Skippy Bowen, assistant trainer to Ian Black, made me an offer I couldn’t refuse when he invited me up to Kinghaven Farms on Friday morning to watch their horses during a winter training session.
Not only was it a chance to eyeball Sovereign Award finalist Fifty Proof as he takes his first steps on the journey back to the races, it also meant I could bring a few treats to retired stars Rahy’s Attorney and Wollemi Pine.
Wollemi Pine remains the Woodbine track record holder at 1M70
Kinghaven Farms is nestled in a gorgeous tree-lined property in King City and I cursed the weatherman, who had predicted zero percent precipitation, for much of the drive from my home in Toronto as rain, then freezing rain and finally snow pelted my car.
Running up that hill...
However, it was well worth the white-knuckle drive upon arrival as the resulting photos look that much better with a little snow on the ground.
Stand up if you like snow!
I found Skippy standing under a heat lamp inside Kinghaven’s covered quarter-mile track, carefully watching a pair of young horses, including a little chestnut filly that seemed familiar to me in both colour and movement.
The little Lady Auchamore filly is named, I believe, Pied A Terre and she is a half-sister of Sovereign Award finalist Stormy Lord and the well-regarded Incredicat.
“She’s by City Zip,” says Bowen. “She’s built for speed and with the way her brother, Stormy Lord, and the now three-year-old Incredicat, have raced there’s high hopes for her. It’s a tough act to follow, but if she has a bit of filly fight in her, good things can happen.”
The little filly asks for a little love
Bowen is cautiously optimistic about the chestnut’s potential.
“She’s built more like Stormy Lord,” he says. “She’s a slender filly, very agile. She’s training well right now, but you never really know until you work them.”
The horse I was waiting to see train, however, was the immense Fifty Proof. As we made our way to the barn, a number of familiar faces poked their heads out of their stalls to say hello. Don’s Folly and Princess Niigon, who sports a long white brush along her nose, occupy stalls that flank the path leading from barn to track.
Looking to the end of shed row, I recognized the familiar long-eared noggin of multiple graded stakes winner Rahy’s Attorney. ‘The Champ’ was dapper in his shiny coat and blue blanket and happily crunched a few mints.
The handsome Rahy's Attorney
He was pleased with the attention, but the moment was interrupted when Skippy laughed, “Keith, you might want to turn around.”
Across the shed row, his neck fully extended out of his stall, was the massive cranium belonging to Fifty Proof. The Whiskey Wisdom gelding is tall, muscular and exudes the presence of a horse that won’t be denied a treat once asked.
Fifty Proof demands attention
As I fed a few mints to the huge-hoofed Grade 3 Eclipse Stakes champ, Bowen went over the details of Fifty Proof’s road to recovery after suffering an injury to his suspensory just prior to the Sky Classic Stakes in August.
“Recommended by Dr. Robert McMartin, we did stem cell and plasma injection,” explained Bowen. “We gave him the proper time off, did some ultrasounds and decided it would be beneficial to do some laser therapy on it.”
As we talk, Fifty Proof is led out of his stall to go for a jog with the filly May Island.
“At the beginning of the year we got the okay to start training him again and on January 16 we started him here again at Kinghaven,” says Bowen. “In a couple weeks he’ll head down to Payson Park to continue his training.”
Too dark in here for pictures!
Fifty Proof and May Island make for an odd, little and large, coupling as they made strides within the shadowy confines of the training track. May Island, sleek and athletic, glides over the surface. Fifty Proof moves with a purpose. His head is forward and he bulls his way through the workout.
He is a physical imposing specimen and the workout seems light, but the connections are being patient in re-building the foundation and fitness of their prized horse.
“The main thing is to get some weight on him and for him to do a lot of jogging,” explains Bowen. “Before he heads to Payson, he’ll have a couple weeks of galloping into him here at the farm and then he’ll go to Florida and be trained, more or less, like any other horse. Of course, we’ll keep a closer eye on him, but all systems are go right now and we’re just looking forward for the season to start.”
Stormy Lord hanging out in his Woodbine stall last summer
Fifty Proof, who won twice and placed twice in four starts in 2011, impressed enough to earn a Sovereign Award nomination in the Older Male category. Bowen is appreciative of the honour, but recalls a time when he thought the 2011 campaign might work out differently.
“It’s bittersweet,” he says. “At the beginning of last year, I really felt like we could have the three finalists for the turf. I felt that Rahy, Stormy and Fifty Proof could be the three finalists. And the little horse, Stormy Lord, is the only one who ends up in that category.”
Fifty Proof and May Island conclude their exercise and the big horse is stopped under a beam of light in the training centre so I can snap a photo.
In the photo, Fifty Proof’s exercise rider Matt Douglas is hidden behind the gelding’s massive frame - - but he offers an insight into the little chestnut filly he previously steered around the track.
“I went from riding the smallest horse to the biggest horse in the barn,” he laughs. “But I think her heart is the same size.”
Matt, somewhere up there, aboard Fifty Proof
If Fifty Proof maintains his current progress, he’ll find an allowance at Keeneland or Woodbine to make his comeback. Along with Stormy Lord, he’s expected to lead a promising stable for Ian Black in 2012 with the now three-year-old Incredicat, the chestnut filly and a two-year-old Pulpit-Lyrically colt named Apostolic.
The Canadian foaled Apostolic is currently in Payson with Black.
“He’s from Lyrically, a very nice mare for us,” says Bowen. “She’s from the Lover’s Talk family. That family means a lot to Kinghaven.”
Lover’s Talk won a Sovereign Award in 2007 as Outstanding Broodmare. The family includes stakes winners Love Grows, Barley Talk, Torrid Affair, Wild Whiskey and the stakes-place Lyrically.
“They’re down there right now at Payson with him (Apostolic) and we quite like him, otherwise he wouldn’t be down there,” says Bowen.
Incredicat, a Discreet Cat-Lady Auchamore chestnut (of course), is the barn’s Queen’s Plate hopeful for 2012. There was a fair bit of backstretch buzz last year about Incredicat who was slated to make his start in the Clarendon, but bucked shins in training, and instead debuted with a sharp victory going five and a half furlongs in December.
“Incredicat was such a physically amazing thoroughbred right from the get go,” offers Bowen. “He was a big, strong, gorgeous two-year-old. He looked like a three year old, really.”
Incredicat breaks his maiden at Woodbine
Distance is the main concern regarding Incredicat’s chances of succeeding on the Queen’s Plate trail. However, Black was impressed with the relaxed manner in which Luis Contreras engineered the debut victory.
Baby it's cold outside
“I thought he ran big because he broke really sharp and Luis was able to settle him and take him back off that,” says Black. “At five and a half furlongs a lot of people would have sent him, but I thought Luis rode him really well.”
Incredicat has continued his racing education at Payson over the winter and Bowen is hopeful the horse will outrun expectations.
“Discreet Cat was a two turn horse,” he offers. “Incredicat will get every chance to prove that he belongs in the Plate.”
While the barn is looking forward to seeing these future stars race, their former war horses are far from forgotten.
Rahy’s Attorney, who earned in excess of $2.2-million in a storied career highlighted by a victory in the 2008 Woodbine Mile, is expected to make it back to Woodbine as a stable pony.
“He’s doing great,” says Bowen of the 11-time stakes winner. “But he hates not having a job. The game plan with him is to eventually make him into our stable pony so he can be at the track, stand at the wire, and back up with the two-year-olds.”
Those who know Rahy’s Attorney will recall how much the horse enjoyed his little moments standing at the finish line in the morning watching the horses go by. The barn is hopeful he can lend his experience to younger horses making their first nervous steps on the Polytrack.
“To have a horse that will back up the younger horses and stand at the wire with them, and if a loose horse runs by and for that older horse not to be afraid really helps a two-year-old,” says Bowen.
With my morning visit winding down, there was one more horse I wanted to visit before braving the icy road home - - the speedy, pale-as-pale-can-be, mint-munching, tongue-wagging eight-year-old gelding Wollemi Pine.
We found him in a paddock shared with four other horses including Knightly Attire, Get Down, Colonel Kleeter and a jumper named Al.
I visited Wollemi Pine often during his racetrack days and I’d like to think he remembered me as I walked to the paddock fence. But, truth be told, his pink nose likely caught hold of the minty scent of my outstretched hand as he ambled up for a treat.
Get Down peers between the trees
As I ventured into the paddock, I was swarmed by the grey grifters Wollemi Pine and Get Down. The devilish duo ran an elaborate con, eating the offered treats as a form of distraction, while their paddock mates attempted to pick my pocket and make off with the sweet stash.
With the snow flurries increasing, I bid my goodbyes to the lovable lugs and gave Wollemi Pine one last hug. As I drove my car down the winding farm road away from the paddock, I stopped and took one last look up the hill where the veterans continued to play in the snow.
Three heads are better than one
Knightly Attire, his four legs pointed straight up in the air, was wriggling horse-shaped snow angels in the snow as Wollemi Pine observed. With silent snow falling from the heavens, Wollemi Pine lifted his head in the air, exhaled, and decided this was a game worth playing.