“We just bonded right away. I always got on him, every single day. Sometimes you swap around the set list because we have so many riders and so many horses, but I was on him every day.”
Chelsea Heery pauses and laughs before continuing.
“Mike Maker would sometimes call me Miss Saffron.”
First you hear the laughter. Then you really hear the love through Heery’s voice as she recalls working with Saffron Hall or ‘Saff’ during his racing career.
In 2014, the rider and horse crossed paths when Saff entered Maker’s barn. It was the same year that Heery began working for the trainer after graduating from the North American Racing Academy.
“Basically, I was there to just kind of help and be an intern, to walk hots and then I told Joe (Sharp - Maker’s former assistant) I liked to ride. He started putting me on a couple of joggers and easy gallops. From there Joe asked Mike if he could take me to Saratoga and Mike said, ‘No, send her to Spectrum (Churchill Training Centre), I would like her to stay down here and see how she does.’ So I learned a lot going there. The gallop boys were so helpful and Mike too - just like a team effort from everybody. I really kicked it off there,” said Heery.
While her career in racing started at Keeneland, Heery's passion for horses was put into motion several years earlier. Born in New Jersey and growing up in Virginia, Heery found herself working at a horse rescue farm. She started taking lessons and that would eventually lead to a job galloping horses at another farm.
“I was probably around 14. The guy at the rescue farm was a farrier and he’s the one that went out to the race guy’s farm to do the horse’s feet. He said he needs someone to ride the horses and the farrier had said, ‘Chelsea is pretty good, she could probably go over there and get on a coupe and that’s how that started.”
While many young teens are trying to figure out the next stage - whether it be college, university or a gap-year abroad, Heery already knew she was destined to be with horses. So, the next logical step was applying to the North American Racing Academy (NARA) at Bluegrass Community and Technical College in Lexington, Kentucky.
“I wasn’t interested in anything else but the horses. I had seen the school online and decided maybe that was something to try and my mom really pushed (for) it to. She was like ‘this is a once in a lifetime thing, you should really do it.’ I was like, ‘I don’t know, they only accept a few kids. Like I don’t if that would be something I would be able to get into. But she really pushed for me with that.”
Heery got in.
Her next big decision would be deciphering the best path to follow as her journey in the horse racing industry progressed. Jockey or horseman?
“When I was in it I started off as a horseman and I was going to try and switch to the jockey half way in December, but I had to work on weight loss and stuff because you have to be super light to be a jockey. But then with the classes with the horses and stuff I was like ‘oh, this is so interesting and stuff I can utilize it if I don’t make it as a jockey, or if I ever get hurt and can’t ride. I decided that I could take the riding class with being a horseman to see where I’m at.”
After finishing the program Heery began working under the tutelage of trainer Mike Maker and his former assistant Joe Sharp at Keeneland racetrack.
While she was still learning how to gallop the inevitable happened.
She met a fella. A fella on four legs named Saffron Hall.
“He was a handful for me at first. I ended up learning how to gallop him really well. He wasn’t always easy. He could be a little nervous, wheel and get out a little bit, or be a little tough. For me he was the perfect challenge and he taught me a lot. He went from being a claimer that had been claimed (by Maker) up to where he was winning allowances races in Saratoga wire to wire. I was just like ‘this is my horse.’
Bred by Eugene Melnyk, the son of Giant’s Causeway (out of Eden Lodge) began his racing career in 2012 at Tampa Bay. A year later Saff found himself new ownership under Ken and Sarah Ramsey. In 2014, the chestnut gelding walked (or maybe he strutted) into Mike Maker’s barn. At that point Saff had already broken his maiden and captured a handful of races including a few starter handicaps at Tampa Bay.
While Heery was continuing to develop her skills as a rider, she found herself bonding with the chestnut gelding.
“He was my baby. He ended up being my first horse to win a stakes. He won the claiming crown. So he was my first horse galloping that was just built up to winning a stakes with me. I had been on a couple that were already stakes horses, but to build one up from a claimer and get to be part of that was neat,” said Heery.
After winning the 2014 Emerald Stakes at Gulfstream Park, Saffron went on a farm break. When he returned to training in Florida the next year Heery had already moved onto the New York circuit.
Saff made a couple of starts that year, at Churchill and then back at Gulfstream. In 2016 he was claimed a couple of times, first by David Rakoff and then again in the fall of September 2016 by trainer Jamie Ness. In October of that same year Saff ran his last race at Delaware Park.
Never far from her mind Heery kept a watchful eye on the chestnut as he continued to race at various U.S. tracks.
“I had kept him in my virtual stable (on Equibase) and I was just watching and waiting and then I didn’t see him work anymore. He was claimed when he was nine and he raced till he was ten. I didn’t see any works for a while. That’s when I went to work for Joe Sharp for a very short time. I told Joe I can’t get a hold of this guy Jamie Ness and not seeing Saffron work anymore and really hope he is okay. Joe is like ‘I have Jamie’s no, he was like, “do want me to call him? We could probably figure out something, like if you want to get him.”
It turns out the Ness was looking to retire and find a home for the chestnut gelding. Luckily, with the help of Joe Sharp, Rosie Napravnik and Joe Sharp’s dad Mark, Heery was able to move Saffron into that next chapter of his life.
“(Ness) shipped him to Joe Sharp’s dad farm in Ocala and Saffron was there for a little while. Then he went from Ocala to Rosie and Joe’s farm (in Kentucky). We left him on the farm for a year or two,” said Heery who is extremely grateful for the help she’s received in finding a soft spot for the gelding to land.
Although Saffron was happy enough to take off the racing shoes, he wasn’t truly ready to leave Miss Saffron at the track.
Thinking up a game plan to keep the two close, Heery wanted to see whether Saff was interested in ponying.
However, she admits that given her hectic schedule galloping horses as well as working as an assistant made it tough to find time to re-train Saff.
“I brought him to Belmont, tried the pony thing, but I was on a full set list. It was really hard to do it by myself because I was an assistant and I was on a full set list. I was shipping up to California for two weeks and I came back, and he was a total maniac because nobody had ridden him for two weeks. He needed someone to give him a lot more time. So I eventually made the decision to send him to a farm in Saratoga where it be cheaper to keep him and just let him have a little more farm time until I could figure something else out, or I had more time.”
Racing is not bound to one track and as the months move along, horsemen move from one track to another, gearing up for various races across the U.S. circuit. Moving from track to track is just part of the game. While the U.S. racing circuit continues to be Heery’s mainstay, she has also ventured north of the border to Woodbine Racetrack.
Yes, you might remember her face heading into the 2016 Queen’s Plate, where she was prepping a handsome Gio Ponti colt for trainer Mike Maker and owners Ken and Sarah Ramsey.
Working Sir Dudley Digges over Woodbine’s tapeta track is a memory that Heery will not forget anytime soon.
“Oh, it was fantastic, it was such a cool feeling. Honestly, when I first got there I didn’t know that the Queen’s Plate is like your Kentucky Derby. So I would come back from the track and I would tell Nolan (Ramsey) ‘there are so many people taking pictures of Dudley and me!’ Nolan laughed and said, ‘Chelsea, this is like their Kentucky Derby.’
Although she helped prep Dudley for the Plate, Heery couldn’t stay to watch him capture the big race.
Remember, horsemen are always on the move.
“Sadly, I could not be there because I had to go down to Monmouth Park because we had a horse there that I really loved too. Bigger Picture. He was running in the Gr 1. United Nations, so Mike had to split everyone up because it was a big day. So Nolan stayed in Canada and I drove down to New Jersey to saddle Bigger Picture and all the assistants were kind of spread out.”
Despite traveling from one place to another Heery remained determined to give Saff a well- deserved retirement and a new start in life.
“I was attached to this one. I knew I had to keep my place open for Saffron. I can’t afford a million horses but that one horse - I had to make sure I made that one work.”
Committed to the chestnut who brought her along in the game, Saff has enjoyed his r & r at various farms, but also stayed close to Heery as she continues working from one circuit to another.
Landing her feet at Palm Meadows working as an assistant for trainer Thomas Albertrani, Heery and Saff have found their spring spot until the next venture comes calling.
Guess what? Saff is also an assistant. A freelancing assistant so to speak.
The 13-year-old chestnut worked for several months ponying for trainer Carlos David's outfit before transitioning to another ponying gig close to Albertrani’s barn.
“Right now JJ Tonner is using him because Tom doesn’t need a pony. I’m like the only rider there right now,” said Heery.
The horse mom admits that Saff has also come along with the help of Austin Trites and Priscilla Schaefer who take care of him at Toner’s barn.
That’s the thing about racing – it’s a team effort.
Many, if not all horsemen in this industry have a competitive spirit, but there’s also a continuous outpouring of compassion and support that you see from one barn to another, especially when someone needs a helping hand.
Heery knows that letting go of the racing shoes is not always an easy transition for a racehorse.
Yet, she sees her chestnut really soaking up the love, the attention and the track life - without being a racehorse.
“He is doing wonderfully. He’s turned into such a good boy.”
Heery’s social media is flooded with photos of the chestnut gelding. No doubt he’s part of her crew, the four-legged family which (and will always) include her beloved sidekick Gypsy.
Sometimes we take for granted how much support and love an animal can give you in life. When it comes to the racehorses, we sometimes only store the memories involving a stakes win or several tough training days.
Thankfully, there are people like Heery who’ve not only banked the great memories, but also reserved a spot in their heart and room in their life for a horse they deeply love.
While this sport may always be painted as a tough sport to be in, it’s usually the people with the biggest hearts that are often within it.
Please remember that the next time you see Saff ponying or when Heery posts a picture with the chestnut.
She took a chance without asking anything in return.
Well, maybe Heery does have one request for Saff. Yes, posing for the gram while chilling together after the work day is done.
Naturally, photos tell a story.
Saff does not have his own Instagram page (just yet).
However, Heery does and it showcases Saff living his best life with a special lady by his side.
When I contacted Ashley and asked if I could see Bilbo I decided this would be my final happily ever after story. My website has remained untouched for over a year, however I knew I wanted to end Chapter 1 of Betting On A Second Chance on a high and happy note. There continue to be so many noteworthy stories about horses coming off the track and having a chance to live out a second career. Additionally, there are also many stories about rescued thoroughbreds beating the odds to come back after years of neglect.
To date, my stories have been lighthearted, honest and focused on the genuine souls who take it upon themselves to find these horses a soft landing into their next career. I love hearing people’s stories and almost always leave every barn with my heart feeling fuller. Thank you to everyone who has taken the time to share their story with me. I truly appreciate it.
Chapter 2 is waiting in the wings for me but in the meantime here is the very special story about a grey named Bilbo.
A city girl both day and night I rely heavily on my GPS to help me find these wonderful people and horses on which my second chance stories are continually based.
Too often, my GPS (now aptly named Lemon) will yell out in the middle of a highway, ‘You’ve reached your destination.’ I usually grimace, my stomach drops and then a desperate search for a shop or a random person to direct me ensues.
When I spoke to Ashley and asked if could meet Bilbo, she happily agreed and gave me directions to her new barn in Mono.
Her barn was easy to navigate, no thanks to Lemon but more so to a helpful neighbour who pointed me in the right direction. Upon pulling into a long driveway and greeted by Douglas’ husband Matt, I find myself heading in the direction of several paddocks lining the top of the hill.
My eyes fall upon a handful of horses contently grazing in each paddock, enjoying the sunshine and barely taking notice as I pull up to the barn where Douglas is waiting for me.
I’ve been fortunate enough to cross paths with Douglas before and know she is no stranger to the horse racing industry. Working as both a groom and exercise rider at Woodbine Racetrack for several years she knows the in and the outs of the industry. Moreover, she has deep understanding and love for the four-legged athletes who, win or lose, rain or shine, come out every day to train.
Even though Douglas has stepped away from the racing oval and currently runs her own barn, I’m not surprised to see thoroughbreds are the mainstay in the four-legged household. Looking out onto her happy herd, she explains how Bilbo found his way here.
“I contacted a friend and asked if she wanted to go down to the auction to pick up a horse and she mentioned to me she knew of a horse that needed help. It was kind of a friend of a friend that had this horse. She sent me some photos and right away I said ‘get him here.’ It took a few days, but I ended up getting him here.”
In early April, Bilbo arrived in a dire state at Douglas’ farm.
“He was infested head to toe with lice. He was covered in bleeding sores from him chewing and eating himself - it was disgusting, his skin was crawling. My vet scored him a body score of zero. He could barely walk. The driveway was under construction at the time and I had to walk him from the road, and he could barely walk (to the barn).”
Since his arrival Douglas has openly shared pictures of Bilbo on both her Instagram and Facebook page. The flesh and bone photos of this grey thoroughbred have garnered much attention among friends and the horse racing community and it of course leaves many wondering how someone could neglect their animal to this point.
“When the vet came we did blood work – the bloodwork came back and he was anemic because the lice were sucking his blood dry - it was that bad. He had a really bad heart murmur. It sounded like his heart was going to explode. He was infested with two types of worms. We had to do three de-wormings on him. We started him on vitamin injections just to get his energy level up just so he could eat.”
Although Bilbo is not Douglas’ first rescue horse this has been a very tough journey for her and she is thankful for the outpouring of support she has received. “The shipper donated a blanket when he saw him. Greenhawk donated Biotic 8 along with Omega Alpha. My mom and her boyfriend actually purchased some hay for him and my vet did his teeth for free.”
His dire physical state would have several people questioning whether the horse would make it, but from the get go Douglas sensed the strong will of the horse and she continued to nurse him back to health, just taking it day by day.
As we chat and the tears openly flow, Douglas leads me towards a paddock with three horses.
It is time to meet Bilbo.
Not knowingly, I had driven right past him on my way in. I’m more than happy to report that the 13-year-old gelding is a far cry from skeletal frame depicted on social media earlier this year.
Douglas brings him out of the paddock and leads him into the barn to be groomed.
In stark contrast to three months ago, Bilbo has put on weight, his coat is shiny, and his mane is starting to grow out.
She leads him into the barn, places him in the cross ties and brushes him down. He enjoys the attention and stands patiently while she gushes about him.
“He hadn’t given up. He didn’t want to die. He is a fighter. Even though he was literally half dead he wasn’t ready. I just love him for that. Most horses would have given up. Even the vet said most horses at this point would have given up, but not him.”
There are several words to describe this horse but in all honesty he is truly my definition of a ‘war horse.’
In racing there are many types of racehorses. Some aren’t cut for racing, some will race a handful of times, and then there are the soldiers of the game. The ones that race for years withstanding the physical demands of the sport and regardless of running for a huge purse or pocket change they continue to persevere, strong willed right to the very end of their career.
In Bilbo’s case he is war horse on and off the track. Firstly, for coming back from deaths doors in light of the neglect he suffered and amazingly this fella has a stacked resume of races to boot.
Back in July 2006 he began his racing career at Woodbine Racetrack and raced in several stakes races that year including two runner-up finishes in both the Silver Deputy and Swynford Stakes. That same year he finished fourth in the G3 Grey Stakes.
For the next four years, he raced at several different distances, stretching from 6 to 9 furlongs depending on the race. While he raced mostly at Woodbine, the grey gelding also had several starts at Fort Erie before shipping south of the border to race at Mountaineer in West Virginia and then Tampa Downs in Florida.
In March 2010, he made his final start at Mountaineer Racetrack, finishing fourth in a claiming race.
The graded stakes placed gelding and son of Point Given raced 38 times and banked over $180k.
Sadly, after retiring from racing Bilbo has a sketchy past. Douglas feels that he was most likely thrown out into a paddock for several years with little post track training towards another career. Unfortunately, quite a bit remains unknown about the last seven years of his life and there are no hard facts pointing to what he’s done and where he’s been.
Although Douglas has tried to track down the last person who owned Bilbo and left him in his dire condition, it has been to no avail.
“The guy was actually really secretive on where his farm was located so my friend had to get him shipped to her farm and then I had to pick him up from her farm. I never found out where his farm was. I tried to get the SPCA involved but they couldn’t do anything because they didn’t have his address and I could not find his address anywhere.”
Thankfully, Bilbo is now in the right hands.
Moreover, not only is the grey living a healthy life, but Douglas mentions that he is now doing some light riding and adventuring out onto the trails with her husband.
“Matt mostly just takes him on trail rides and hacks him through the woods. He gives Matt attitude and he loves that. Matt obviously feels sorry for him for what he’s been through. He is cheeky but he is grateful and he is kind.”
Looking back on their journey so far and the bond he is formed with her family so quickly, Douglas is extremely happy she gave this horse a second chance. After a brief photo session with the duo, Douglas walks Bilbo towards the paddock. It is time for him to get back to his relaxed and butter life of grazing.
She watches him as he quietly walks off. Keeping to himself, he resumes grazing in the mid afternoon sun.
“He is a very kind, he is just such a kind horse and so strong for everything he has been through.”
Douglas smiles, remaining slightly teary eyed. Whether intuition played a part or not, she reflects on her decision, knowing that it wasn’t an easy one but she remained committed to seeing it through.
“He was so full of life even though he wasn’t. He wasn’t ready, there was no way.”
As the partnership continues to blossom, I look forward to the updates on social media, all the while knowing that one kind soul took a chance and changed the life of her four-legged friend for the better.
This is a simple story but one that shows that after the finish line, after the racing shoes are off and the fans have long gone, the racing community still cares and kindness sticks around long after a 'war horse' has called it a day.
“He’s a striking individual and he’s a lovely size. He has three quality gates and I kind of thought ‘I already go up to the barn to ride one, I may as well ride two,’” laughed Val Topp as we chatted about St. Andrews Bay, the latest addition to her four-legged family.
The three-year-old bay thoroughbred gelding, and son of U S Ranger now simply goes by the name Andy.
Towering over Topp, I continue to snap some photos of the two outside Andy’s new digs, a lovely barn nestled in the countryside of Schomberg, Ontario. Walking Andy back inside the barn, Topp leads him into the wash stall before untacking him. Looking over my shoulder, Topp’s other trusty stead and former racehorse, Ojibway Signal (Oj) watches her intently from his stall door.
A familiar face to this blog, Oj is Topp’s saucy sidekick. A partnership forged several years back. The horse and rider duo ventured across the country to Kentucky last fall to compete in the Thoroughbred Makeover Challenge. While I reminisce about watching them soar over the eventing course at Kentucky Horse Park, Oj shoots some dagger eyes over at his younger counterpart.
“Oh they are night and day,” said Topp as she glanced between Oj and Andy. “Oj is a little bit fiery. He has a lot of forward momentum. Andy is a lovely mover but he is quite mellow about most everything. They are actually a fun pair, a good pair to have,” laughed Topp.
Interviewing Topp for a third time, I’ve come to love that mostly all her answers are punctuated with a light-hearted laugh.
Looking on at her latest project, the giant teddy bear of a horse, she admits that it’s been an interesting experience so far. “It’s been a big learning curve. I’m a lot more accustomed to horses like Oj. He’s a more typical racehorse where you sit quiet and pet him and say whoa, whereas Andy you have to kick and say let’s go. So that’s just a little bit more out of my comfort zone, but it’s been really good for me as a rider to try and be stronger and more diverse.”
Not only do her horses have varying dispositions but also very different racing histories. Trained by Topp’s fiance David Bell, Andy ran a total of four races while Oj amassed a total of 40 career starts.
Under the care and tutelage of Bell, Andy’s brief stint as a racehorse began last summer at Woodbine Racetrack. Topp who works alongside Bell quickly pulls out her phone to show me some video of Andy during his early morning training sessions. Unlike his racehorse counterparts who inherently zip into each new furlong a little quicker, Andy lopes along at an easy gallop, like a Sunday driver in the right-hand lane just taking his sweet time.
She then plays another video of Andy casually sauntering up onto the main track, and surveying the scene. “Wait for it,” she smiles as he flicks his head for a few seconds in the video -- as if to say ‘yes, I’m a racehorse and that’s as wild as I get!’”
Working as an exercise rider at the track Topp could see Andy wasn’t cut from the same cloth as some of the other racehorses. But as with anything they still gave him a shot during the latter part of the racing meet starting him in four races between September and November. He retired with a third place finish to his name.
At the end of the racing meet, his owners decided to let the young horse move on from the racing oval and find his legs in another career.
“He showed some potential but they decided not to go on with him over the winter and pay the bills into the next year which is fine. So mostly it was a joint decision because his attitude was so good and it was fairly clear he wanted to be a show horse not a racehorse because he was so mellow. He would try in the races to please you but not because he had a burning desire to win.”
And so much to Topp and Bell’s delight they brought Andy home for the holidays. “We shipped him up to the farm and two days later I was riding him in the arena. He did trot poles. There was basically no transition time, he just settled right into a happy life.”
While Topp worked more extensively with Oj over the winter and into the spring, she let Andy grow into himself, put on some groceries (his winter weight) and continued to slowly add more structure to his work routine.
“December and January we did a lot of lunging. As the weather got better he’s done a lot more hacking, which he enjoys. He is such a big boy I try to keep it varied with him and let him enjoy everything he’s doing. He jumps little jumps but nothing with any real pressure or size because I don’t think he needs to at three.”
Despite being very green Topp is still contemplating whether Andy will indeed follow in Oj’s footsteps and go to the Thoroughbred Makeover once again held at Kentucky Horse Park in Kentucky, Lexington.
“I would like to because it was so much fun last year. I’ll see how he’s doing, if he’s ready for that. It’s quite a busy show and he seems to have a great demeanour. But between now and then I have to get him out and about to some schooling shows and make sure he can handle that before he goes down to the horse park and sees Budweiser horses and all kinds of things.”
Held in late October, the Makeover provides horse trainers with the opportunity to showcase the skills and abilities of their recently retired thoroughbreds in ten different disciplines including (but not limited to) dressage, show jumping, eventing, barrel racing, polo, and competitive trail.
Last year’s makeover attracted 170 competitors including Oj and Topp who competed in the dressage and eventing portion of the competition. According to the Retired Racehorse Project, the organization facilitating these makeover events this year’s competition has accepted applications from 480 trainers across 45 U.S. states, three Canadian provinces and England.
As Topp contemplates another venture south, she admits that Andy may become a resale project once she puts a bit more training into him and takes him to a few shows.
“I’m struggling with two - to find the time and energy to do two. I think it’s fine for him this year he doesn’t need to work hard everyday or be on a real program…but he’s a nice enough horse to go on and do big things so in the long run he should probably be someone else’s number one horse.”
In the meantime Topp continues to give him the attention and care he needs and deserves, but most importantly the seasoned rider and horse mom is just letting him be Andy.