Friday, December 24, 2010

What's Love Got To Do With It?

A horse race can run smooth as silk or play out as perilously as the Wild West.

Consider the seventh race at Woodbine on November 21. As the gates burst open, Widmo, a 16-1 long shot reared, throwing jockey Jono Jones to the ground at the start of the mile and a sixteen route. As the rambunctious Widmo rushed after the field outrider Robert Love and his veteran grey, Grouch, were already in full pursuit. Within a matter seconds – in fact, before the field had passed the finish line for the first time, Love grasped Widmo’s reins.

Woodbine outrider Robert Love is the local sheriff of runaway horses

“He grabbed that horse on a long line and you can’t just pull up a horse like that so he had his work cut out for him,” admires Steve Koch, Woodbine’s Vice President of Thoroughbred Racing. “He’s got to do whatever he does to get this horse stopped and meanwhile count on his grey horse to keep a steady course. It’s a potentially dangerous situation.”

As Love and Grouch struggled for control of the runaway horse, Widmo scurried between Dr Grgurich, ridden by Emma-Jayne Wilson, and Northern Store under jockey Scott Williams.

“I’m always one to pay attention coming out of the gate and if I hear a “woah…” from the gate crew I usually give a glance left or right just to see if everybody made it out clean,” recalls Wilson. “I saw the loose horse right beside me and I gave the typical shout that there’s a loose horse in the field and the next thing I know I see Rob coming to grab the horse.”

In the arms of Love...Woodbine's outrider makes the catch

It’s a precarious situation but it didn’t phase Wilson one bit.

“It’s no surprise to see Rob coming to grab the horse,” states Wilson. “That’s what he does. He doesn’t hesitate and I think that’s one of the things that makes him such a great outrider.”

With Widmo under a tight hold, Love went to work on slowing down the headstrong animal before the field entered the turn.

“He comes tearing into the field and grabs this horse and I remember watching, just watching, as we’re going into the first turn,” says Wilson with a laugh. “As a jockey, you’re going into the first turn anyway and you have to make sure you’re in good position trying to, as we say, ‘get in or get out’ to avoid a troubled position getting on heels and here is Rob going full tilt into a group of horses. He’s not just wrangling his own pony but dealing with this loose horse. He handled it with such calm, cool and collected composure.”

The field heads to the paddock under the watchful eyes of the outriders

Wilson’s appreciation is not just for the outrider though.

“His pony Grouchie is just a genius,” adds Wilson. “He knew exactly what his dad was asking him to do and he just went about his business.”

It was all a bit matter of fact for Love.

“I was able to get going quick enough and caught the horse right close to the pack,” states Love. “I was closer than I wanted to be but I got a hold of him, kept him straight, and got him out of trouble and stopped.”

* * *

A native of Grand Prairie, Alberta, Love arrived at Woodbine in 2006 and, like a sheriff coming east, has been keeping peace on the track ever since. He’s a quiet man and when moved to sentences of any length, the mustachioed marshal of the track gives most of the credit to Grouch.

“He’s quick. He’s good at his job,” spits Love. “I got him when he was three after he was done racing and I’ve had him ever since. He was a quarter horse in Alberta.”

There’s a wealth of experience in the horseman’s resume.

“I rode for 22 different seasons in the bush tracks in Alberta and BC,” says Love. “I have no idea how many winners. I rode quarter horses, thoroughbreds. Everything.”

When his riding career wrapped up, Love found a new career as an outrider so he could continue doing the thing he loves best - - riding horses.

“I had the same job in Alberta as head outrider at Stampede Park in Calgary and at Northlands Park in Edmonton,” explains Love. “In 2006, I was in touch with Woodbine and I came out to see what it was like out here and I’ve been here ever since.”

Love’s athletic catch of Widmo at Woodbine might have saved the horse his life. Earlier this summer at Hastings Park, just seconds into a race, Private Mambo bucked off her rider, Geovanni Franco, and veered across the track toward the grandstand. The panicked animal crashed headfirst through security barriers and into the winner's circle, where it died on impact.

“We’re out there to catch them and hopefully keep them out of trouble so they don’t bother the other riders,” states Love sternly. “Hopefully we catch them quick enough that that type of accident doesn’t happen out there.”

Love and Grouch on patrol

Nabbing Widmo was one of many great efforts by Love this season. Earlier this year Love and another pony Clyde, a retired thoroughbred formerly named Ada Storm, performed heroics to nab Tequila Max, who reared coming out of the gate and tossed jock Betty Jo Williams to the ground.

Chasing horses can be an exhausting business and Love owns the better part of ten horses that he trains in case Grouch needs a day off.

“Grouch is going to be ten in the spring and I’ve had horses up until they were eighteen,” explains Love. “I own them all. I either board them out or keep them at my own place. We’re always working on new ones and young ones as they have to be replaced sooner or later. I retired two last year.”

Grouchie's got his eye on you...

In addition to training his horses, Love is also in charge of a select group of riders that make up the outrider team including Larry Dagg, Darren Fortune, Eddie Dyer and Amanda Bell.

“Rob and his team have made a long string of strong decisions with best outcomes,” advises Koch. “He’s able to make these maneuvers and pull them off and potentially he’s saving injury and life out there by removing that danger from the field. It’s not just Robert, it’s what Robert has built. Larry Dagg had a miracle catch of his own a few months back. This is a solid team and Robert built that.”

* * *

Catching horses is a full-time gig. Love and his crew are out on the track each day at the crack of dawn patrolling the morning workouts. Their presence is a comfort for all involved.

“The mornings can be more dangerous than in the afternoon,” drawls Wilson. “You’ll get the odd loose one running the wrong direction full tilt at everybody else and to know Rob is going to be there as fast as possible and have that horse wrangled up adds another aspect of comfort.“

Wilson and Southdale find a quiet moment on the hectic Woodbine backstretch

When a horse gets loose during morning workouts a siren will ring out across the backstretch warning the workers of a loose horse.

“When you hear that siren you know that something is happening. Not everyone can move because their horse might not be cooperative,” says Wilson.
“It used to be, “where is he, where is he, where is he…,” adds Wilson of the fear of an on rushing loose horse. “Now it’s ‘does he have him yet’ because you know he’s going to get to that horse really fast and wrangle him up.”

Even the punters in the grandstand benefit from the outrider’s unique skills.

“Anytime we get a loose horse in a race it can be dangerous, not because of inexperience, but because of the speed we are going at,” starts Wilson. “That is where the confidence we have in Rob in the afternoon helps knowing he is going to scoop that horse up. It helps the betting public, as there’s no potential of ruining the race or compromising somebody’s chances to win.”

Wilson quickly offers up a scenario that could save a handicapper from a bad beat.

“What if you have a lone speed horse and there’s no pace in the race?” proposes Wilson. “So, if a horse drops someone coming out of the gate and that other horse that’s loose is now head and head with you, pressing you, and you can’t slow your horse down. Safety is a concern but what if that’s a million dollar race and now your race strategy is messed up. It benefits the owners and the trainers and the betting public to have a good outrider out there in the afternoon.”

Woodbine’s leading trainer Mark Casse concurs with Wilson’s assessment.

“Who knows how many horses’ lives he saves every year by not letting them run loose,” exclaims Casse. “On a couple occasions he could have saved some riders lives - - in the morning and the afternoon. You never know which direction the horse is going to move or who they’re going to hit. By being so quick to catch them it’s just remarkable.”

Trainer Mark Casse sends another horse to the track

Casse offers up a chilling real-life example of how Love and crew helped one of his own horses avert disaster.

“At the beginning of the year I had a horse named King’s Command and he reared right at the start and when he did he hit Corey Fraser’s head knocking him out,” says Casse gravely. “Corey actually stayed on the horse’s back unconscious for three or four strides and then fell off. Love was right there to catch the horse and prevent injury to the horse. Who knows what could have happened. I‘ve been training for 32 years and been to pretty well every major racetrack in North America and I can honestly say I’ve never seen a better outrider.”

Thanks to Love the story has a happy ending.

“He’s (King’s Command) a really nice horse and came back to be second in his next start and won the start after that,” says Casse. “He’s worth a lot of money. If it wasn’t for Love he might not be around.”

While all this gushing is sure to make Love as red as his moustache, there’s no mistaking his talents are appreciated. And even in the precision of his stressful workday, Love finds time to enjoy his job.

He doesn't look grouchie!

“I love International day,” says Love. It’s nice to see good horses and good riders.”

Undoubtedly, from the perspective of those so-called good riders when they see Love on the track, the feeling is mutual.

* * *

This story originally appeared in the December issue of Down The Stretch newspaper.

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1 comment:

St├ęphanie said...

Amazing story! I love when I see mentions of horses that were boarded at Windfields Farm while I worked there! Ada Atorm was one of those horses; he is such a nice and gentle horse! I am so glad to see he is doing great and doing an important job! Many thanks to Mr. Love for the care he has given him!