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.”
Captain Apache a.k.a Chance is one racehorse who got a very lucky break in life.
In March 2013 the bay thoroughbred gelding was found living near deaths door at Wilcox Hill in Barbados before some kind souls stumbled upon him.
“Annemarie Greene and Sandra Sampson, with the help of Geoff Bynoe, the RSPCA, and possibly the police rescued him,” said Anne-Marie Bourne as she informed me about the racehorse’s rescue operation.
A horse owner herself, Bourne was contacted by Sampson to see if she could help out the racehorse who was rescued and taken to Sampson’s Sandy Turf Stables. Quick to pick up the reins, Bourne picked him up and began treating his ailments right away.
“We treated a very bad cut on his left hind which was infected with maggots. He also had very little hair. We wormed him regularly, had his teeth and feet done and fed him with lots of grass and lots of TLC and within 3 months he was unrecognizable.”
Chance spent the next two years grazing in the paddocks, getting fat, and forming a friendship with Bourne’s other horse Merlot. When Bourne felt he was ready to start back at work, she contacted Kimberly Tryhane.
Eager to hear Tryhane’s side of the story I contacted her while she was visiting Toronto to watch fellow Barbadian Emily Kinch ride in the Pan Am Games.
A horse lover at heart and an experienced rider, Tryhane is quick to inform me that she’s ridden at several different stables across the island.
“I started to really learn the beginner stuff at Sandra Sampson’s Sandy Turf stables. Then I moved from there when I was about 15 over to Big C - so I’ve ridden with Di (Clarke) as well.”
After finishing college Tryhane returned to Sampson’s stables before transitioning over to Congo Road Equestrian centre where she found herself a horse of her own; a thoroughbred and former racehorse by the name of Logan. “I took him over for two years and I started to teach him how to jump. He reached about a metre ten in shows but could jump a metre 25 in single jumps.”
Unfortunately, in December 2014 Logan got sick and passed away. While she was devastated by the loss and grieved about him she knew in her heart that she needed to continue on with her riding. “Three days after I said ‘alright that’s it - I’m going to look for another horse,’ - that’s when Chance the horse I have now came into my life.”
Shortly thereafter Tryhane went up to Bourne’s stables and watched her lunge Chance. “I really loved his canter – a huge massive canter,” said Tryhane who came back the following day to see him.
After five minutes of lunging him she told the groom she was going to hop on. “He goes ‘Are you crazy?!” and I said ‘No, I will be fine,” laughed Tryhane as we chatted about her eagerness to try out the former racehorse.
“Up I got and went straight into walking and trotting and he was lovely. He was happy to be ridden. He didn’t give too much trouble, he didn’t dart off – it wasn’t even like he’d been given time off.”
Even though Tryhane was impressed by Chance’s calm and collected performance on their first riding date, she admits there wasn’t anything extraordinary about the nine-year-old thoroughbred bay gelding when they initially met. “It’s funny -- Logan and him were not my favourites, they weren’t the ones that stood out - but something made me go ‘let me just stick around a bit longer, give myself some time, give them a chance.’”
Although Tryhane doesn’t know much about his racing record or track life, she was touched by the difficult life he encountered once he did retire from racing. “I loved his story, I loved the fact that I was helping him and he was helping me recover from a loss.”
So, in January 2015, Tryhane finally took that leap of faith and brought Chance to his new home at Congo Road. She restarted him under saddle and is currently working with him four days a week. Despite taking things slow she is amazed at how quickly he’s adapted from his racehorse to riding pony days. “You teach him something and his brain is like a sponge. I mean he just absorbs everything, you may teach him something and not do it for months and he’ll remember it.”
Given her penchant for jumping, she is teaching Chance the skills he needs to master jumping at her barn and eventually in the show ring. Tryhane also acknowledges the fact that even if he doesn’t turn out to be her star jumping horse, she’ll still be extremely happy with him. “I’ve had professionals tell me ‘you know Kim, Chance will not be your metre twenty horse, but I said I don’t care, I just want him to be mine and I just want to ride him’ - it’s something personal I can’t explain it,” laughed Tryhane.
Being a horse owner myself, I know that transitioning him to another career is not only challenging but also an extremely personal experience for both horse and rider. But what I can appreciate is how personal that experience must be for Tryhane, knowing that her horse went through an extremely negative period in his life before he was rescued. “The other thing I love is that after being abused and being mistreated by people, I’m just so surprised that he is so willing to have me around him.”
Tryhane continues to be in awe of how trusting Chance is not only with her but with complete strangers as well. “One day a kid walked up to him, didn’t even really know him and gave him a hug around the head and he just stood there.”
And while she is loving her time in the saddle (and flying over the jumps) with Chance she is also well aware that their bond is continually being built from the ground up.
“We are still learning each other. When I walk in (the stables) and speak I’ll see him look up and come to the door. If I say good morning to the others he’ll actually look up and come to the door, or if I come quietly up to the door he’ll stop eating and look up and come straight to me.”
In terms of jumping Tryhane took Chance to his first training show at Whitehall Equestrian Centre a couple of months ago. “It went very well and he did the cross rails and he did a .60 metre. So he’s coming along, he’s a lovely horse and that’s where we are at.”
The horse mom is quick to gush over the fact that Chance is not only willing to work but is also a brave jumper. “When we’re jumping he would knock down a pole before he’d knock down a big solid gate - he’s just so brave.”
Chatting away in her Barbadian accent I can hear the pride beaming through her voice. It’s obvious (from our brief conversation about her four-legged man) that she couldn’t be happier with the bond they've formed in such a short period of time.
“He’s very trusting and I love that about him.”
“He has a vocabulary - he understands a lot more words than I think we ever realized,” said Christine Bilyea as we stood in the barn watching her daughter Aubrianna (Aubri) fawn over a chestnut thoroughbred by the name of Finn.
Standing quietly in the aisle, Finn eyeballs Aubri’s water bottle before sauntering over to my audio recorder. He catches my gaze as if to say ‘I’m ready,’ and continues to stand up close and personal while his family answers questions about (and for) him.
Known as Zalema on the racetrack, the chestnut thoroughbred is by Peaks and Valleys, a multiple graded stakes winner in the mid 90s. Some of his big wins include the Illinois Derby (’95) at Sportman’s and the Molson Export Million Stakes (’95) at Woodbine racetrack. Unfortunately, this son of his wasn’t yearning to be a racehorse. He began his career in November 2002 at Woodbine and ran his last race at Fort Erie in August 2004. He raced a total of sixteen times with one win, one second and a couple of third place finishes.
The chestnut gelding was lucky enough to find a home with Julie Morris after he retired from racing. A project horse for Morris, Zalema was schooled and trained into a second career as a hunter jumper. She worked with him for a year and then leased him out for a couple of years while she worked on another project horse. According to the Bilyeas, the chestnut gelding had done a few schooling shows and was being jumped by several different riders before Aubri and Zalema crossed paths.
It was in 2009 that the Bilyeas first met the former racehorse. “My mom actually found him. He was a free lease that we found online and we had been trying a couple of different horses.” Aubri who was sixteen at the time had part boarded an OTTB two years prior to meeting Zalema or Flip as he was known to Morris. “She actually called him Flip because he flipped over a fence when she first got him. We thought the name could be bad luck and Aubri liked Huckleberry Finn…” said Christine as we chatted about the chestnut’s change of name when they began working with him.
Although Aubri had been trying other horses her mom had a good feeling about the chestnut from the very start. “The minute she got on him he relaxed, he put his head down and it was just a nice easy lopping gate and everything, and as a physiotherapist I went ‘okay, that’s the horse.’
Showing Finn in the 2’6 and in the Children’s division (3’ ft) on the trillium circuit, Aubri soon found herself falling in love with the chestnut. “After having him for a year he was already kind of part of the family. I think more than anything it was his personality, because a lot of horses you could lease and they could take you over a course of 2’6 jumps and ribbons but with us it was the personality - he’s like a big pet.”
Finn officially became a Bilyea in 2010. They boarded him at a barn in Stouffville for a couple of years before moving him to Tartan Mews Equestrian.
Working with him at Tartan over the last several years the two ladies continue to watch him grow and love all his little quirks. “He is funny, he will be going around totally normal and everything and if one thing happens in the woods that he can see (like) there’s a horse in the woods, it’s like everything stops and he has to make sure everything is okay. He is very smart and he notices everything. So if I don’t notice something and we are walking out in the woods he will see it and he will let us know.”
Building a trusting relationship with her thoroughbred Aubri has worked with several coaches over the years to fine tune Finn’s training.
“We had a number of coaches. It was kind of at the right time at the right place the coach was great and then I found as we were growing and as my interest changed maybe I had to grow and take a new coach, or I had to take a step back and take a couple days off from riding or figure out a new approach to things.”
Aubri looks over at her mom and smiles. “Even between the two of us we’ve had differences of opinions over the years about riding and about what equipment we use on him and stuff like that. So I think that’s been sort of the big thing as we progress and transition – who are the best people to have around him, and where’s he going to get the best care and then how to ride to get what I want.”
Being a seasoned rider she understands the challenges that come with training a horse for a different discipline and knows the growing pains both her and Finn have had is all part of the process. When Aubri started university they transitioned Finn from the hunter to jumper ring for a year or two.
Now fifteen, the spry chestnut gelding has been enjoying life outside the show ring while Aubri finishes up her *university degree. “I’m not showing him as much because I’m away at school but he’s enjoyed slowing down a bit and then he works for the summer.”
Spoiled for attention by his two leading ladies, the chestnut gelding gives me another look as if to say “Where’s my treat?!” before resuming his quiet stance. “Probably his favourite thing is once a year we bring him a candy apple from the Royal Winter Fair,” admitted Aubri when I asked about his sweet tooth.
Looking back over the last six years together I ask Aubri what her biggest achievement with Finn has been. “I think its that he’s progressing into a horse that not only I can get on and jump and walk around…but other people can start to get on as well. He’s learning to take on that role of teacher instead of us just learning together all the time.”
Realizing how patient Finn has been the whole time I quickly ask Aubri my last question so the two can head to the wash stall for his bath time.
What do you love about him?
She doesn’t respond immediately but instead looks over at her mom.
“Don’t make me cry,” laughed Christine as she looked back at her daughter with tears in her eyes.
Aubri gazes over at Finn before turning to me.
*Aubri has since graduated from university and is now enjoying some fun in the sun with Mr.Finn