Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Action, adventure and adversity: On the road at Penn National with Steven Chircop

While many of Woodbine’s trainers are keeping busy as ‘Snowbirds’ basking in the sun at Palm Meadows and Payson Park in Florida through the dark winter, 28-year-old conditioner Steven Chircop is braving the elements with a string of horses at Penn National.

Steven Chircop and Kara's Orientation
Granted, the one element Chircop didn’t expect to deal with was fire - - but, through a bizarre set of circumstances over the past week, the amicable trainer is happy to have escaped with a win, courtesy of Tiempo Libre, and, perhaps, his life.

“Someone should be making a documentary on all the things that have happened while we've been here. It’s been crazy,” says Chircop, over the phone from his Pennsylvania hotel.

The action started innocently enough for Chircop, while driving on the I-81 highway, trying to be a Good Samaritan.

“Somebody driving beside us was asking for our help as their car was overheating,” starts Chircop, who is joined on his U.S. adventure by assistant trainer Willie Armata; grooms Jeff Brideau and Charlie Roopchand; and friend, and jockey agent, Scott Lane.
Scary, but no one was injured
“We helped them come off the highway and the next thing we know the car just took off in flames. It was unbelievable,” he recalls. “We were going to take them to the gas station and the next thing you know, the engine went up in flames.”

Fortunately, no one was hurt in the incident. But, it made the conditioner wonder if the fiery moment was meant as a warning to the hotel fire yet to come.

Chircop, who became a graded stakes winning trainer in 2011 when ex-claimer Kara’s Orientation galloped wire-to-wire in the Grade 2 SkyClassic Stakes, chose Penn National over Gulfstream for his winter getaway as he believed it would give his horses a better chance at winning races.

After going winless through his first five starts, Chircop must have been questioning his decision to stray from the warmth of the Sunshine State, where Miami recently enjoyed a record-tying 15 consecutive days of temperatures exceeding80 degrees Fahrenheit, from Jan. 2 through Jan. 16.

While his colleagues make appearances in the Gulfstream Park winner’s circle wearing shorts and t-shirts, Chircop has to make sure to grab his toque and gloves before heading to the track at Penn National, located in Grantville, Pennsylvania, each morning.

“It's windy and the weather is a bit colder than it is at home, but it's not bad,” grits Chircop.
Chircop and crew visit Rocky!
Perseverance paid off for Chircop though on Jan. 17, as he celebrated his first win of 2013 during a decidedly chilly 36 degrees Fahrenheit evening card at Penn National with Tiempo Libre.

The four-year-old son of Tale of the Cat, owned by Shale Wagman, broke his maiden in style with a 10 ¼-length romp in a six furlong maiden claiming sprint.

Tiempo Libre, who posted a four-panel bullet breeze in :48.60 on Jan 10, had hinted at a breakthrough.

“We breezed him over the track and he breezed phenomenal,” says Chircop, of the gelding who had previously raced over the dirt at Churchill Downs and Tampa Bay Downs, before heading to Woodbine. “I watched replays of his races at Tampa Bay, where I thought it was impossible for him to get beat...but, with the breeze, and making his third start off the layoff, that's usually a good handicapping angle. Plus, I'd given him some time off between races."

The winning margin, however, came as a surprise to Chircop.

"I really expected him to win but maybe not that easy. He beat the third horse by 20 lengths," notes Chircop.

Although things were heating up on the track, Chircop had no idea what was in store for his crew after putting the gelding to bed late in the evening.


It was 9:40 p.m. when Tiempo Libre left the gate in his maiden score, and far later still when Chircop and crew settled in for the night at their hotel.

Chircop, in hushed tones, sets the scene.

“I'm dead exhausted because we'd won that night and gone out for dinner after the last race,” starts Chircop. “We got to the room at 1:30 a.m., watched the replay, and we’re asleep by 2 a.m.”

The hotel, located in the middle of nowhere, according to Chircop, is far from a party scene.

“The hotel is very quiet. There are no young kids staying there,” starts Chircop. “Willie Armata is snoring away like there's no tomorrow and Scott’s out of it, but I’m a light sleeper.”

And then at 4 a.m., the fire alarm goes off - - and Chircop races about the hotel room waking up his friends.

“So, Scottie gets up and calls the front desk,” continues Chircop. “We're on the second floor of a three-story hotel and they say, 'There's a fire on the second floor.'”

Frantic, Chircop heads to the door.

“I open up the door and the whole floor is filling up with smoke,” says Chircop, “Now, we're in absolute panic. Some guy is coming down the hall, screaming, ‘The joint is on fire, get out’.”

As the fire burns inside the hotel, there’s only cold and snow waiting outside, so they take a moment to get dressed.

“I'm in a panic. Honest to God, I've never been that scared,” says Chircop. “We get dressed and had to cover our faces running down the hall, the whole place was so smoky. But, we got outside.”
The view from the parking lot
Shivering in the safety of the parking lot, Chircop waited with the other hotel guests for the fire department to arrive.

“By the time fire trucks showed up, it took 10 minutes because the town is so small (population, 3,679),” said Chircop. “All the firemen are volunteers.”

Fortunately, the volunteer crew worked diligently and no one was hurt.

“Apparently, some guy came home to cook, drunk out of his mind, and passed out and the whole place caught on fire,” offers Chircop. “Nobody got hurt but it was a scary feeling. The hotel didn't burn down, but the one room burned up and we were moved to the first floor because of the smoke damage.”


Having averted disaster in Pennsylvania, Chircop is now focused on surviving 2013 in the uncertain climate of Ontario horse racing.

Chircop enjoyed the best year of his career in 2012, sporting a record of 16-19-23 from 133 starts and purse earnings of $569,359 - - career bests in all categories, while surpassing the half-million dollar mark for the first time since taking out his license in 2009.

And yet, Chircop admits to being a little disappointed with his campaign.

“My two best horses went winless,” he says, of stakes winning duo Kara's Orientation and Medidocihospisurg. “It was disappointing that they didn't step up and win, but each of them ran second in stakes.”

Fortunately for Chircop, who made his name with the astute $20,000 claim of Kara’s Orientation, he found another gem in Hold That Echo - - who he claimed for $10,000, on July 27.

Although Hold That Echo would not go on to win a graded race like Kara’s Orientation, the chestnut mare would pick up a cheque in each of her nine starts for her new connections, topped by a $61,165 allowance score at Woodbine on October 26.

But, don’t think that Chircop has forgotten about Kara’s Orientation, who finished second in the $250,000 PTHA President’s Cup, last September at Parx.

“Without 'Kara,' none of this is possible,” says Chircop. “That horse has done everything for me. He got me to travel, to meet new people and get my face out there in the media. Without him, who knows where I’d be.”
Kara's Orientation watching training
Oddly enough, where Chircop might be, at least for the foreseeable future, is at Penn National.

With the Woodbine schedule for 2013 yet to be determined due to the ongoing negotiations with the OLG following the cancellation of the Slots at Racetracks Program, Chircop needs to keep bringing home cheques.

“One plan might be to go home and bring the rest of my horses here, with the exception of 'Kara' and Hold That Echo, who had a long campaign,” he says.

But, it’s not an easy decision to make. Whether his stock races or not, Chircop continues to pay the bills to stable and feed his horses, many of whom he owns outright, or in partnership.

“From a business point of view, I'm nervous,” admits Chircop. “I keep telling myself to give it a few more weeks. But, I've been telling myself that since December 1 and now it's the 20th of January.”

And if he does bring more stock to Penn National, he also has to worry about losing his horses in claiming events and having no stock to race when Woodbine does open its doors.

“I have horses that are not allowance horses. They’re lower to mid-level claimers,” offers Chircop. “We were lucky not to lose Tiempo Libre. For now, we're sitting as chilly as we can and if we get the go ahead for Woodbine opening, then we have the option to bring them home and give them a rest before we open up at Woodbine.”

Chircop is fully aware that horse racing can be an uncertain game at the best of times, and he has managed to leap most of the hurdles he’s faced thus far.

“I’ve been lucky,” he admits. “What if Hold That Echo didn't make all that money for me at the end of the year?”

And while he waits, along with the rest of the horsemen, for news on the upcoming Woodbine season, he remains frustrated, but optimistic.

“What can you do?” he says. “The strong will survive, I guess.”

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