“I started coming to the backstretch when I was nine and I got my first hot walker’s license when I was twelve. It’s been awhile, you know,” grinned Chircop as we chatted outside Barn 35 on the Woodbine backstretch.
Steven Chircop and Kara's Orientation
Chircop has a handful of stalls in the barn he shares with his uncle, longtime Woodbine trainer Tino Attard, and it is through this valuable family connection that he felt those first sparks for the game.
“My father (Godfrey Chircop) and my uncle got involved in horse racing and I used to always come around the barn as a kid and I just fell in love with racing at a young age,’ said Chircop. “I used to come by on the weekends and every time I had a chance. On March break I would stay at Tino’s house and he’d bring me here in the mornings.”
What started as an opportunity to simply be near the horses soon turned into on-the-job training as Chircop worked his way through the ranks gaining the sort of experience a college student might seek out through an internship.
“I worked for Tino as a hot walker and then grooming,” began Chircop. “Then I groomed for his son Kevin for a year and eventually Tino needed an assistant trainer and he just put me in and I learned as we went along. I got a lot of experience and you learn fast when put in that position.”
Chircop takes a moment to pick the brains of Sir Heart Throb
And working with Tino Attard meant that the up-and-coming conditioner worked with a string of well-known horses along the way.
“I got lucky to work with some good horses actually. My uncle had Milwaukee Brew who is a great stallion now,” said Chircop. “I worked with Bag Lady Jane (winner of the Princess Elizabeth and Jammed Lovely stakes) and got to ship with her. There was a very nice horse named Kirby’s Song. She won the Woodbine Oaks and the Monmouth Oaks. Back then my uncle had 45 stalls and trained mostly for Stronach so I got to learn with good horses. That was definitely a bonus.”
Chircop has plenty to smile about
Woodbine rail birds have a great deal of respect for the Attard clan, a cast of conditioners which includes Tino’s brothers Sid and Larry, nephews Paul and Steve and even Tino’s son Kevin. And quite clearly, Chircop has a great deal of respect for his Uncle Tino.
“My uncle does things properly,” stated Chircop. “He’s a hard guy to work for so if you can make it with my uncle you can probably make it anywhere… It’s not easy to make it in this business. I’m lucky that I have my father, uncles and cousins behind me because without a lot of help here it’s very hard.”
It was Uncle Tino who introduced Chircop to horse owner Max Berketa and on May 16th of this year, Chircop made a move that has helped launch his burgeoning career when he claimed Kara’s Orientation at an affordable $20,000 for Berketa and Pinnacle Racing.
“We went to go look at him before they came to the front side and I fell in love with him,” chattered Chircop. And then while gesturing with one hand and holding his horse’s lead with the other continued, “Look at him, he’s an amazing animal. You don’t find many horses for twenty thousand that look like this.”
The well-dappled coat of Kara's Orientation
You also don’t find many young folks willing to put in the time and effort that Chircop has into his career. Before he could become a trainer, Chircop’s parents insisted that he not only put in his time in at the barn, but also into his education and the trainer is the proud owner of a business diploma from nearby Humber College. This willingness to study paid off as Chircop did his homework well before the claim of Kara’s Orientation was made.
“With technology these days you’re able to watch all the horse’s races and watching a horse run and their films does a lot more than just reading the form,” explained Chircop. “This horse put together a couple nice races early in his career at Calder and then they started to run him in starter races at Gulfstream in protected spots. The horse came up to Woodbine and ran one race, an allowance, on the polytrack and the horse that beat him by a couple lengths was Big Red Mike.”
Sometimes you have to stop and smell the roses
Kara’s Orientation trailed well behind the leaders from eighth position in that May 2nd allowance route before rallying up the inside to finish fourth just behind the improving Big Red Mike – who would go on to Queen’s Plate glory shortly thereafter.
“I knew Big Red Mike was a highly regarded horse making steps towards the Queen’s Plate,” continued Chircop. “I figured that the horse had come from so far back that it looked like he wanted to go further and I figured the horse had to be worth the money provided there was nothing wrong with him.”
Fortunately, for Chircop, Kara’s Orientation came out of the race well and two week’s later was entered back in a claiming event – another route on the Woodbine poly.
“I knew the trainer that had him (Mike McDonald) was a good trainer and he runs his horses where they belong,” said Chircop, before revealing that his studious claim almost never came to fruition.
“I was the only person in for him that day and he actually got stuck in the gate and he spotted the field ten lengths,” laughed Chircop. “At odds of 2-5 he came running, but got blocked at the three eighths pole and he just kept on running and got beat a head. He was so far out of it that when I went to claim the horse they wouldn’t let me leave as they had to review the race to make sure it wasn’t an unfair start he was left that far behind. After that race, I knew we had a good horse.”
Sir Heart Throb needs to eat his greens if he's going to keep up with his stablemate
Since the claim it’s been quite a journey for both the horse and his conditioner.
“His first start I run him allowance and he ran second to probably the best three year-old here, a horse named So Elite, a Mark Casse horse,” started Chircop. “Next start I run him for $40k and he beat older horses by five lengths and for a three year-old to beat older that says something. Especially the way he did it.”
As Chircop talks, Kara’s Orientation continues to enjoy her late-morning treat and the owner is only too happy to walk about the yard and let his star pupil have a pick of grass.
“His third start he got beat a half length to Stormy Lord (in the Toronto Cup), who is probably the best three year-old turf horse here at Woodbine,” said Chircop. “And then he went to the Canadian Derby (at Northlands Park) and got beat a length to the best western Canadian horse (No Hesitation.) He’s got beaten by credible horses and he’s come a long way.”
Kara's Orientation finishes second in the Toronto Cup at odds of 15-1
The Kentucky-bred son of Orientate has proven to be something of an omnisurface star and the relevance isn’t lost on Chircop.
“That’s something with decent horses. You want to keep him to one surface but I’ve been fortunate he runs well on all three,” said Chircop, while running his fingers through the colts mane appreciatively. “On poly, he won by five. In the Toronto Cup on turf he was beat a half-length. In the Canadian Derby on dirt he got beat a length and a half. Three starts, three different surfaces, three different distances and the horse doesn’t stop trying. He tries and tries right to the wire.”
And Chircop is trying to help Kara’s Orientation maintain that form through the end of the Woodbine meet.
“He’s peaking at this time and I’ve got a smaller barn so I can do a lot more with him. He’s out of his stall two hours a day,” exhaled Chircop. “He’s been out here 40 minutes before you came. He’s definitely come a long way.”
Sir Heart Throb and Kara's Orientation stir up a bit of mischief
Chircop sees nothing but good options for his omnisurface star which explains why Kara’s Orientation is cross-entered this Saturday in the Kent Stakes on the turf at Delaware Park and the Ontario Derby over the Woodbine polytrack. At the time of this interview, a few short weeks ago, the young conditioner was still at a crossroads as to the next start.
“It’s very tough to say. I’d love to put him back on turf. He’s got a lot of turf breeding. His mother’s full sister produced With Anticipation who made $2.6M running long on the turf,” touted Chircop. “I’d love to keep him on turf but then I’d love to run him against straight three year-olds but I don’t think there’s a straight three year-old turf race left at Woodbine. The Ontario Derby, at a mile and an eighth on the poly, is coming up. I might try and lead him towards that.”
Move Kara's Orientation to the head of the class
Picking the right race this weekend for his up-and-coming horse will be a difficult decision for Chircop, but the conditioner demonstrates solid recent form in the decision-making department. And what bodes well for his future is that despite his good fortune in the claiming game, Chircop’s feet are planted firmly on the ground - be it poly, dirt or turf.
“I try and set high goals for myself because it makes you work that much harder,” stated Chircop. “Right now I’ve met expectation. I’m not winning a lot of races (15-2-2-1 at Woodbine) but my in-the-money percentage is very high. I’d like to win five races by the time the years done but my main concern is that I’ve got horses that stay healthy and try.”