. And it was really funny how it worked out to be that I groomed the horse and took care of him and he won my mom her first stakes race as an owner.”
Continuing his racing campaign in 2010 at the age of six, Stag ran in several stakes races and went on to capture the Autumn Stakes that year. But win or lose, Attard remembers each of Stag’s races vividly. “Every time he ran I would shake down the stretch just because you have so much invested in them and him and I got so close.”
In 2011, the family unexpectedly entered him in the Grade III Vigil Stakes. “We had an allowance race picked out for him (to go for the Eclipse stakes) but it didn’t go. So the only race available at that time was the Vigil (stakes) going seven furlongs.”
In the Vigil, Stag would face off against tough competition such as champion sprinter, Essence Hit Man and another nice sprinter by the name of Hollywood Hit. Additionally, Attard’s dad entered Highlander Stakes winner Signature Red, adding just another layer of competition for Stag to contend with.
“So you’re kind of hoping you can pick up a piece and finish second or third. But Hollywood Hit and Essence Hit Man went at each other on the front end and Stag came down the lane and he opened up and won by three.”
Later that year the Attards took the dark bay gelding down to Pennsylvania to run in the Presque Isle Mile Stakes where Stag had run the previous year and finished third. Although a repeat performance was to follow there was one big difference this time around. “We finished third and got beat two lengths to Wise Dan – that was no shame whatsoever looking back on it. That’s one of the moments in his career you are really proud to say seeing everything Wise Dan has done.”
Aside from his durability, the veteran racehorse continued to show off his versatility when he romped home victorious on the turf course in the 2012 Ontario Jockey Club stakes. “He’d run on the turf a few times in his career but he never won a race on it and the last win of his career ended up being in that race.”
In October 2012 Stag ran his last race. He not only finished a strong second but his career earnings now greatly surpassed the amount Attard had originally paid for the gelding. “He didn’t win the race but when we were unsaddling it was almost like we had won just because for him to go over the million was something really special. You don’t always think about it when you claim a horse for $40,000 - that they are going to make a million dollars.”
Watching him run over three dozen races between 2007 and 2012, the Attards were extremely proud of the consistent effort the horse had put in over the five years of owning and working with him. “He was such a hard knocking hard trying horse,” admitted Attard as he looks back on the racehorse’s successful career.
In December 2012 Attard sent Stag to a friends farm so he could just enjoy being a horse for a while. The Woodbine trainer acknowledged that with five years of racing under his belt he just wanted Stag to “come down from being a racehorse on the racetrack.”
After a couple of years of R & R, Attard decided it was time to give Stag a shot as a track pony. To do so, he enlisted the help of jockey Katy Morrison to help retrain the racehorse for his new career. Working with pleasure horses her whole life, Morrison began retraining Stag in late January 2015.
“He caught on very quickly. I still have the videos on my phone of the first days she was lunging him,” said Attard.
Despite having no previous riding experience Attard soon found himself riding Stag. “It was only maybe two or three weeks that he was up there before I started getting on him. Really it was the first horse I learned on too, so we are kind of learning together.”
In March 2015 Stag returned to Woodbine racetrack but this time in a very different capacity. As Attard’s partner in crime, the handsome dark bay gelding guides several sets of racehorses to the track every morning between 6 a.m. and 10 a.m.
By the time I arrive that morning, Attard and Stag are taking their last racehorse to the training track. I follow the two and watch Stag trot quietly alongside his younger counterpart as they ride up the track and around the turn away from the barns. Once they reach a certain marker horse and rider return to the entrance of the track to wait for his racehorse to finish out his morning breeze.
Standing quietly by the rail, it’s hard to believe Stag has only been ponying for the last five months.
But his rider is quick to admit that he is not surprised.
“Even when he was a racehorse he was the kind of horse that he’d go out there to train and he would stand at the wire for an hour if you let him. And now he’s very much the same.”
Once they return to the barns, Stag is given his morning scrub down. Basking in the sun, he stands quietly as he is soaped and scrubbed from head to hooves. Even though his racing days are long gone you can tell the horse feels at home. “He’s so funny… Lenny feeds him breakfast in the morning and he knows his people and he starts yelling and screaming for you.”
As Attard looks on at the horse being bathed we chat about Stag’s former racing days and how their partnership developed over that time. “I love the horses so much that my dad has had. There’s certain ones that really tug at your heartstrings a little bit more and he was one of those ones that I was with everyday, ten months a years, seven days a week and they really become like your children. Him and I got really close with each other and he’d holler when I come in the barn and he saw me.”
Attard admits that he could talk about his four-legged friend all morning but not wanting to take up too much of his time I ask him one final question.
“What do you love about Stag?”
“His personality has always been the main thing that I love about him. He is the kind of horse that loves attention but he doesn’t really want you to know it. So he nips at you and plays with you and stuff like that. He’s just such a character – it’s hard not to love him.”