“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.