“We just bonded right away. I always got on him, every single day. Sometimes you swap around the set list because we have so many riders and so many horses, but I was on him every day.”
Chelsea Heery pauses and laughs before continuing.
“Mike Maker would sometimes call me Miss Saffron.”
First you hear the laughter. Then you really hear the love through Heery’s voice as she recalls working with Saffron Hall or ‘Saff’ during his racing career.
In 2014, the rider and horse crossed paths when Saff entered Maker’s barn. It was the same year that Heery began working for the trainer after graduating from the North American Racing Academy.
“Basically, I was there to just kind of help and be an intern, to walk hots and then I told Joe (Sharp - Maker’s former assistant) I liked to ride. He started putting me on a couple of joggers and easy gallops. From there Joe asked Mike if he could take me to Saratoga and Mike said, ‘No, send her to Spectrum (Churchill Training Centre), I would like her to stay down here and see how she does.’ So I learned a lot going there. The gallop boys were so helpful and Mike too - just like a team effort from everybody. I really kicked it off there,” said Heery.
While her career in racing started at Keeneland, Heery's passion for horses was put into motion several years earlier. Born in New Jersey and growing up in Virginia, Heery found herself working at a horse rescue farm. She started taking lessons and that would eventually lead to a job galloping horses at another farm.
“I was probably around 14. The guy at the rescue farm was a farrier and he’s the one that went out to the race guy’s farm to do the horse’s feet. He said he needs someone to ride the horses and the farrier had said, ‘Chelsea is pretty good, she could probably go over there and get on a coupe and that’s how that started.”
While many young teens are trying to figure out the next stage - whether it be college, university or a gap-year abroad, Heery already knew she was destined to be with horses. So, the next logical step was applying to the North American Racing Academy (NARA) at Bluegrass Community and Technical College in Lexington, Kentucky.
“I wasn’t interested in anything else but the horses. I had seen the school online and decided maybe that was something to try and my mom really pushed (for) it to. She was like ‘this is a once in a lifetime thing, you should really do it.’ I was like, ‘I don’t know, they only accept a few kids. Like I don’t if that would be something I would be able to get into. But she really pushed for me with that.”
Heery got in.
Her next big decision would be deciphering the best path to follow as her journey in the horse racing industry progressed. Jockey or horseman?
“When I was in it I started off as a horseman and I was going to try and switch to the jockey half way in December, but I had to work on weight loss and stuff because you have to be super light to be a jockey. But then with the classes with the horses and stuff I was like ‘oh, this is so interesting and stuff I can utilize it if I don’t make it as a jockey, or if I ever get hurt and can’t ride. I decided that I could take the riding class with being a horseman to see where I’m at.”
After finishing the program Heery began working under the tutelage of trainer Mike Maker and his former assistant Joe Sharp at Keeneland racetrack.
While she was still learning how to gallop the inevitable happened.
She met a fella. A fella on four legs named Saffron Hall.
“He was a handful for me at first. I ended up learning how to gallop him really well. He wasn’t always easy. He could be a little nervous, wheel and get out a little bit, or be a little tough. For me he was the perfect challenge and he taught me a lot. He went from being a claimer that had been claimed (by Maker) up to where he was winning allowances races in Saratoga wire to wire. I was just like ‘this is my horse.’
Bred by Eugene Melnyk, the son of Giant’s Causeway (out of Eden Lodge) began his racing career in 2012 at Tampa Bay. A year later Saff found himself new ownership under Ken and Sarah Ramsey. In 2014, the chestnut gelding walked (or maybe he strutted) into Mike Maker’s barn. At that point Saff had already broken his maiden and captured a handful of races including a few starter handicaps at Tampa Bay.
While Heery was continuing to develop her skills as a rider, she found herself bonding with the chestnut gelding.
“He was my baby. He ended up being my first horse to win a stakes. He won the claiming crown. So he was my first horse galloping that was just built up to winning a stakes with me. I had been on a couple that were already stakes horses, but to build one up from a claimer and get to be part of that was neat,” said Heery.
After winning the 2014 Emerald Stakes at Gulfstream Park, Saffron went on a farm break. When he returned to training in Florida the next year Heery had already moved onto the New York circuit.
Saff made a couple of starts that year, at Churchill and then back at Gulfstream. In 2016 he was claimed a couple of times, first by David Rakoff and then again in the fall of September 2016 by trainer Jamie Ness. In October of that same year Saff ran his last race at Delaware Park.
Never far from her mind Heery kept a watchful eye on the chestnut as he continued to race at various U.S. tracks.
“I had kept him in my virtual stable (on Equibase) and I was just watching and waiting and then I didn’t see him work anymore. He was claimed when he was nine and he raced till he was ten. I didn’t see any works for a while. That’s when I went to work for Joe Sharp for a very short time. I told Joe I can’t get a hold of this guy Jamie Ness and not seeing Saffron work anymore and really hope he is okay. Joe is like ‘I have Jamie’s no, he was like, “do want me to call him? We could probably figure out something, like if you want to get him.”
It turns out the Ness was looking to retire and find a home for the chestnut gelding. Luckily, with the help of Joe Sharp, Rosie Napravnik and Joe Sharp’s dad Mark, Heery was able to move Saffron into that next chapter of his life.
“(Ness) shipped him to Joe Sharp’s dad farm in Ocala and Saffron was there for a little while. Then he went from Ocala to Rosie and Joe’s farm (in Kentucky). We left him on the farm for a year or two,” said Heery who is extremely grateful for the help she’s received in finding a soft spot for the gelding to land.
Although Saffron was happy enough to take off the racing shoes, he wasn’t truly ready to leave Miss Saffron at the track.
Thinking up a game plan to keep the two close, Heery wanted to see whether Saff was interested in ponying.
However, she admits that given her hectic schedule galloping horses as well as working as an assistant made it tough to find time to re-train Saff.
“I brought him to Belmont, tried the pony thing, but I was on a full set list. It was really hard to do it by myself because I was an assistant and I was on a full set list. I was shipping up to California for two weeks and I came back, and he was a total maniac because nobody had ridden him for two weeks. He needed someone to give him a lot more time. So I eventually made the decision to send him to a farm in Saratoga where it be cheaper to keep him and just let him have a little more farm time until I could figure something else out, or I had more time.”
Racing is not bound to one track and as the months move along, horsemen move from one track to another, gearing up for various races across the U.S. circuit. Moving from track to track is just part of the game. While the U.S. racing circuit continues to be Heery’s mainstay, she has also ventured north of the border to Woodbine Racetrack.
Yes, you might remember her face heading into the 2016 Queen’s Plate, where she was prepping a handsome Gio Ponti colt for trainer Mike Maker and owners Ken and Sarah Ramsey.
Working Sir Dudley Digges over Woodbine’s tapeta track is a memory that Heery will not forget anytime soon.
“Oh, it was fantastic, it was such a cool feeling. Honestly, when I first got there I didn’t know that the Queen’s Plate is like your Kentucky Derby. So I would come back from the track and I would tell Nolan (Ramsey) ‘there are so many people taking pictures of Dudley and me!’ Nolan laughed and said, ‘Chelsea, this is like their Kentucky Derby.’
Although she helped prep Dudley for the Plate, Heery couldn’t stay to watch him capture the big race.
Remember, horsemen are always on the move.
“Sadly, I could not be there because I had to go down to Monmouth Park because we had a horse there that I really loved too. Bigger Picture. He was running in the Gr 1. United Nations, so Mike had to split everyone up because it was a big day. So Nolan stayed in Canada and I drove down to New Jersey to saddle Bigger Picture and all the assistants were kind of spread out.”
Despite traveling from one place to another Heery remained determined to give Saff a well- deserved retirement and a new start in life.
“I was attached to this one. I knew I had to keep my place open for Saffron. I can’t afford a million horses but that one horse - I had to make sure I made that one work.”
Committed to the chestnut who brought her along in the game, Saff has enjoyed his r & r at various farms, but also stayed close to Heery as she continues working from one circuit to another.
Landing her feet at Palm Meadows working as an assistant for trainer Thomas Albertrani, Heery and Saff have found their spring spot until the next venture comes calling.
Guess what? Saff is also an assistant. A freelancing assistant so to speak.
The 13-year-old chestnut worked for several months ponying for trainer Carlos David's outfit before transitioning to another ponying gig close to Albertrani’s barn.
“Right now JJ Tonner is using him because Tom doesn’t need a pony. I’m like the only rider there right now,” said Heery.
The horse mom admits that Saff has also come along with the help of Austin Trites and Priscilla Schaefer who take care of him at Toner’s barn.
That’s the thing about racing – it’s a team effort.
Many, if not all horsemen in this industry have a competitive spirit, but there’s also a continuous outpouring of compassion and support that you see from one barn to another, especially when someone needs a helping hand.
Heery knows that letting go of the racing shoes is not always an easy transition for a racehorse.
Yet, she sees her chestnut really soaking up the love, the attention and the track life - without being a racehorse.
“He is doing wonderfully. He’s turned into such a good boy.”
Heery’s social media is flooded with photos of the chestnut gelding. No doubt he’s part of her crew, the four-legged family which (and will always) include her beloved sidekick Gypsy.
Sometimes we take for granted how much support and love an animal can give you in life. When it comes to the racehorses, we sometimes only store the memories involving a stakes win or several tough training days.
Thankfully, there are people like Heery who’ve not only banked the great memories, but also reserved a spot in their heart and room in their life for a horse they deeply love.
While this sport may always be painted as a tough sport to be in, it’s usually the people with the biggest hearts that are often within it.
Please remember that the next time you see Saff ponying or when Heery posts a picture with the chestnut.
She took a chance without asking anything in return.
Well, maybe Heery does have one request for Saff. Yes, posing for the gram while chilling together after the work day is done.
Naturally, photos tell a story.
Saff does not have his own Instagram page (just yet).
However, Heery does and it showcases Saff living his best life with a special lady by his side.