Monday, October 31, 2011

What you don't see on the program.

When I was 18 years old in 1983 I went to the races for the first time. I was in Grade 12 at that point. I graduated high school the next year and I decided I would like to train horses. I just never got around to that and it seemed that I never would. That dream got put on the back burner for about 15 years, but opportunity and fate knocked on my door again in 1998. This is the story of probably my greatest training feat.
Almahurst Loraine is a horse I have mentioned before briefly in a few other stories. Of all the horses I trained and owned, she taught me the most. But lets go back a bit first.
I have always liked gray horses. They strike you when you see them. Roans are nice too, but a true out and out gray gets your attention. Laag was one of those horses. He was striking. But he was not just striking. He was also huge and built like a truck. He was also fast and very talented. I went to my first horse race in August of 1983 and I knew nothing about horse racing. By 1987 Laag was one of the better horses around. By then I knew the difference.
Laag in his paddock as a Stallion

Laag was also a loon and everyone knew it. He wasn't above rearing up and standing on his hind legs on the track, or just flat out jumping sideways over the rail. In fact in a big race at Blue Bonnets in Montreal, he did just that, refusing to be rated and stay under control, driving right into another driver and causing a huge nasty accident in The Prix D'ete, the biggest race of the year in Montreal. (See video I have posted titled "Harness Racing Accident. 1987). After his 3 year old year, he went to stud and was very much in demand.

Laag warming up before a race.

I met Vince Li in 1988 at Greenwood Racetrack. He had money. Lots of money. As it turned out, he only lived 5 minutes from my house and we started going regularly to the track together. By 1990 I had graduated University and had a good job, and some money to spend. We decided we would buy a yearling together.

Vince had some pretty good success with owning horses and I decided I wanted to have one myself. We went to the yearling sale at Mohawk Raceway and we were intent on buying a yearling by Laag.
I saw a few of his yearlings from the first crop, but the good ones were well out of my price range. Vince and I did not want to pay what they were going for even though we looked at several. They were all good looking horses, but most were gray like him and brought a higher price than their pedigree and probable ability suggested they would. They were a bad investment. Pretty is one thing, but performance is what pays the bills in the business of horse racing. We weren't in the show horse business. We didn't race for ribbons, we raced for purse money. As it turns out, the three Laag's we looked at in that sale barely raced and never earned back anywhere near what they cost that day. I learned something that day that I have never forgotten. Grays always sell for more than any other horse, and then don't race any better because of it.

(above is the Sale page for the gray Laag yearling we didn't buy. He went for $38000 and I had him marked at $10000 tops. I think he made $20000 lifetime, before expenses. On the right is the front page of the sale book. You could see it was a nice day and I smudged ketchup from my hot dog on the front of the book)

As Laag's first crop raced there were some very very good ones. One was named Ghostly, and she caught my eye. A pure gray, and a super nice horse to watch race. As a two year old she was ready very early (Mid May) and could not be beat most of that year. She came back okay at 3, but was not the same as at 2. Her owner/trainer was a guy named Gino Toscani. He was a real estate developer who decided he would train horses with no background in it. He seemed to do very well, and Ghostly was his best horse.

Ghostly's father was Laag, and her mother was by another great horse named Niatross. To that point, it appeared Niatross was arguably the greatest Standardbred ever. Certainly if not the greatest, one of them. There was no dispute on that. He was virtually unbeatable and was the first harness horse ever to break the 1:50 barrier. (See video I posted entitled 
(1980 Niatross Time Trial - camcorder).
He was also noted to be a bit stubborn and he himself had gone over the hub rail once all by himself in a very famous race that shocked the harness racing world. (See video posted entitled "Niatross Loss At Saratoga")

Since we did not buy a Laag yearling, or any other yearling that year, we bought a racehorse later that winter named Come By Chance, and she did very well for us. Times were good for me.  I was just out of University, had a good job I liked and had just gone out on my own to live for the first time.
Come By Chance did well for us right away and I got my first win as an owner with her. I have posted that win picture below. I have a great story about her second win as well, but that is a story for another day.

(Above is the win picture Of Come By Chance at Greenwood, my first ever win as an owner)

(Above is the Winners Circle picture of Come By Chance. Vince Li is in the black suit, I am in the Green shirt, The blond lady in the green outfit was named Patti, she was the trainer Rick Fifes girlfriend. Rick is in the red and white silks. The guy holding the horses head is Nat Varty, who went on to be a very successful trainer of his own, and someone I owned a few with later)

Later that year that all ended when I lost my job and ran out of money.
To pass the time, I started to go to a lot of live music.
 I was heavily into the blues music scene and had stumbled onto a great duet blues singing team called Blue Willow. I didn't know them personally at the time, but I was captivated by one of the group members, named Loraine Ingle.
Every time I saw her at the Monday night jam I was at I couldn't take my eyes off of her. I have a story about her later, but safe to say she had my interest and I was enthralled with her for a year or so.

(Above is a picture of Loraine Ingle from back in the early days of Blue Willow)

One Friday night a few months later I was at the track and hadn't seen the program before hand. I usually did look at the program, but not this time. I now had no race horses and a crappy job which barely paid enough to let me eat, never mind own any racehorses. I worked long hard hours and had little time for anything else.

 I came to the track blind. The first race was a maiden race.Those were always fun because most of the horses were young and you didn't know them. I got to the track late and the horses were already on the track and parading and warming up. I opened the program..and there she was...Almahurst Loraine..the 8 horse. Big, strong and fast, just like her father, Laag and her grandfather, Niatross. In essence she was bred exactly like Ghostly.  She was also trained by Gino Toscani, and she was eager, like most of his. But, she was not Ghostly, and was never going to be Ghostly. She was not that type of classy horse. She looked the part, but she did not have the pedigree to justify that type of performance. She did have one striking feature though...she had a big huge gray patch on her rear..just above her hip. Otherwise she was completely bay,and a very beautiful horse to look at. She had that big roman nose and jug head that most Niatross foals did, just like Niatross himself. Being that both Laag and Niatross were noted to produce stubborn hard to handle horses, it was no surprise she was an insistent frontrunner. Add in that Gino Toscani was noted for goosing horses to make them go fast as they can as far as they could, and she was doomed to be that way from day one.

(Above is a picture of Niatross (his breeder/trainer/driver Clint Galbraith in the purple and white silks) with his big jug head and roman nose, Almahurst Loraine looked exactly like him, she even had the big ears and the exact same star on the center of her forehead)

Being that I was enamored with Loraine Ingle at that time and all the other factors I mentioned, I took notice of her right away. I was not going to bet a front runner with an 0 for 10 record from the 8 hole, but I did watch her race. As expected she went right to the lead and maintained that until mid stretch, where she promptly packed it in and finished second to last. That was the last time I saw that horse until the following fall, one year later.
By the next time I had seen Almahurst Loraine she was now in the care of Gerald Sloan. Gino Toscani liked young horses with the ability to make good money and win stake races. Loraine was never going to be that horse. Even if she was, she was ruined by being pushed too early. That strategy worked with Ghostly, but while they were identically bred, Ghostly was a champion. Loraine was not.

Gerald Sloan was an okay guy, and a competent trainer, but he was nothing special. I remembered him mostly for a horse named Viewstar. He had bought her for $5000 and she turned out to be a great horse and made him half a million dollars. But other than that he rarely got any decent results. He was just another trainer just eeking by trying to scratch out a living. It was now 1995 and by then I was doing better financially and  I had a few horses with my friend Terry Wood. Terry was from the same town as Gerry Sloan. We were racing a young horse named Winwood Dancer and she was winning money and stakes races. Times were good. Almahurst Loraine was doing okay, but not winning and not making money. She was now almost a 4 year old and had been a failure as a young horse.

(above is the first lifetime win for Winwood Dancer in her first lifetime start.)

I came to own half of Winwood Dancer because Terry had bred her.  He, like I, had started out as a fan, then became an owner of Winwood Dancer's mother, Fortunes Alibi, then kept her and bred her and had gotten Winwood Dancer. He tried to sell Dancer at the sale, but didn't get a high enough bid. I said if he didn't get the bid he wanted I would buy half of her for $6000, and when he did not, I kept my word.

(above on the left is the sale page for Winwood Dancer as a yearling and on the right a win by a nose at Sarnia for Winwood Dancer)

As the next spring came Winwood Dancer did okay but was not the horse we thought she would be. She won a few minor races at Sarnia, but she did not turn out to be the stakes horse we thought she would be.

(above is a win at Sarnia for Winwood Dancer, she just held on that night and we did not expect her to win)

While I was at Sarnia I noticed a nice little horse named Edward Seelster. He was nothing special but he looked steady and I was looking for a nice little cheap stable horse for me and my friends to own. After the next time I saw him, we claimed him. Terry was to train him and we did pretty well for him for about two months.

(above is the second start and first win for us by Edward Seelster. The pic on the right is the winners circle pic, My high school friend Ron Anisman, his cousin Marty and his kids, on the far right me and Terry. Note that Marty dedicated this win to his father, who had just passed away a couple of weeks before.)

Almahurst Loraine got passed around a bit and ended up in Ottawa with Phil Doyle, where she continued to flounder. Both Almahurst Loraine and Winwood Dancer had poor years and I was so busy with work, and life and hobbies that I sort of lost interest in all of it. I still owned Winwood Dancer and I had two others with Terry Wood, Edward Seelster and Eddie Lebec. I had gotten married in the summer of 1997 and had a very busy job, so I had limited time to pay attention to the horses.
I had bought Eddie Lebec as a project and Terry and I went in as equal partners on him. He was unraced and looked to be a very iffy proposition. I always liked those types.

But I had never forgotten about Almahurst Loraine. One late winter day, around March, I was at the track and there was a Mixed Sale happening the next week. I flipped through the Sale Book and I noticed Almahurst Loraine was in that sale. She was also racing that day so I watched her race and she got 4th at the big track. I decided that if the price was right at the sale, I was going to buy her.

I went to the sale and she went for well within my price range, and she was mine. Terry was there and she shipped back to his barn. A week later he told me that she was one hell of a fast strong horse, but that she was sore and would be better served with a month off to get back in good shape. I agreed that was the best thing to do. He also said she had a mean streak and all the other horses were scared of her. I would come to see that mean streak in later years.

After a couple of months she was back in training and looking good. She was fit to race and began racing. She did okay, but still was not producing results within her level of ability. It was basically the same as with Gerry Sloan, Gino Toscani and Phil Doyle. Terry was a good trainer but he was no superstar either and he got similar results to them. After a very disappointing effort I told him to drop her into a very cheap claiming race. That race was at Flamboro Downs.
I arrived at Flamboro and didn't have time to see Terry before the race. I watched Loraine warm up and she looked fine.
As the race went off she went for the lead, but didn't get there. She was then forced to stay on the outside the whole race, which is a very tough trip to have at Flamboro Downs, which favors horses on the inside. In spite of that she went all the way on the outside and got fourth, only beaten two lengths by the winner. It was actually a good effort. I went back to the race paddock after the race and then Terry told me that there was a problem. Loraine had the starting of a bowed tendon and there would be trouble. As it turns out, Laag's became known for bowed tendons. She wasn't lame yet, that is why he raced her anyway but she would be very lame at some point.

Her next race was at Sarnia and it was a miserable snowy and winter night in November. I told him to put her in the cheapest race he could find and if she got claimed I would take my loss on her. She did not get claimed and raced well and got 2nd. That was the end of the season for her. As well all of my horses stopped racing at that point.
Around February of the next year Terry phoned me to tell me he could not train horses for me anymore. He was too busy with his own and I would have to find someone else. I had a full time job and all of these horses had been in the field for about 4 months, so they were not race ready. It would cost a lot of money to get them back racing, if they could race at all.
By then I was working very long hours and had limited time to deal with this. I was however making very good money and had made some interesting contacts.

  Terry had 4 horses with him that I owned all or part of. Edward Seelster, Winwood Dancer, Eddie Lebec and Almahurst Loraine.
I wanted Edward Seelster and Almahurst Loraine, for which Terry did not own any part of. He did not want Eddie Lebec and said he could not get him to the races. Winwood Dancer was floundering but he wanted to keep trying with her. I took the other three and let him keep Winwood Dancer.
I was head of the dispatch department and one of the drivers was an older guy named Don Altman. He was also a partner on Edward Seelster, as were a few of my friends. I had picked out Edward Seelster for the group and we had done well with him when Terry first got him to train. He tailed off badly and we gave him the winter off.

  Don knew an older guy, Joe Gasparro, who owned a barn about 30 minutes from where I lived. The barn was basically empty and no one had any horses in training there. I went out to look at the place. It was in bad shape, but it was good enough. I decided that I would begin to train the horses myself.
One Sunday, Terry shipped Edward Seelster and Almahurst Loraine to me. Eddie Lebec was to come a month later. So there it was. 15 years later, I was in the horse training business.
My intention was to just train Edward Seelster to start with. Almahurst Loraine had by now that one bad leg due to the bowed tendon, and it was the opinion of most that she would not race again. It had always been my intention to make a broodmare out of her and breed her, so I had thought that would happen that summer. It never did. I turned her out and basically left her there for two months while I worked on Edward Seelster..and then Eddie Lebec.
Edward Seelster was easy. He was a nice little racehorse. I basically knew very little about training, but I didn't need to know much to make him go. I jogged him daily to get him in shape and then I gradually went faster with him until he was ready to race. I could not screw him up..and I didn't.

Eddie Lebec was a much different chore. He was a poor gaited horse and according to Terry and many others, he would not make a racehorse. He had speed enough to race, but had not made it and didn't appear that he would. But, I tried anyway. He had a good pedigree and was willing enough. If anything, at least I would learn a few things trying to make him a racehorse.
Remember,  I still had my full time day job. I would go very early in the morning, and then at night and train these two horses. Then on the weekends I would go and take all day and do more. I was basically alone at the barn, so I did everything.
At mid summer, I had Edward Seelster racing and he was steady and doing well. He never won a race for me, but he steadily made the top 3 and made money.

I had my trials and tribulations with Eddie Lebec, and I will tell those stories another time,  but it was clear to me that he was going to make a racehorse. I got him to the point where he could race and in his first race he won. In fact he won 3 of his first 6 and I was way ahead on him. Terry was amazed that he was the same horse he had trained. Others were surprised that a novice like me could take a horse like that and make him that good that fast. But I had done it.

One of his wins was at Woodstock with Ray Maclean Jr. . Ray was a small guy, young guy, but he was a very good driver and at that time was the top driver on the B circuit which I raced. I did well with Ray that year,  and when it came time to race Loraine, he picked her over many others, just because I told him it was a good idea. But more about that later.
Everyone told me Almahurst Loraine was a waste of time. But I had succeeded with Edward Seelster, then  Eddie Lebec, so I decided to give Loraine a try.
Of course, I had no idea what I was in for.
While Edward Seelster and  Eddie Lebec were smart and easy to handle geldings, Loraine was a hot tempered big strong mare who had to have her own way all the time. The first time I took her out to the track I knew I was a bit over my head. But I trudged on. On that first time, it was all I could do to restrain her. I went one lap and had to take her back to the barn. She was just too strong and would not rate. Just as her father, Laag, had not in that race in Montreal. She was dangerous to drive, even by herself with no other horses around.

  I waited for the weekend to take her out next. I thought that maybe putting her out for a few hours to blow some steam off was a good idea. That worked with most. Not with her. I got her to the track okay but as soon as she stepped on the track she was pulling hard against me.  I held her for one lap, but my hands were killing me. I had to let off a bit, and as soon as I did she decided she was going to go full speed. She had been off 6 months now, had no training at all, had a borderline front leg, but none of that mattered to her. She went full speed,  for what seemed a good 45 minutes. Most horses, when they did that, would either hurt themselves or be so tired that they would be ruined. Not her.
It had dawned on me at that moment. I could not treat her as other horses. She wanted to go all she could go and she could do it.  So I let her. I knew it would not be long for her to be ready to race. I also knew managing her leg was going to be a chore. I developed a strategy to help her along.

  I really did not like driving her. She was scary. It was not fun and I never looked forward to it. I decided to only train her once a week, on Saturday,  when I had the time to do it. The rest of the week I would just let her run around the paddock all day. She was the type that would move so much and so fast in the paddock that that was better than trying to hold her day after day on the track. Most horses would take about 3 months to return off of such a long layoff. She was ready in 3 weeks.
One Saturday, I decided to see just how fit she was. I let her run for about an hour in the paddock, got all of my other work done, then hitched her up and took her to the track. We went one lap slow, then  I let her go all she wanted  to. To this day, I have never trained a horse on a farm track as fast as she went that day. Most horses would have trouble breaking 2:10 on the farm track  I trained her in 2:01, which was astounding. To win her first race all she would have to do was go 2:05 at the racetrack, which was at least 5 seconds faster than the farm track. At this point, she had 50 lengths on the field.

  Because I didn't train her except for once a week, my whole strategy was to just look after her legs and keep her from being sore. Every night after I was done with the other two horses I would make her stand in a bucket of ice for two hours. After about a month, her leg was as good as new. The vet once told me she had never seen anyone manage a bad bowed tendon like that.
It came time to prep her for the race,  and I took her for a practice race to prove she was fit. I put her in with far superior horses, so it would appear that she was not really doing much. She proved worthy to race, but did not stand out. She was the type who was a strong frontrunner..and a terrible horse to drive if you put her directly in behind a slower horse but if you put her in with faster horses and left her in the pack she would behave and just float along out there. She would not stand out in the practice race. I did this on purpose so that when she went to race it would not look like she was fit to win right away.
She came back home and her legs were perfect. All systems were go.

I had to race that night,  and I saw Ray McLean Jr. at the track. Loraine was entered to race that coming Friday and Ray had 6 choices in that race. Loraine had the 7 post position,  which was the worst one, and normally he would never pick a horse with a bad post position who hardly had ever won a race and had been  off 8 months. But I told him flat out. Pick her. She will win. He did pick her.
That first year that I went to the races back in 1983 I went mostly with my friend Ian from high school. Even over the years I had gone with him many times. We even owned a horse together with Vince Li that did not work out well. By this time Ian was a successful businessman and had many very good horses of his own. We talked on a daily basis.
I told Ian that Loraine was a sure winner. That I had trained her 10 seconds faster than the race was going to go and there was no way she could lose

We decided that we would both bet heavy, but make different bets so as to not kill the odds. He would bet the triactor and I would bet Win, Place, Show. In the end, I won more than a thousand dollars betting on her that night. Ian won more than $8000. He called me the next day to thank me.
It came time  for the race on the Friday. Ray was a small guy and Loraine was a big strong horse. I told him one thing. "Just leave her out wide and sit on the outside the whole way. Do not get in behind horses. She is too strong and you won't be able to hold her." The field was very weak on top of everything else and there was no way I could see her losing if she had a clear path, in spite of the long journey she would have. It was like that day at Flamboro, but this time she was fit, sound and in very easy.

We brought her out to the track and it was clear he could not control her. He went one lap of warmup and then brought her off. Two of us then held her head and just made her stand until it was time to race. The horn blew and off they went..straight to the gate. As they were off it was clear she was not going to make the lead and she would just sit outside the leader the whole way. I was happy about that, because I knew she could win that way.
She did just that for 3 quarters of the race, then as they approached the last turn he let her loose and she opened up a 10 length lead on the field and coasted home a very easy winner.

(above is various win pics for Almahurst Loraine,  although none of them are of the win mentioned in this story.)

To this day, it was my greatest training achievement. She went on to win two more races that fall and then come back and be horse of the year the next year.
I learned with her it doesn't matter what others tell you and you have to just let the horse tell you what works best for them. I was the only one that ever got any performance out of her, and that is because I let her be herself.
Oh, and Loraine Ingle, she became a friend  and sang at my wedding. I still to this day know her and her singing partner Dawn Duvall is going to record one of the songs I wrote back when I first met them.

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