When the 133-day Woodbine meet ended on Nov. 29, the expansive backstretch, home to some 2,000 horses during peak occupancy in the summer months, emptied in a matter of days.

The horses shipped out on vans across the continent, some heading to Florida to continue racing, some in search of warmer climates in U.S. locales such as South Carolina, and others stayed home, in Ontario, to brave the winter.

While there are myriad benefits to the various options at hand, Canadian Thoroughbred spoke with a trio of trainers with Queen’s Plate experience — Mike Keogh, Nick Gonzalez

and Sam DiPasquale — to learn more about the pros and cons of where to winter with horses.

Setting course for South Carolina

Keogh captured the Queen’s Plate, Canada’s most important race, with Woodcarver in 1999 and again in 2003 with Triple Crown champion Wando. Both success stories, as a private trainer for owner-breeder Gus Schickedanz, started in South Carolina.

“When I first started for Gus in ’93, he had a farm here just outside of Aiken, so we always went to train the babies there. We didn’t have a real racetrack, but I made a little uphill track and put a watering system in for it,” said Keogh, now a public trainer, working out of Aiken Training Center.

Keogh is currently overseeing 18 horses at Aiken and today he has started the process of preparing his stock for their return to racing, in April, at Woodbine.

“I shedrowed them last week for three days so they could have a rider on their back before going to the racetrack. Mainly, they jogged a quarter of a mile and then just cantered a mile,” said Keogh. “They get up to half a mile before they leave. The beauty of turning them out is they can exercise themselves a little bit, get out and run around and have a bit of fun. It’s exercise even if there’s no one on their back. Sun is very important to a horse.”

That chance for a winter’s respite is key to the veteran conditioner’s process.

“They’re not machines. They need a break,” said Keogh.

But, when the time comes, Keogh is a firm believer in putting his nose to the grindstone, especially if there’s a Plate contender involved.

“You can get a lot of miles under them here and that’s important. You need to get that foundation into them. If you think you have a Plate horse, you’re better off down here so you don’t miss any time,” he said.

It was in South Carolina where Keogh put Woodcarver to work, cutting out many training miles in The Palmetto State.

“He came off an injury at the end of his two-year-old season and all I did with Woodcarver on the farm was have him jog six miles a day. I was with him on the pony the whole way. By the end of it we were all fit,” said Keogh, laughing. “When we left the farm in early March, he still hadn’t breezed, but he won the Queenston in May on fitness.”

Keogh is playing the long game when it comes to his winter training plan and isn’t too worried about winning the short races on offer when Woodbine returns to racing in April.

“Most races are five furlongs (in the early season at Woodbine) and some horses aren’t bred for that. You can try and put speed into them, but if they don’t want to sprint it doesn’t matter if they were down here or not,” he said.

Instead, Keogh is looking for a little success down the road.

“I’ve got eight babies here all doing well. It’s nice here as Aiken is not as populated as other facilities,” said Keogh. “It’s further away from Florida (where horses are training to race at Gulfstream Park) so there’s not a huge volume of horses on the track for the babies to worry about. It’s a great way to bring the babies along.”

A sunshine state of mind

Nick Gonzalez, who winters at Gulfstream Park in Florida, captured the Plate in 2010 with Big Red Mike and again in 2013 with Midnight Aria.

Midnight Aria was claimed by Gonzalez for $35,000 on behalf of Tucci Stables out of a January maiden tilt in which the big horse finished second. Six months later, the strapping bay son of Midnight Lute won Canada’s million-dollar classic.

For Gonzalez, the winter’s trip south is strictly business. He works, along with his wife, and assistant trainer, Martha, to buy and sell horses.

“You learn to bring the right kind of horses here and market them accordingly and leave the right ones home,” said Gonzalez. “The better Ontario-sired horses get to run for good purses back home and have no benefit coming down here to race because you’ll run against twice the opposition for half the purse. They’re more valuable at home.

“Our horses in the claiming ranks we bring here to market them. We love all our horses, but when you have a big stable like ours, you have to turn stock over.”

Business has been good so far at Gulfstream for Team Gonzalez.

“We’ve had two claimed off of us and last week we got lucky and claimed a Kentucky-bred that’s Ontario-sired by Philanthropist,” said Gonzalez of the oddly-named Give to U.K. Cats, a $35,000 claim, in Martha’s name, from owners Kenneth and Sarah Ramsey.

“He’s a first-time starter who ran second in the race so we’re very happy with that,” said Gonzalez. “We’re watching the young maiden races with newly turned three-year-olds and looking for horses with upside.”

Give to U.K. Cats, the first foal of 2011 Grade 3 Whimsical Stakes winner Wildcat Marie fit the bill.

“We did our research and knew the family. The mom had won the Whimsical and was a real nice filly. We saw the mare sold in foal to Philanthropist and ended up being foaled in Kentucky and went through a yearling sale. We thought if everything worked out, we’d bring him back home and he’d be eligible for the Ontario-sired program,” said Gonzalez.

If only the horse was Canadian-bred, the Gonzalez family could be looking at another potential Plate horse.

“You can’t have it all,” said Gonzalez, laughing. “We’ll run him back in three weeks and see where we go.”

The busy Gonzalez outfit keeps their yearlings and promising two-year-olds on a farm in Ocala to get a head start on the path to the races, but they won’t race until they return home to Ontario.

“When you come here, you have to make it work financially. At the end of the day, it’s got to be worth shipping and training fees when you consider the value of the U.S. dollar,” said Gonzalez. “If you want to bring an Ontario-sired horse that can sprint down here to get a head start with winter training that’s one thing, but for the most part it doesn’t make a lot of sense because the competition at the top level here is too tough… and even if you win a race, you lose a condition, so there’s not a lot to gain when we’ve got that good program at home.”

One horse that is getting a head start by training at Gulfstream is Riker, a three-time stakes winner as a juvenile including a score in the Grade 3 Grey before completing a brilliant campaign with a sixth-place run in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile.

“He had a nice couple months off and today was his second day galloping. He got his haircut today to get that Canadian hair off him and he’s a happy camper,” said Gonzalez, laughing.

DiPasquale staying put

Meanwhile, at home in Ontario, veteran conditioner Sam DiPasquale, aka, Sammy ‘D’, is frustrated with waiting for racing to resume in Rexdale.

“With 133 racing days, I have enough cushion to get to the spring again, but I rarely get ahead. I’m not sure how everyone survives. I support two houses, plus my mom who is 88-years-old,” said Sammy D, who finished seventh in the 2008 Queen’s Plate with longshot Mamma’s Knight.

Sammy D worked from an early age with his father, the late Peter DiPasquale, before taking over the stable’s training duties upon his father’s retirement in 1984.

He ran a busy stable in 2015, with 25 stalls, winning 14 races from 104 starts and purse earnings just shy of $425,000. But, he longs for the glory days of racing on the old Greenwood, Woodbine and Fort Erie circuit.

“Racing used to start on March 18 at Greenwood for five days of racing and people were anxious to get the horses trained and ready,” said DiPasquale. “Now, I have owners who have two-year-olds that they don’t want to break until March which means they may not be ready to race until October. They know it’s not worth getting them ready early.”

And holding onto his stock, with family responsibility keeping him in Ontario, is also a concern.

“Fifty per cent of my stock goes over the border without me and the other half stays here waiting for racing to resume,” he said. “Who knows if the ones that go south will get claimed or sold and not make it back to Woodbine. Everything I own stays here. The majority are at Pine Valley Training Centre.”

Pine Valley, located in Maple, ON, not far from Woodbine, is run by Paul Caine. The facility includes an indoor training track and a number of prominent trainers use the facility to get a head start on the competition when snow and frigid temperatures impede most Ontario-based horses from training.

“You need the horses to have a good winter so they can recoup that money in the spring,” said DiPasquale. “The first three months of racing you’re on the chase to get your money back and then you’re making money to survive and then it’s over.”

He started his stock back in training on Jan. 10.

“The first week being tacked up they’ll jog. The track is three-quarters of a mile, so we’ll jog them twice around and see how they take to that for two days,’’ said DiPasquale. “We’ll eventually jog them three times around for a few days and move to jogging two times, galloping once, and keep adding as they grow stronger.”

The value of training at Pine Valley is something he gleaned while working for his father.

“My dad taught me that from a lay up of 60 days or longer it takes a horse a good 45 days of galloping before you can start working them,” said DiPasquale. “With the training track at Woodbine not opening until the middle of February, I got my horses into Pine Valley about seven years ago and have used them ever since.”

It’s hard work, but a necessary investment for the conditioner who generally sports good numbers early in the meet.

“It’s cold but there’s no wind and the track never gets muddy,” said DiPasquale. “You can’t work them there, but you get the legs and the muscles going. Horses that are on farms without training facilities get behind the ball and that’s why I have an edge and try to win as many as I can before the Canadians come home from down south.

In 2013, DiPasquale used this technique to perfection with the popular bay filly Rootham Triple E’s.

“She jumped up early spring two years ago to win the Star Shoot on opening day,” said DiPasquale of the 9-1 upset. “She only had two half-mile works but she jumped in and won it and that was all thanks to work done at Pine Valley. She was extremely fit.”

And although there will be much shoveling of snow to endure before racing starts again in April, DiPasquale will do his best to stay positive.

“I have a small group of Ontario-bred two-year-olds to work with and a couple I really like,” he said, grinning. “Hopefully, I can find a diamond in the rough.”