When the gates opened for the third race on May 5 at Woodbine, Helen Savostenko went from voiceless to voluble before the field had settled into stride.
The next one minute and 23 seconds would feel like a blur for the University of Guelph (Ridgetown Campus) Equine Care & Management program student who came to work at the Toronto racetrack through the school’s internship program in mid-April.
As she stood at the rail, her eyes fixated on the bay mare breaking from post three, Savostenko watched intently as Halaga and jockey Sofia Vives jumped out to an early lead in the seven-furlong Tapeta race for three-year-old fillies and up.
Ahead by five lengths after the opening quarter, Halaga’s lead was trimmed to 3½ lengths at the half-mile mark and then to three at the stretch call.
The Catherine Day Phillips trainee’s advantage continued to shorten, but at the wire, the Kentucky-bred daughter of Flatter was three-quarters of a length clear of her closest rival.
“This was the first chance I had to participate in one of my horse’s races,” said Savostenko. “She won. It is… I don’t even know what to say. She was in front the whole race. I was screaming almost the entire time. This was my first race and that was my horse. It was such a good race.”
Day Phillips, off to a strong start in 2023, was thrilled to have Savostenko part of the victory.
“Helen came to the paddock – it was her first race – and helped with Halaga. It’s exciting to have young people come into the business. It’s also nice to see her get bit by the racing bug. We were happy to win and happy she was there as part of the team.”
A picture-perfect moment, to be sure, but not quite for an emotional, somewhat awestruck Savostenko.
“I was a little bit stunned, so I didn’t go in the win picture. Catherine was telling me, ‘Come in the picture,’ but for some reason, my brain wasn’t working. I was just standing there. It was one of the most exciting moments in my life. I had the brushes, buckets and held all the stuff to prepare the horse. Another groom, with much more experience, he walked with her for the race. They wanted me to watch and learn. I did have a chance to walk her to schooling and back, but in this moment, I felt so much happiness and joy.”
Emotions that Savostenko had never envisioned experiencing.
Her familiarity with horses dates back to her early days growing up in her native Ukraine.
“I have been pleasure-riding since I was eight. I came to Canada from Ukraine two years ago. When I turned 13, I got accepted into an academy in my home country and started riding dressage. I went to the Ukrainian championship three times. I did a bit of show jumping, vaulting, but most of my attention has been in dressage. Last summer, I worked in Denmark for a very accomplished dressage rider. The horse he rode qualified as the top horse for the World Cup, so that was really exciting. I was there the whole summer before I came back here in the fall for my second year of studies.”
When arrangements were made for her internship at Woodbine, one of her first conversations was with Karl Lagerborg, Senior Manager, Racing Operations and Equine Welfare, with the organization.
“I told Karl that I had never been around Thoroughbreds and my history with other English breeds and dressage for the past 10 years. There are some perceptions of horse racing that are out there but seeing what I have and being part of it, you realize that it isn’t true. I didn’t really have any knowledge of racing, so I wasn’t quite sure if it was for me. You can form wrong impressions when you don’t know the reality of things. I never thought I would be connected to the racing industry, but now I’m here, and I think that says a lot. Catherine, from day one, she changed my opinion about racing.”
One of Canada’s most accomplished horse people, Day Phillips, a finalist for the 2017 Sovereign Award in the Outstanding Trainer category, has sent out several standouts to success both at Woodbine and in the United States.
Her father, Jim Day, and late mother, Dinny Day, both were trainers and her maternal grandmother, the late Janet Burns, was the founder of Kingfield Farm, which remains the domain of Day Phillips and her husband, Todd Phillips. The stable’s success stories include A Bit O’ Gold, Canada’s Horse of the Year in 2005, and Hall of Famer Jambalaya, who provided Day Phillips with her first Grade 1 wins in the 2007 Gulfstream Park Breeders’ Cup Turf Stakes and Arlington Million.
When her four-week internship recently came to an end, Savostenko began working full-time for the multiple graded stakes winning trainer.
“The racetrack is a different world,” said Day Phillips. “When we found out we were going to have an intern, I didn’t know what to expect. It’s a hard world to teach to somebody in a short time to help them learn enough. But Helen jumped in and helped where she could. She is very good at bandaging the horses and has some skills that exceeded my expectations. She was quite helpful from the beginning and certainly, her enthusiasm goes a long way.”
In just over a month’s time, Day Phillips, her team, and her horses have had a profound impact on Savostenko and her view of the Thoroughbred industry.
“It’s been amazing. I’m going to stay and work here for Catherine throughout the summer. I really can’t put into words how much I have enjoyed it. I’ve learned so much from Catherine and her team in such a short time. She treats people and the horses in the same way, with so much respect and care. You can see how the team is dedicated to her and she appreciates every worker. It’s the way she is with the people and horses that has really left a big impression on me. You feel appreciated for the work you do. And you can see the love she has for each horse, which is beautiful.”
Currently, Savostenko has four horses under her care.
“During my internship, I was looking after two horses. I was also helping with Catherine’s social media and her website. I applied to the University of Alberta and hopefully I will get in there in the fall. But for the summer, I’m working full-time with Catherine.”
The world that Savostenko at one time admittedly knew little of is now a cherished experience.
Savostenko pauses briefly to ponder what has been the biggest takeaway from her time on the Woodbine backstretch.
“The team feeling. It’s like a family. I felt that from the first few days I walked into the barn. Everyone is helpful and welcomed me to the family like a little sister. They care about me. It’s a hard job working in the barn, but everyone is so positive. Even though you have to be there early in the morning, everyone is smiling and happy. The teamwork, everything is super organized, and you can tell that Catherine created a great team.
“She’s a successful trainer and I think a big part of that is the environment she created, where everyone is welcome, appreciated and working in unison. Everyone’s voice is heard. She wants the best for her people and her horses. They aren’t workers, they are her family.”
An environment that is meaningful for Day Phillips.
“I care about everyone that is in the barn. It’s quiet, it’s peaceful and the horses are happy. It’s nice to come in every morning and see the people and see the horses. Hopefully, it’s pleasant for everyone. Not every day is perfect, but it’s a nice place to be.”
A sentiment that is echoed by Savostenko, who feels right at home on the sprawling Woodbine backstretch.
“I didn’t have any big expectations, but I’m really amazed at what has happened for me. In a few days, my whole world was turned upside down in the best way. And now, here I am. I am so happy to be here.”