“I just love the fact that we were able to do something - something from the bottom of our hearts. This industry is a tough industry and it gets so much bad publicity. For us to be able to do something because we want to do it, not because we have to do it, just shows that we all care in this business.”
Warm words spoken by none other than Steve Owens, a well-established horse trainer at Woodbine Racetrack who recently rescued and gave a second chance to a horse named Snuffy.
“This is the first horse I‘ve ever rescued from a rescue site. I saw it on Facebook and I had a good year last year with London Tower making a lot of money, so I thought it would be nice to give back,” said Owens, who has worked in the racing industry for over two decades.
Tucked away on the backstretch adjacent to the sales barn and the sand track, Owens’ racing outfit currently houses fourteen horses. Snuffy, a seven-year-old grulla quarter horse gelding is the latest addition to his four-legged family.
His ‘grulla’ or tan-gray colouring sets him apart from his stablemates making him easy to spot as Owens walks me towards his stall. Snuffy’s soft eyes and a furry face nuzzle their way over to his owner who pulls out some mints as we’re introduced.
Stabled several doors down is the seasoned stakes winning filly London Tower. The runner-up in last year’s Woodbine Oaks captured the 2015 Fury Stakes and Eternal Search Stakes, closing out the season with nearly $400,000 in career earnings. Her success has inevitably helped with financing Snuffy’s rescue and bringing him to his new home.
“His price was $1,250.00 USD but his shipping bill was considerably more. Considering he had to ship from Louisiana to Arkansas, from Arkansas to Kentucky and from Kentucky to Canada. ”
Snuffy, who was destined for slaughter at the Bastrop Louisiana Kill Pen was purchased by Owens in mid-December. Unfortunately, it took the trainer over two weeks to get the horse to his farm in Canada.
“It was a considerable amount of time that he had to spend in Louisiana and in quarantine and then from one farm to the next. And then an overnight stay at Dr.Poole’s farm there. IHT (International Horse Transport) picked him up and commuted him from Kentucky to Toronto.”
Not surprisingly, Snuffy was in poor shape when he finally arrived at Owens’ farm in Kleinburg, Ontario.
“When he got off the IHT van in Kleinburg he almost fell off the van. He had no weight, he had no substance,” said Owens who nursed the horse back to the health over the winter. “He needed his teeth floated because he was having trouble eating. His coat was terrible. He had dropped off at the hips and had no substance in behind.”
His assistant Laura Delorey played a key role in getting Snuffy into shape both mentally and physically. “She spent a lot of time with him and they became very close and still are up to today.”
Delorey who works alongside Owens at both the track and farm has been by Snuffy’s side since he stepped off the van in January.
“He’s a good boy, he doesn’t do anything wrong and he seems to appreciate what we are doing for him. People say that he’s lucky, but I think we’re kind of the lucky ones - you know to meet up with a good little guy like this.”
Once he was physically strong enough to accept a rider Owens re-started Snuffy with Delorey seated aboard. Like a proud dad, Owens posts videos on his Facebook wall of Snuffy, including one of Delorey trotting the quarter horse around his barn for the first time. Watching the quarter horse move calmly through his paces, his doting owner thought it best to transition him into a new career.
“Well everybody needs a job to do. He is such a lovely animal why not give him something to look forward to everyday? Believe me, he’s taken to everything that we’ve asked him to like he’s done it before.”
Snuffy was shipped to Woodbine’s backstretch earlier this month and now works six days a week as Owens’ barn pony. Given his quiet demeanour, he is the dependable guy that ensures Owens’ racehorses get from the barn to the track and back safe and sound. “He is out with his first set at six a.m. and put away by nine o’clock in the morning,” said Owens as he gives Delorey a leg up on Snuffy.
Delorey and Snuffy walk through the shedrow and wait for their next ‘set’ outside. In this case, a pair of two-year-olds thoroughbreds who are making their debut at the track this season. With Snuffy upfront, the trio make their way towards the main track. Owens is not far behind, keeping a watchful eye on the quarter horse.
“He was taught on the sand ring and then he moved to the training track where he walked out with horses and now he’s moved out to Woodbine’s main track, to the tapeta track and he’s accepted everything very kindly.” He is one of the first ponies to lay foot on the tapeta, a new surface Woodbine has laid down for the thoroughbred race meet scheduled to begin on April 9th.
We walk through the tunnel to the main track and Owens finds a place on the rail to watch his youngsters breeze their way around the track. Suited up in winter gear from head to toe, he’s very much at ease knowing that his quarter horse is out on the rail patiently waiting with Delorey aboard.
Although spring has arrived most horses including Snuffy are holding onto their winter coats. As the trio heads back towards us Owens is quick to note that his pony has already garnered a new nickname. “I call him Scruffy - it sounds more manly.”
As Snuffy leads his set off the track something spooks one of the youngsters, both shy and take a step back. Ears pricked forward, Delorey sends Snuffy forward towards the tunnel. The composed quarter horse continues on his way, not taking a step out of place.
“He’s a gem. It was a natural transition for him to come from nowhere to become a barn pony,” said Owens as he watched them head through the tunnel and back down the road towards his barn.
Even though the racing season has yet to commence, the trainer already knows he’s won something very special by having Snuffy in his barn.
"Some days I get off and I’m smiling from ear to ear and I think ‘oh, that was great from start to finish’ and then there’s other days he comes out and he gives me a cheeky attitude and I have to ride for every moment, and you think ‘okay, I’m exhausted but I have to make this breakthrough and he always gives me the breakthrough, but it’s the continuous challenge because he’s a big personality.”
Straight from the rider’s mouth, those were the sentiments said by Sara Jones as we chatted about her four-legged man who goes by the name Sir Glacken.
Jones, a long time horse lover and riding instructor at Big C Stables up in Frere Pilgrim, Christ Church has been working with the handsome grey thoroughbred (who now simply goes by ‘Glacken’) for the last six years.
She crossed paths with the former racehorse when local horse trainer Roger Parravicino and his son Bruce were looking to rehome him back in the 2010. Glacken, who was purchased at a horse sale in Ocala was brought to Barbados to race at the Garrison Savannah. Unfortunately, it was a very short-lived career for the young colt who only had one career start before being retired.
“Bruce brought him home in the middle of Tomas, which was the big hurricane that passed (through) Barbados. The Garrison roof was coming off over his stable and Bruce in the middle of it all rode him home. We thought if he came home in the middle of the storm he might be quiet enough for the riding school,” said Jones as she watches the now nine-year-old thoroughbred enjoy his evening gallop around the grass arena of Big C.
Shortly thereafter he was brought over to the riding school owned and operated by Sara’s mom, Di Clarke. Glacken is not the first thoroughbred to walk through the bright white gates of Big C, as both mom and daughter have taken on numerous off the track thoroughbreds to help out where they can.
“Our racing industry is very large for a small island and for so many of them their career is finished very early on in life. Most of them are done by two or three-years-old, so there is a huge need for thoroughbreds to be rehomed,” said Jones.
Many of the ones they’ve taken on have become horses for their students to learn on. “Over the years I’ve had Hidden Glance, Happy Hour, Vladamir (Short Stuff). There’s been Jeblar’s Hero, he was a super good horse and was really good for the riding school. He taught a lot of kids how to ride. Before Glacken I had Emanuel who Adriana (an accomplished Big C rider) has competed with.”
Jones notes that all of these off-the-track thoroughbreds (OTTBS) have made excellent horses for youngsters training at a higher level and for kids who compete overseas and want to be in the competition arena.
“These are all horses that I got up to 1.25 metre. And then a lot of them get thrown back in for the riding school so that you better the stock for the riding level, so that kids have a good schoolmaster. When I start winning on them at the higher level and they become seasoned horses, they know what their job is and they will get little children out of trouble. Then it’s time to throw them back into the riding school and start working with another young one.”
That next young one to come along was of course Glacken who Jones sensed from early on would be for one rider and one rider only.
“We very quickly realized that he wasn’t riding school material at all. He was what we call a swimmer, there’s a lot going on and it took me a few months to get him on a straight line – just to keep him moving and balanced.”
Jones continued to face an uphill battle with Glacken for the next little while.
“The first year he spent more time unsound than he spent sound. He had (hoof) wall abscesses, which often happens with grey horses and he would be on for a month and off for two. So there really wasn’t a whole lot of progress in the first year. We finally figured out that it helped hugely if we had him shod with fine little nails. And, once we got him sound then our training was very positive.”
Schooling him on the flat for a good chunk of time, Jones continued to exercise patience with her four-legged counterpart. Riding for too many years to count, she knows that patience plays an important in the process of schooling and re-starting racehorses.
With that said, the seasoned rider and coach soon found herself being questioned by her own mom on where Glacken’s second career would take him.
“For the longest time Di said, ‘Are you ever going to jump this horse?’ and I would say ‘patience Di, this a lot of engine I have here. I want to be able to contain it before I start jumping him.’”
So in 2014, the two finally made their debut in the jumper ring at Whitehall in St.Peter. “We jumped the 0.85 metre to 0.95 metre in the first round. In the second round we jumped a metre to 1.10 metre and he jumped really well and it was a very successful show.”
Unlike his racing career, Glacken finally found his sweet spot soaring over the jumps with Jones. “Within the first year of us competing him we went from the 0.85 to 1.20 metres.”
Aside from her training with Glacken she coaches her students on everything from basic grid work to teaching them how to jump courses on property and for the show ring. In 2015, she passed her Level 2 FEI training in the Cayman Islands.
Jones’ new training means she can bring horses farther along in the dressage ring by teaching them specific elements such as the counter canter, the shoulder-ins, the half-pass as well as half-pirouettes. Jones can also now coach her students to jump up to a 1.20 metre course.
“The discipline like every sport evolves over time and we’ve learnt a heck of a lot over the years. We’ve all furthered our education. We’ve gone through lots of coaching programs but we’ve also now stuck by our guns and really followed the FEI, which is the umbrella worldwide body for the equestrian sport and they do courses all around the world.”
With her extensive knowledge base and ongoing commitment to the sport Jones now has her eyes set on Glacken jumping in the 1.30 metre division by the end of this year.
While they work toward that goal together, Jones will also continue to help retrain several other ex-racehorses at the riding school, not only for new careers, or for her students to learn on, but most importantly to give her four-legged friends a second lease on life.