“He’s my heart horse,” said Valerie Topp as she grazed Ojibway Signal (Oj) outside barn one at the Kentucky Horse Park in Lexington, Kentucky. Keeping a watchful eye on her gallant thoroughbred gelding, Topp and I chat about their performance at the Thoroughbred Makeover challenge on October 23rd (the first day of the event).
She smiles broadly as she recalls their performance in the first element of the day; the dressage test.
“I was really happy with him going in. The last couple of weeks he’s turned a corner on the flatwork. He’s become a lot more consistent and just feels more schooled and it’s coming easier to him now,” reflected Topp whose only been working with Oj since the beginning of this year.
Oj retired from racing last fall. He raced at Woodbine racetrack in Toronto, Ontario from 2010 to 2014.
In order for Oj to be eligible to compete in the TB challenge Topp could not start re-training him for a new discipline until January 2015. The challenge hosted at the Kentucky Horse Park attracted around 200 riders who competed with their off the track thoroughbreds in various disciplines including dressage, show jumping, field hunting, eventing, ranch work and barrel racing.
Topp made the ten-hour drive to Lexington with her friend Candice Sirianni who brought her own thoroughbred mare, Perfect Suspect (Zoey) to compete in the challenge (and who also kept Oj company on the long haul down).
“They munched on their hay nets, had a couple sips of water and they both handled it really well,” said Topp.
Upon arrival, Topp and Sirianni were quick to get the horses acquainted with their new surroundings at the 1,224 acre equestrian facility. “The first day we went for a nice long hack with the horses just to get them out and stretch their legs and see the place,” recalled Topp.
Once the horses were settled in and enjoying the comfort of their new stalls, Topp had the opportunity to explore the park and beyond. “We organized our equipment, looked around a bit and then we went to the open house at Spendthrift Farm and saw some of the stallions there - it’s a gorgeous farm. We then came back and went for another little ride because Oj is used to a lot of turnout.”
Only several weeks prior to the challenge, I had watched the Canadian duo fly over logs and obstacles and work in the dressage ring at Myrddin Equestrian centre in Halton Hills, Ontario.
Not surprisingly, I soon found myself heading south and standing ringside to watch them compete against a throng of newly re-trained thoroughbreds from across North America and even from the United Kingdom.
Aside from Oj and Perfect Suspect, Canada was represented by a classy bunch of thoroughbreds including Backstretch Babe, Look At My Gizmo, Cavaliers Destiny, Soar, Lionofwallstreet and Realbigwig.
As I walked toward the dressage ring to see Oj in action I spotted the Canadian flag printed proudly on several of those competitor’s saddle pads making it somewhat easy to spot the Canadian contingent among the mass of spectators and horses.
Planting myself near the entrance of the ring I hear the shrill sound of the loudspeaker call out the number of the next competitor to enter the dressage ring.
Oj struts into the ring with ears pricked forward and eyes peeled on the discerning group of judges. Round in frame and light on his feet, he patiently waits for Topp’s instruction to change paces, from the walk to trot and then transition up to a canter.
Not once batting an eye at the golf carts buzzing by or the amateur photographers sitting alongside the fence Oj continues to listen for Topp’s cues to circle and turn at the different letters across the ring.
They make their way down to the centre of the ring and come to a halt in front of the judges. Topp leans forward rewarding Oj with a pat on his shoulder before leading him toward the exit.
“I thought he put in a beautiful test. I was really happy with his canter work. We’ve been struggling with that so I was happy that it’s come along well,” said Topp who is beaming from cheek to cheek.
Their continued progress on the flat was also reflected in their scores, with Oj placing a strong ninth out of the 27 dressage riders competing that day.
Shortly thereafter, the duo headed back to the barn for a brief reprieve and change of equipment for the eventing portion of the challenge. Given the sprawling expanse of the park, I made my way over via the much in demand golf cart. I watched the two warm up on a few practice jumps, before finding a spot on the main course to snap photos.
Impressed by his jumping skills the first time round, I was even more impressed with his debut on American soil. Oj galloped confidently across the course and jumped every obstacle with grace and ease.
Again, Topp rewards Oj with a pat before leaving the course. Definitely finding his stride in his new career as an eventer Oj placed 16th overall out of the 37 competitors in the challenge.
“I thought he was fantastic. He is still very green with the jumping. Up until now he’s always been a bit looky and a little hesitant, and today he was just brave and happy and really good.”
Topp admitted that Oj got a little strong at the beginning of the course (and that she may also need to change his bit), but also noted that he continued to improve along the course and tackled the remaining jumps on course in good form.
“I think the penny finally dropped – he knew what we were doing out there. Before, he’s been a bit confused about what we’re doing and today he went ‘ I know exactly what’s happening,” laughed Topp again as she recalled her trip across the course.
It should also be noted that the challenge was Topp’s first competition in fifteen years. “2000 would have been the last time I horse showed. So this year has been knocking the rust off big time,” laughed Topp who credits her fiancé David Bell for pushing her to enter the challenge.
“He said it’s a once in a lifetime opportunity and he said I should take it. He was right.”
“I love his attitude - he doesn’t get shaken up over anything,” said horse trainer David Bell as we watched former racehorse Ojibway Signal and his rider Val Topp fearlessly tackle an eventing course at Myrddin Equestrian Centre over the weekend.
While the crisp fall weather nibbles at my ears Bell and I snap photos of his fiancé galloping Ojibway or “Oj” across the course. Topp steers Oj uphill, then downhill and back and forth across the field while the former racehorse soars over giant logs and obstacles with ease. Smiling from cheek to cheek, Topp trots over after finishing the course to chat about her majestic mount.
“I always said I wanted to event him,” said Topp who only began training Oj for his second career as an eventer earlier this year.
It’s only their second show but Topp and Oj have been together for the last six years. “We bought Oj out of the CTHS yearling sale (in 2009),” said Topp who currently works at Bell’s barn at Woodbine racetrack. Topp vividly remembers the first time she set eyes on the yearling. “He was striking, very tall and pretty.” Bell also recalls the moment they met their four-legged friend. “He had a big frame and a really good walk…I just kinda liked him as an individual.”
The dark bay thoroughbred gelding made his racing debut in June 2010 at Woodbine. The track would be his home base for the next four years and forty career starts of his life. Placing third in the Kingarvie Stakes (in 2010), he went on to compete in several other stakes including the prestigious Queen’s Plate (2011) and the Gr. 1 Northern Dancer Turf Stakes (2012).
According to Bell, Oj wasn’t the easiest horse to train, but Topp who bonded with him from the start would gallop him throughout his entire racing career. “He was lovely to ride, in that he never tried anything mean, but he was extremely tough to gallop. He always wanted to go full tilt!” Working in the racing industry for the last fifteen years the seasoned exercise rider also spent a good chunk of time hacking with him around Woodbine’s backside (backstretch).
Not surprisingly, Oj became Topp’s main squeeze at the barn. “He was always my favorite! He's a really happy horse, very curious, he loves to do new things.” Whether it was in the stirrups or on the ground, Topp came to learn a lot about the horse including his sweet tooth tendencies. “He’s a ridiculous mooch. He begs for any treats constantly! He loves mints most of all.”
After Oj finished tenth in a claiming race last November both Bell and Topp knew it was time to retire him. “He just didn’t want to do it anymore,” recalled Bell as we chatted about the couple’s decision to transition him off track into another career. Although people had expressed interest, Oj and both Topp and Bell had rehomed many racehorses the couple knew he would become part of their family. “We’ve always had a soft spot for the horse and he kinda looked that sort of horse that should go on and do something like this rather than going down the tubes as a racehorse and wind up running for $5,000 somewhere and hurting himself. We always thought he should be doing this after his race career,” said Bell with camera in hand eagerly ready to snap shots of Topp and Oj in their dressage warm up.
Oj was turned out for December at Kinghaven where Bell keeps his racehorses over the winter. In January 2015, Topp moved him to Clear View stables, which had an indoor arena where she could train and work with the gelding during the winter months.
Despite being ‘green’ (a horse with little training outside of racing) Topp was pleasantly surprised to find Oj adapted well to his new work routine. “He learns really quickly and he loves hacking!”
In hopes of giving Oj a second start as an eventer, Topp soon found herself entering the Thoroughbred Makeover Challenge, a competition which features dozens of recently retired racehorses showcasing their skills in disciplines such as dressage, jumping, and eventing. The makeover challenge will take place in Kentucky later this month. “I decided to enter him in the makeover because it was advertised right around the time I moved him, and we met all the requirements, so I thought it sounded like a great opportunity.” It will also be a great opportunity for Topp, who rode as a three-day eventer prior to working in the racing industry.
In lieu of the challenge Topp began taking lessons over the summer with coach Garry Roque. “I'm rusty and Oj is green so it took us a bit to get the hang of jumping, but he really enjoys it.” Switching gears from racing to eventing also meant a change of clothes and tack for the duo. “We had to get everything lol. I'd sold all my equipment from when I used to event!”
Watching Oj move elegantly around the dressage ring earlier in the morning and pick up the correct canter leads each time it’s still hard to believe this is just their second show together.
The Myrddin show was one of their last preps before they head south for the makeover challenge. Even though Topp intends to take him off property to train a couple more times she is more than happy to let him just be a horse in the meantime. “Oj loves his new life! He's fat and sassy. He has turnout buddies, and he's a barn favorite.”
On his toes, veins popping and eyes peeled on the competition, Oj finally stands still for Topp as she discusses the horse’s performance with her fiancé. Although they didn’t bring any ribbons home from Myrddin, the horse mom rewards her boy with a big pat and a long rein.
Beaming inwardly, Topp already knows Oj has his eye set on the prize and will make her proud when they make their debut in Kentucky later this month.