The man behind the unsung equine heroes has come a long way, literally, in his Thoroughbred journey.
For the past three years, Richard Persad has been running a track pony service at Woodbine Racetrack, a relatively new calling for the native of Trinidad, who came to Canada in February 2007.
He soon found work on the Woodbine backstretch, galloping horses for several trainers, including Jody Hammett.
“Jody had some very nice horses,” recalled Persad. “I was a jockey when I was in Trinidad. I left there winning three-straight races on a stakes horse I used to ride in my homeland. I ended up galloping for Jody for four months. My work permit was good, but my passport was expiring. Canadian immigration gave me a chance to go home and renew the passport and renew the work contract, so I did that.”
Upon his return, Persad, with encouragement from jockey Terry Husbands, went to work in the barn of trainer Alec Fehr for three years and was part of an operation that enjoyed great success between 2007 and 2008.
Eventually, he found himself in the Sunshine State.
“We had horses for Knob Hill Farm and Centennial Farms, including a very nice horse in Sebastian’s Song. I was galloping and partaking in anything that was needed. Whatever knowledge I could give, I tried to help in any way. From Alec, I went to the United States, in Florida, at Palm Meadows, and I met up with trainer Julia Carey. I started galloping for her.”
It was during his time in Florida when Persad met a headstrong chestnut son of Sky Classic.
“Reservoir, he came in from Ocala, and eventually he started breezing with (multiple graded stakes winner) Quality Road. They were both tough as 2-year-olds and they thought they were bad boys. We ended up getting Reservoir to the 2009 Queen’s Plate (now, King’s Plate). He didn’t do well, but he came back and finished third in the Breeders’ Stakes. Julia had a big year too, so that was nice. I also went on to work for trainer Mike De Paulo and his wife Josie. I’ve also galloped for some amazing horse people like Roger Attfield, Gail Cox, Josie Carroll, Dan Vella and Mark Casse over the years. It was a nice, little thing, to be able to gallop for these people and to do other things at the racetrack.”
Those other things include starting up RDP Pony Services at Woodbine in 2021.
The ponies play an integral role on training and race days, horses who often have a calming effect on the racehorses they are partnered with in the mornings and afternoons.
When the horses reach the racetrack, each jockey and their mount are guided by a pony, who will take their assigned racehorse to the starting gate.
The ponies are also on the job for morning training hours. Some conditioners have their own ponies and either lead the horses to the racetrack on their pony or hand the reins to someone who works in their barn. In other instances, a rider and pony will arrive at the barn to take the horses to the racetrack.
“These track ponies, they are so important in so many ways,” praised Persad of the horses who typically learn their craft at a farm or are trained for the role at the racetrack. “The racehorses are the stars of the show, but these horses play a big part in keeping them safe and sound.”
Each pony is focused on the task at hand, whether it’s early on the training track or in the minutes leading up to post time.
“I take all the horses in the races and escort them to the gate for post-parade and the race itself. Most of the ponies, around 80 per cent of them, are mine. I buy the ponies, and then I bill the trainers every month. Sometimes, horses are too tough for jockeys to carry to the pole. So, I book workers and pay them for whatever time they are working. The pony riders, who work for me, will take horses to the starting gate in the morning. That’s my morning job for now. I stopped breezing, but if someone needs me, I can do it.”
A broken hand, the result of a freak accident last fall – he slipped and fell from his trailer off-loading straw for the ponies – has kept Persad on the sidelines over the past six-plus months.
He’s hoping to get back on track soon.
“I’m still off, but I have someone doing the pony business for now. We have to see how my hand is healing. I broke it by mistake. It’s supposed to be six to eight weeks for the healing process after surgery. They took out all the hardware from my hand in January. I was unable to work, so that part has been tough. Hopefully, I can get back quickly. Sometimes, things test you. What is to be will be.”
The injury hasn’t kept Persad from coming to the Toronto oval backstretch to spend time with the Woodbine horse community and the horses.
Checking in on the ponies has become a pleasant distraction from his injury and subsequent physiotherapy.
“I live close to the track and my wife, Sarah Wood-Persad, is a veterinary technician for Dr. Candace Allen, so I’m always going and saying hello to everybody and checking to make sure everyone and the horses are doing well. All the horses stay at (trainer) Bev Chubb’s farm and at Woodbine. They keep the horses at one specific barn, so it’s nice to be able to go in and give them a quick pat and say hello.”
And while it’s a long way from where he started his association with racing in Trinidad, working with the ponies, pony riders and Woodbine horse people is a welcome addition to his unique horse racing repertoire.
“I can’t say it hasn’t been a bad life at all. It’s always an interesting thing with the horses. You learn something every day. You can never say you know everything because everything is about learning. And I have been able to learn a lot over the years.
Including the unsung equine heroes that he watches over.