“It's her inner horse. I look into her eyes and I just melt.”
It’s hard not to smile as Kim Allaby gushes about her off-the-track thoroughbred (OTTB) and sweet four-legged counterpart, Hint of Lemon. The ten-year-old thoroughbred now simply goes by the name Lemon.
As the snow continues to fall and graciously coats the paddocks of Evamar Farms in Lakefield, Ontario (where Allaby boards Lemon), we talk about their second chance story.
The two crossed paths more than three years ago on the backstretch of Woodbine Racetrack. “One of the trainers I worked for claimed her from (trainer) Mark Casse.”
Allaby who runs her own equine massage business, Soothing Hands Equine Therapy, was working for her client Franka Armata (trainer for Alpine Stables Ltd.) when Lemon made her entrance into the barn.
Despite the fact that Allaby already had a Warmblood at the time, she laid claim to Lemon right off the bat. “I didn’t have the time or space to keep two horses or the money. But I said to the trainer 'when this horse is ready to come off the track let me know because I don’t know what it is but I just love this horse.'”
At this point I interject, “But what was it about Lemon that you fell in love with?”
Allaby warmly responds, “I work on a lot of horses but you fall in love with one. You know, it’s like you meet a lot of guys but you fall in love with one. And I just fell in love with her.”
A sentiment uttered by none other than an island girl, a Jamaican whose love of horses and horse racing spans greater than the racing oval encompassing a stretch of real estate on Rexdale Boulevard in Toronto.
“I always remembering wanting to have a horse, be a horse, play with horses. My tricycle became a horse and then everything was a horse. The dog was a horse. I rode my German Shepherd when I was 4 or 5 and eventually I got too big for him so he would sit down,” laughed Allaby.
Soon enough (at the ripe old age of six) she was taking riding lessons and from there aspirations of working in the horse industry continued to flow. “I wanted to have a career in horses but didn’t see how I was going to make any money at it, and my parents thought I should go to university and get a real career.”
She took her parents advice, but after her studies she started teaching riding lessons in Jamaica and then in 1983 she found herself an OTTB to ride.
Over the years Allaby worked with several OTTBs on the island including Papyrus, Easy Penny, Red Fury and a cute little grey she gave to her niece and renamed Heartthrob. All her thoroughbreds came from the island’s local track, Caymanas Park which is located in Portmore, Jamaica.
Continuing to follow her passion Allaby was hired to work for the Jamaica Racing Commission to run the jockey’s training school. “They had an old jockey that was teaching them race riding. I was teaching them normal riding and their school work.”
Adding to the mix, Allaby decided to enter a ladies race. “I lost both stirrups at the start not realizing how fast these horses break off. I had no stirrups, clung on, finished without falling off…I probably finished last,” laughed Allaby as she recalls the terror and excitement of those few minutes.
However, the race made her realize that as much as she loved teaching she wanted to be in the stirrups galloping horses as well. And soon enough the opportunity presented itself.
“We had to move from where the school was so for awhile during the changeover the horses were staying with different trainers at Caymanas Park. Well, there came my chance to actually get on one and gallop around the track.”
Although Allaby moved to Canada in 1992 and started her own venture, her love for galloping horses never wavered. And, as fate would have it, another opportunity soon fell across her lap.
“I saw an ad in The Star, they were looking for grooms and exercise riders at Woodbine. I thought no I’ve got this other business I’m starting out with massage, but boy I remembered that day at Caymanas Park and thought ‘hmm that could be fun'. Then my sister phoned me and said, ‘did you see the ad in the paper?! They want exercise riders! And I thought, ‘ya that’s really what I want to do.'"
In 1999 Allaby was back in the tack galloping horses at Woodbine and continued to do so for the next eight years. While at the track, she got her trainer’s license but after a few years realized it wasn’t her calling.
Transitioning into a full-time equine massage therapist Allaby continued to work on the backstretch assisting trainers with horses who needed bodywork.
And then one day Lemon strutted into Armata’s barn and became her client.
The kind eyed mare started her racing career in August 2008 at Woodbine. After two very decent starts she went on to race in the 2008 JP Morgan Chase Jessamine Stakes at Keenland in Lexington, Kentucky. She finished up the year of racing in New Orleans, Louisiana at Fair Grounds racetrack. The following year she was lightly raced at Santa Anita in California.
In 2010 Lemon returned to Woodbine and continued racing there for the next couple of years. Allaby vividly remembers watching her win at the track several years ago.
“She looked like she was ready to go into the hunter ring, but Lemon like to race in a Rubenesque fashion. She raced her best when she was nice and filled out and I just happened to go over to races that day….and one of the girls who was doing color commentary before the race mentioned that Lemon might need that race as a tightner because she didn’t quite look fit enough at the beginning of the season.”
Pausing briefly, Allaby suddenly lights up.
“Zooommm! Lemon took off and won the race. I just had to laugh because she didn’t know that Lemon raced her best when she was looking fat, but she wasn’t fat - it was all muscle.”
After 31 career starts including two wins and finishing a handful of times in the prize money, the seasoned racehorse was retired in December 2012.
That’s when Allaby got the call. “The trainer phoned and said ‘she came out of her last race not so great, (I) don’t want to winter her, come and get her.’”
Allaby was there in a heartbeat.
As with any horse coming off the track there is a period of adjustment before starting a second career. Allaby was pleasantly surprised to find Lemon more than willing and ready to start back into leisure riding. “She was fine. I took her out back in the snow, jumped on her and went for a ride in the backfield. I let her out in the arena so she could run around because I didn’t know what they had done (work wise) with her. I know she had raced two days before, but I know they wouldn’t have done anything with her except hand walk her, so I knew should be a bit high (hot temperament).”
In order to combat the hot or fiery temperament Allaby explains how important it is for owners to change thoroughbred’s diets once they retire and transition into a new home and career. “The wrong food will make them hot. It’s not to feed them less, but to not feed them sweet feed. Even a little bit of sweet feed will change them.”
Another key element Allaby takes into consideration is bodywork and the importance of integrating massage into their new lifestyle.
“The main thing at the track is that even though you think they’re sound they do need bodywork. Because they might not have a tendon issue, a suspensory or something like that but their bodies are tight from that kind of strain. It’s hard work being a racehorse.”
Not surprisingly, Lemon is treated to regular massages by her doting horse mom. Even before she rides Allaby also makes sure to give her girl a quick look over to make sure Lemon is happy and healthy from head to hooves.
“I check her before I ride to make sure she’s where I left her because occasionally she fights with Hailey (her Warmblood stablemate) and I came back one day and she had thrown herself against the wall and hurt her ribs. She made herself sore to the touch,” recalled Allaby.
At this point Allaby walks me over to Lemon’s stall, hands me some brushes and we continue to chat as I groom Lemon’s furry coat. Happy for company, Lemon continues to munch away at her hay as Allaby combs out the snowflakes clustered throughout her mane.
Learning and understanding her horse from the ground up underscores the trusting relationship that has developed between the two over the last few years. It has also allowed Allaby to try a mix of different things in the saddle. “She’s done some jumping. I’ve done some stick and balling with her, and she actually follows the ball quite nicely and she didn’t mind that at all.”
But more than anything Allaby is happy to ride Lemon simply for leisure and have the opportunity to share her with the rest of her family.
“She loves my grandnephews from when they were little babies and came in a carriage. She was just so kind and gentle, she just nuzzled them and got to know them. We’ve put them on her back and she’s just so careful.”
Allaby leads Lemon out of her stall and into the indoor arena to frolic about. The former racehorse trots and canters easily around the arena for a little while before halting at the entrance. She turns her head to us as if to say, “I’m ready to go back to munching my hay, please.”
Her horse mom happily abides and walks her mare back into the stall.
After watching Lemon run her heart out at the track, Allaby knows her horse deserves more than her fair share of hay.
More importantly, I know that the lovely Lemon will continue to live the sweet life under Allaby’s watchful eye.