You can never go home again.
It’s an expression made doubly true if you’re not even sure where home is to begin with.
And yet, Lisa Knight, a groom at Woodbine, somehow found her way home to the racetrack, after three decades of living, searching and wondering about her own origins and destiny.
Lisa and stable pony Smokey on the Woodbine backstretch
Lisa, born in Florida, was adopted as a baby by Don and Lynda Knight, a loving couple who had traveled south from Ontario, Canada to accommodate Don’s trade as an electrician. The couple already had an adopted son, David, so Lisa, immediately became part of a larger family circle.
“They are the most wonderful parents a kid could ever have,” boasts Lisa. “When I say I’m the luckiest person I know, I really am. Even though the people who brought me into this world couldn’t take care of me when I was born, I was put with two of the greatest parents someone could have.”
Lynda would pass away when Lisa was just 12-years-old and a few years later Don remarried to another Canadian, Verna, and made their way back to Ontario.
As a teenager, Lisa dreamed of working in show business. Blessed with the patience and skill to work with intricate computer projects, she forged a career as a visual effects compositor.
In a sense, Lisa was an illusionist of the green screen, asked to combine visual elements from separate sources into single images, to create the effect that all those elements are parts of the same scene.
“I’m not an artist, but I ‘m a great technician,” she says. “I ended my career working on the largest documentary ever made called Canada: A People’s History. The opening shot of the series, a steam engine coming through a field, and the fact that it looks only like a steam engine coming through a field is something I’m very proud of. If you can see my work, I’ve done a bad job. And if you can’t see anything then, bravo.”
Click the 'People's History' link above to watch Lisa's steam engine...
Talented, but unsatisfied, Lisa knew deep down that she had another calling.
“I’d been unhappy doing this work for a while and I had an idea that I wanted to work with animals,” recalls Lisa. “I was 28 or 29 and everything I’d wanted up until then, I didn’t really like it anymore. I’d discovered how ‘glamorous’ show business was and I didn’t want to spend the rest of my life working at a desk in front of a computer, or in a dark room, working frame by frame. It lost all its appeal.”
With her film and TV projects dwindling, Lisa picked up a second job working as a driver at a car dealership. This new sidebar would be the vehicle that inadvertently pointed her to the racetrack.
“One of the ladies in administration asked me what I really wanted to do,” she recalls.
When Lisa informed her friend that she wanted to work with animals, possibly horses, a new career was set in motion.
“She said, ‘I can get you a job working with horses. My husband’s an agent at the racetrack,’” laughs Lisa.
That agent, Roger Poynter, found Lisa a weekend job working for trainer John Mackenzie.
“Roger warned me that, ‘you might not like this, so try it on the weekends and keep your other job and see what you want to do,’” recalls Lisa. “After the first day at the track, I went home and was convinced all these animals were trying to kill me. I was thoroughly exhausted. I don’t think I’d ever worked as hard in my entire life. They were nothing like I expected, but I wanted to come back.”
And yet, in a matter of a weekend, she knew she had found her home.
“By Wednesday of that week, at my other job, I was already itching to get back,” she laughs. “Before the end of my first year I was here full time.”
At the age of 30, Lisa’s life seemed complete. She had completed her education, worked a career and found her way into a new position she was passionate to pursue. But, deep down, she felt something was missing.
“I had put something up years ago on an adoption reunion site,” recalls Lisa, of her attempts to reconnect with her birth family. “Florida adoptions are completely sealed. You can’t know anything about them, so I had no information really, other than what they call non-identifying information.”
One piece of so-called non-identifying information in Lisa’s possession, posted hopefully on the website, Adoption.com, would eventually prove fruitful.
“I knew that my mother had twin brothers,” says Lisa.
One morning, out of the blue, a phone call would change Lisa’s life.
“I’d been working at the racetrack starting my second full year and I got a phone call one day and it was my half-sister,” says Lisa, eyes widening. “Donna is a few years younger than me, but it was that one piece of information that my sister found and thought, ‘that’s her’, because she had twin uncles.”
The long-lost sisters would soon make another exciting discovery.
“Donna asked me what I did for a living and when I told her, she said, ‘you better sit down’ and she proceeded to tell me this whole saga of my life,’ starts Lisa.
Incredibly, little baby Lisa enjoyed a backstretch beginning.
Her father Dale Thirtyacre and birth mother Kenni Ellington Witt, were mainstays in the Florida thoroughbred circuit. Her father, would eventually move on to Detroit where he would saddle a number of winners through the late 1970s and early 1980s.
“Both my biological parents were racetrackers,” smiles Lisa. “My dad galloped for his father, Chester…and my mother galloped horses for her family. Her uncle is a guy named Bill Martin and my grandmother is a woman named Donna Babij and she was a trainer as well.”
Dale Thirtyacre in the irons...
It all seems so simple by Lisa’s explanation.
“These two teenagers hooked up, I ended up happening, but they were just kids so I was put up for adoption as a baby and never knew anything about this until about six years ago,” she states.
Knight’s newfound heritage proved to be steeped in racing lore. Her grandfather, Chester Thirtyacre, clearly bequeathed the racing gene to his offspring.
“Chester ran away from home when he was 12 or 13 to race ride in bush races,” explains Lisa. “He did that for a number of years and eventually one of his brothers did as well. They both ended up being trainers down at Calder in Florida.”
Chester, age 15, with Nutwood in West Liberty, Iowa
Chester is mentioned ever-so-briefly in a May 19, 1967 New York Times article written by Steve Cady previewing the chances of Florida Derby winner In Reality in that year’s Preakness Stakes. Cady was relentless in his attempts to understand why trainer Melvin ‘Sunshine’ Calvert, had skipped the Kentucky Derby with the son of Intentionally-My Dear Girl.
“A horse,” says Calvert, “is like a cake of soap. Every time you use it, you wash away a little bit of the soap. You have to be careful not to wash too much away.”
Cady happened across Chester Thirtyacre’s path that morning on the backstretch describing him as an occasional trainer serving as an exercise boy and groom for Kentucky Derby runner-up Barbs Delight, and was only too happy to publish the horseman’s thoughts on Calvert’s contemplation.
“The Derby kills more good horses than it makes,” Thirtyacre philosophized. “It’s hard on young horses so early in the year. They’re not machines that can be revved up like a racing car. They’re like humans. There’s only so much in ‘em and each race takes something out.”
Damascus wins the 1967 Preakness Stakes
As it turns out, Damascus, who finished third in that year’s Kentucky Derby won by Proud Clarion, would capture the remaining two thirds of the Triple Crown. In Reality, Calvert’s well-rested horse, would finish second in the Preakness and, in what seems odd by reflection given Calvert’s suds story, would capture the Jersey Derby at Garden State Park just ten days later. Thirtyacre’s charge, Barbs Delight, (according to Equibase) skipped the Preakness and returned a winner in July’s Assault Stakes at Arlington Park.
Big Blue Chip, with Wayne Catalano in the irons, wins for owner/trainer Dale Thirtyacre
For Lisa, having these bits of racing lore to share has been a godsend.
“My sister and I bonded very easily,” she admits. “We have similar personalities and a similar sense of humour but with my mother and father, I was 30-years-old before I even knew anything about them. Having horses to talk about gave us something to build a relationship on.”
It’s hard to imagine meeting your parents for the first time at an age when you could be a parent yourself, but it’s the hand Lisa was dealt.
“Being able to call my mum and dad to ask about how to deal with different types of horse problems gave us a start,” she says.
Hidden amidst the story of a young girl finding her family is a third family - - her racetrack family, the trainers, co-workers and, of course, the horses with which Lisa spends the great majority of her time.
Each and every day of the racing season, from well before dawn until late into the afternoon, Lisa is a groom for well-regarded Woodbine trainers Debbie and Phil England.
Lisa and Woolly Bear lock eyes
As the 2011 meet came to a close, Lisa would learn just how well she was regarded by her co-workers when she was one off three backstretch workers honoured by the HBPA as Groom of the Year.
In the winner's circle with Sue Leslie, Debbie England and Richard Dos Ramos
Over a cup of coffee in the backstretch kitchen, Lisa shares her disdain that the meet is now over.
“I love this place,” she says. “But, this time of year I start getting a little sulky. Part of me can’t wait to not think about anything for a while…but that first week off I’ll have this perpetual feeling that I’ve left a horse hanging on the wall.”
Tools of the trade
She has a natural love for the game and, given her upbringing, a well-developed desire for all the horses in her care to feel that they belong and will be remembered.
“Every horse that comes in, you want them to win at least one time so they have a picture to prove they were here. Once they leave, if they’re not a runner, who knows what becomes of them,” she says.
Despite just having shared intimate details of her own emotional journey, it is only now that, a brief, semblance of sadness slides across her face.
“I want them all to know that they mattered,” she says of her horses. “They all mattered to me, even if they never won.”
Frustrated, she brings her hands to her eyes as she stares across the table and then looks upward, takes a deep breath and whispers, “God, I don’t know why I’m welling up.”
It’s been a tough year for Lisa’s favourite clients. Client being Lisa’s word for the horses she grooms. Tequila College, who she groomed for three years, broke down on the track, while another favourite, Stormy Illusion, was retired due to injury.
Lisa and Tequila College enjoying a sunshower
“I was her only racetrack groom from the time she came in at two until she retired at six,” says Lisa of Stormy Illusion. “I learned so much from grooming that horse day in and day out.”
The lightly raced daughter of Woodman-Sambra won three times, placed five times and finished third another four times. The hard-trying mare is a positive reflection of the person who looked after her through 17 starts in four years of racing.
“I like watching progress happen,” says Lisa. “I like seeing a very young animal come in at two-years-old that knows nothing and turns into a racehorses standing in the winner’s circle. I like that.”
Lisa and ‘Stormy’, a rather nervous horse, had plenty of mornings to practice their dialogue and, no doubt, each helped one another through their own particular trying times.
“I like the intuitive conversations I have with horses,” says Lisa. “Where nothing is spoken but I know what they want and they know what I want and we work together.”
It took some time for Lisa to develop that level of comfort with ‘Stormy’.
“She was flighty, she was nervous and didn’t run until she was three,” recalls Lisa. “The first time I schooled her, she managed to kick two people at the same time on opposite sides of her. But seeing that progress from a nervous animal afraid of everything to this horse I could walk over with a piece of dental floss she was that well behaved, and so comfortable and confident, was remarkable. She knew what she was doing and that I would take her there. We had a symbiotic let’s-go-win-this-race relationship.”
Although ‘Stormy’ has left Lisa’s care now, her legacy will live on as something of a precedent on how to care for future racehorses.
“She’s my model now as she was my longest client for the kind of relationships I hope to develop,” says Lisa.
We are family!
Lisa, who likes a challenge, is continuing to push her own limits and is learning how to gallop horses. It’s part of a master plan that the patient pupil is pursuing with a purpose.
“Many years from now, when I feel like I know something, I’d like to train,” explains Lisa. “Right now, I feel really far from that. I might work my way into getting an assistant’s license at some point. But, before then, I’d like to learn how to gallop. Not necessarily to be a gallop person, but just to know how it’s done.”
Her goal is a reflection of her admiration for Debbie and Phil England.
“One of the great things about working with Debbie is that she and Phil gallop their own horses and she knows them so well,” says Lisa. “She’s so in tune with them. If there’s a problem, she can get on and gallop and come back and know how to fix the situation.”
Lisa leading Stormy Illusion to the track
Until then, Lisa will continue to groom. On race day she’ll be found in the walking ring leading her clients to the racetrack and, when the race is on, she’ll be on the apron yelling her own special brand of encouragement.
“I yell their names like my pants are on fire and let them know to come on home,” she laughs. “I don’t know if it helps, but I feel better.”