Cory Wagner, breeder, owner, Alberta
Cory Wagner knows that when you’ve got a good idea, run with it and try and make some money. As a student at the University of Alberta’s business school, Wagner and his classmate Cory Jannssen developed an online financial dictionary and called it Investopedia.com. Over time, the site morphed into a more comprehensive investment educational tool catering to the individual investor. The site was bought by Forbes Media in 2007 which later sold it to Valueclick for $43 million.
The sale of Investopedia allowed Wagner to pursue one of his first loves, horse racing.
Wagner fell in love with the ponies when he and his father would occasionally slip out for the afternoon to hang their heads along the rail of Northlands Park, make a few bets and admire the animals. Wagner’s wife Heidi had family and friends that were involved in racing, too.
“I thought” wouldn’t it be fun to have a miniature sports franchise?” says the 32-year-old who calls Sherwood Park, Alberta his home (coincidentally, his neighbours are Vern and Donna Dubinsky of Donver Stables). But his initiation into racehorse ownership, by way of an aptly named gelding Blinkanhesgone, ended as quickly as it started. The horse, a $30,000 claim in 2006, raced only twice for Wagner before sustaining a career-ending injury.
“But I didn’t throw in the towel,” adds Wagner, who jumped right back in and claimed Chief ‘s Magic in California and won back-to-back stakes races at the now defunct Stampede Park. “That’s when I fell for it hook, line and sinker,” he adds.
Like any wise investor, these days Wagner has spread his risk across several sectors of the racing game. In addition to having 12 runners on the southern California circuit including stakes winners Starlight Magic and Big Tiz, he has a band of broodmares stationed at Greenfield Farms in Kentucky, and in the last year, he’s ventured into pinhooking after he discovered the high stakes of flipping horses could produce higher rewards. In 2009, Wagner sold the highest priced weanling ($440,000) in North America at the Keeneland November mixed sale, a colt by Tiznow out of the Stormy Atlantic mare, Emmy’s Storm.
“That was my first time selling a horse,” he says. “That was the moment my eyes were opened up to the fact that there’s more to this business than racing.”
Since then, Wagner has been educating himself on the principles of conformation and pedigree and developing an eye for attractive horses – both on paper and in the flesh. He attends every notable sale in North America “looking at two to three thousand horses a year.” He also enlists the help of prominent bloodstock agent Ciaran Dunne and trainer Mark Glatt to whittle down a shortlist and select 10 to 20 horses to buy for the pinhooking business.
“Last year we had a net return of 22 per cent, which is better than some of my other stock market investments,” Wagner explains. “It re-affirmed I know what I’m doing.”
But more important than turning over a profit, Wagner, a father of two (with one on the way) wants to foster the same fond memories of going to the races with his kids as he has of being a railbird with his dad.
“The enjoyment we get from going to the races and visiting the farm and seeing the babies, if we can come close to breaking even, it’s worth it. I think we’ve set things up right to stick around.”
Rhett Arnason, owner, Manitoba
In Rhett Arnason’s office, the vice president of Verus Animal Nutrition in Winnipeg, has a winner’s circle photo from when he was 10 years old. In the photo, along with a young Arnason, are his father, Barry and his grandfather, Frank as well as other family and friends huddled together, smiling jubilantly after a win by their horse Career Search. Arnason exudes pride when he sees the picture as it signifies three generations of involvement by his family in Manitoba’s racing industry.
The Arnasons are one of most recognizable names around Assiniboia Downs. Their family is so entrenched in the racing there that there’s a race named after the family’s patriarch, the Frank Arnason Sire Stakes. Barry, a member of the Manitoba Jockey Club, runs a stable of roughly 20 horses, some he solely owns and some with partners. The younger Arnason, 36, has inherited the same passion for the industry. Some of his fondest memories happened at Assiniboia. “I loved going to the track, spending time with my dad and grandpa, just to hang around and go to the backside to feed the horses,” he says, the enthusiasm running through his voice.
He remembers meeting legendary jockey Bill Shoemaker at the Downs and cheering the family’s favourite filly, Willow Island. Three years ago Arnason and his father campaigned Theglow who won the Golden Boy at Assiniboia and then took them to the Canadian Derby. While the colt stumbled at the start and finished eighth, it was “probably one of the most exhilarating experiences I’ve ever had.” The glow was awarded Manitoba’s Colt of the Year in 2009.
Arnason is not jumping into the industry feet first, he’s taking a measured approach by splitting ownership of a few horses with his dad and others with friends. But his excitement for the game is palpable. On any given Wednesday night, he and his friends can be found at Assiniboia off-track betting pools and sipping beer. On weekends, like in his own childhood, the track is a prime meeting spot for the Arnason clan.
Over the next few years, Arnason hopes to expand his ownership, and recruit more friends into a sport that’s been a vital part of his family’s history.
And while the Arnason name is synonymous with Manitoba racing, there’s one thing that’s eluded three generations of the family thus far: “We’d love to win the Manitoba Derby. We’ve got a three-year-old now that maybe has a shot,” he says before recoiling like a superstitious racetracker. “But then again we think they all have a shot.”
Steven Chircop, trainer, Ontario
If there’s one phrase that sums up the career of trainer Steven Chircop, it’s what a difference a year makes. Two years ago, he started the racing season with one horse that “was lucky to pass the vets”, but thanks to a pair of shrewd claims and some savvy horsemanship, the 27-year-old trainer has shot into the limelight as an up-and-comer within Woodbine’s fierce training ranks.
Like his contemporaries, Chircop was introduced to horse racing by his family. His uncle, Tino Attard, a fixture on the Woodbine circuit, would let a young Chircop hang around the backside during summer holidays, March breaks and weekends. Hanging around turned into hot walking, hot walking turned into grooming and before long Chircop was assisting Attard.
While still a college student, Chircop bought his first horse, named Shipman, for $5,000. “That’s how I learned; having a horse I could take care of on my own,” said Chircop. Shipman went on to win $65,000 and was awarded Fort Erie’s champion sprinter.
In 2010, with one year of training under his belt, mostly in the low-level claiming ranks, Chircop and a group of partners took a chance and claimed a couple of promising but under achieving horses, Sir Heart Throb and, more notably, Kara’s Orientation. Both horses had their quirks: Sir Heart Throb, was a nervous horse and a stall walker and Kara’s Orientation was terrified of the starting gate. But with patience and a bit of fine-tuning, some schooling and a mirror in Sir Heart Throb’s stall and a few agonizing gate sessions for Kara’s Orientation, Chircop had transformed his two outcasts into legitimate racehorses. It’s a part of the job the young trainer finds most gratifying.
“I like when you can do small things differently and make a big difference,” he says. Sir Heart Throb was productive for Chircop but it has been Kara’s Orientation, owned by Pinnacle Racing and Max Berketa, who’s put the rookie conditioner on the map. The sleek dark bay gelding had consecutive second place finishes in 2010’s Toronto Cup Stakes and the Canadian Derby before his crowning glory, winning last year’s Grade III Sky Classic Stakes.
But even with two stakes victories (he also won the Elgin Stakes with Medidocihospisurg) and 26 top-three finishes, Chircop is still experiencing the growing pains of a young trainer. With stalls at Woodbine a premium, he spent most of the season bouncing between the four different barns in which his nine horses were stabled. And his hot streak hadn’t translated to new business. “A goal of mine would be to attract new owners,” he says. “I had two horses win stakes races, one I claimed for $20,000 and the other for $15,000. You’d think I’d have lots of new clients.”
Chircop and his gelding will be back in 2012, vying for more graded stakes. And with a smile as wide as the grandstand, he shakes his head in disbelief and says, ‘I started out  with a broken down horse. Where this horse has taken us, it’s been unreal.’
Warren Byrne, bloodstock agent, Ontario
Warren Byrne’s resume reads like that of a grizzled veteran. He’s had stints with industry heavyweights, Ashford Stud and WinStar Farms, where he learned “what a good horse is”, he’s groomed horses on Woodbine’s backstretch, owned stakes winners, acquired top stallions and he’s managed successful syndicates. He’s made the heart stirring “walkover” on the first Saturday in May, with Robert Teel’s Homeboykris and felt the heartache of disaster when a client’s Blue Exit broke down on the final turn of the Santa Anita Handicap. By the way, Byrne is only 30.
As the son of Park Stud’s Michael and Laurel Byrne and fifth generation thoroughbred horseman, he grew up alongside greats like Bold Ruckus, 10-time leading sire in Canada and Canadian Triple Crown winner, Peteski. He spent his formative years as a farm boy prepping yearlings and foaling mares.
These days his wardrobe of crisp button-ups and Gucci loafers suggest he’s an urbane horseman. Through his downtown Toronto-based bloodstock agency, Rancho Park Management, Byrne is carving out a niche in the industry that is different from his father’s: he’s catering to a new era.
“The one thing my father gave me was connections. I’ve tried to use them to the best of my ability,” he says. But growing up a Byrne isn’t without a catch: “That’s something I’ve had to fight, I have my own name, not just my last name.” And he’s proving that.
At the age of 24, Byrne jumped on the opportunity to work alongside Del Mar-based bloodstock agent William De Burgh. Over the course of five years, the pair built up one of North America’s largest portfolios of stallion shares, and campaigned an impressive roster of racehorses including 2008 Santa Anita Handicap winner, Heatseeker.
Then, a perfect storm of events brought Byrne home.
“When the market crashed in 2008, I was ready for a change,” he says, adding that starting his own company was always in his sights. “I always had the desire to come back to Canada. And as bad as the horse industry was in North America, California was seeing the worst of it. Making a living out there was going to be very difficult.”
Back in Canada, he’s working to become the go-to guy for quality thoroughbreds.
“I do one thing: I buy and sell and manage racehorses. I’m very focused on what I do, and I want to be the very best at what I do,” he says.
For instance, shortly after purchasing the three year- old filly Portside, she won the 2011 Star Shoot Stakes at Woodbine before he sold her in Australia as a broodmare prospect. He’s credited with snagging 2011 Breeders’ Cup Mile champion Court Vision as a new stallion for Park Stud and he bought promising young sire US Ranger who is now standing at WinStar in Kentucky.
More than pushing horseflesh, Byrne sells dreams. He did so for his client, San Diego-based commodities trader Robert Teel. In 2010, thanks to Byrne, Teel had a stake in contenders in the Kentucky Derby, Kentucky Oaks and Breeders’ Cup. And he’s hoping to fulfill more dreams with his new racing partnership venture, Rush Racing, a model he touts as the “way of the future” and a more accessible means of racehorse ownership. It is a trend being seen in the acquisition of other luxury assets like jets and timeshare condominiums.
And, in a way, Byrne is living his own dream. “I’m constantly trying to find another good horse. I’ve always been a real student of pedigrees and I enjoy it. I’m very lucky to do what I love.” CT
Amanda Motz, and Jamie Begg, Kingstead Farm, Ontario
Inside Kingstead Stable’s barn at a recent CT HS sale, a couple of youngsters are parading horses and cajoling with prospective buyers. That fresh-faced duo, Amanda Motz and Jamie Begg, aren’t a pair of horsecrazy kids hired by the consignors; they are the consignors, heading up their full-service thoroughbred farm they’ve been running since 2009. They’re young – 23 and 24, respectively – and may be less experienced than formidable operations like Hill ‘n’ Dale and Richard Hogan Bloodstock, but what they lack in mileage, they make up for in pluck. For them, it’s a labour of love.
Partners in business and life, both always thought they’d pursue equine-related careers, but not necessarily the one they have now. Motz holds an undergraduate degree in European business and felt she’d maybe work on Woodbine’s front side. Begg, an avid polo player in his teens was pointing towards a job in Argentina, but chose to enroll in the Irish National Stud program instead. The pair were introduced at a CT HS awards dinner by Michael Colterjohn of Gardiner Farms and they later worked at the farm, laying the foundation for their future.
“I felt like there was an opportunity,” recalls Motz of their decision to go out on their own. “We both knew enough people in the industry, and we both knew what we were doing, it was just a matter of giving us a chance.” Based out of Begg’s family farm, Windways in King City, Ontario, the pair started out small, mostly with family horses, but it wasn’t long before clients came knocking from the likes of Bernard McCormack, George Farr and Steve Attard. “It’s snowballed so nicely,” says Motz.
These days, Kingstead Stables is bursting at the seams year round.
“It’s so cyclical what we do. We leg-up, we foal, we have breeding season, and then we do yearling prep, then breaking,” explains Motz.
Being young and in charge comes with an adult-sized dose of reality: “You don’t get days off, it’s tough. It’s just the two of us and in the summer we hire help for yearling prep because we’re really slammed.”
But their hard work is paying off. Last year, Kingstead consigned the CT HS preferred sale topper, an $80,000 Whiskey Wisdom – Matching Sox colt, and have had a hand in the development of several winners on the Woodbine circuit, a part of the job Motz finds most satisfying. “I’m so proud of the babies, some of them are really special. To see them go from our place as foals to the track, it’s rewarding to know we’ve had an impact on them.”
Over the next few years, Motz and Begg hope to improve their consignment and work towards becoming a household name in the industry. “If we can make it now, we’re going to be one of the few names people know in the future,” says Begg.
Craig Smith, trainer, Alberta
The morning Craig Smith was meant to write the entrance exams for the University of Calgary’s business program, he was galloping horses at Northlands Park. Born into a family steeped in racing (his grandmother, mother, father and stepfather were all trainers at Northlands and his brother is a vet at the track), as a kid Smith was always hanging around the backside. At 14, he began breaking yearlings and at 15, groomed and worked the starting gate. He knew that even with a business degree he’d wind up in racing, in some shape or form. As he puts it, “It’s in your blood to a certain degree.” In the end, he never took those exams. Instead, that summer he took out his trainer’s license.
When Smith launched his career, he had four family-owned horses and was still galloping for other trainers. One day, by stroke of luck, Smith was handed his break. An up-and-coming Alberta owner named Don Dimma was looking to expand his stable.. “It was about being at the right place at the right time,” said the 27-year-old. “Some trainers have been around a long time and they don’t get that chance.”
Then, four years ago, over a winter in Florida, Dimma transformed Smith’s fledgling startup into a western powerhouse. “We went to Tampa with four horses and we came home with 20. That was the year we stepped it up.”
Since then, the pair has been on a never-ending shopping spree, claiming horses down south and picking them up at the sales, hungry for “the next big horse.” Together they’ve found Smith’s first stakes winner, Treasured Kitten, an $18,000 Keeneland yearling sale purchase who took the Saskatchewan Derby this past September, and Northern Yankee, a promising three-year-old prospect who won at first asking in a maiden special weight at Northlands, and was a bargain of a buy for $1,000 at the Alberta sale. Treasured Kitten and Northern Yankee accompanied Smith to Tampa this winter, and both have made it to the winner’s circle.
Despite finding loyal backers early on, which also include True North Stable and Ron Zurba, Smith knows that being young in the training game has its hurdles.. “It’s always a work in progress proving we’re here, we’re doing the job, give us a chance. People who love horse racing will do anything to be a part of it. The industry needs to recognize that,” says the boy who closed the books on business school to follow his heart.
Jodie Rawson, trainer, British Columbia
Jodie Rawson was destined for a career at the racetrack. Her father, the late Roy Rawson, was a beloved trainer and a jockey at Hastings Racecourse. Her mother was his assistant. Before she was old enough to walk, the young Rawson was a regular face on Hastings’ backstretch. She jokes that she was raised in a tack room.
But training horses was never in her plan. After years of rodeo riding and showing horses, Rawson started at the track at the age of 20 outriding and galloping horses, a job she’d still be doing if it weren’t for a serious knee injury sustained after being thrown from a horse one morning. She was left unable to meet the physical demands of exercising horses on a daily basis, but unwilling to turn her back on the racetrack, so Rawson, 32, followed in the footsteps of her father and set up as a public trainer. Working in tandem with her partner and assistant, Tavis York, Rawson leaves the riding in the mornings to him while she focuses on legwork and tacking. “We do this together. He feels what I can’t see and I see what he can’t feel,” she says. In addition to her stable of 17 horses, they also run a boarding farm at their home in Maple Ridge, B.C.
A notoriously hands-on trainer, Rawson had to sit somewhat on the sidelines this past season as the newest member of the Rawson/York team, son Kai, was born in September. “It was tough not being able to do what I wanted to do,” says Rawson who had to stop tacking and bandaging horses after four months. While her pregnancy may have slowed her down, it didn’t stop her. “I was in a win picture two days before I had him and five days after I had him.”
Back in action for 2012, with a barn full of experienced runners, Rawson hopes to build on her impressive record for her owners which includes Bud Malette, Kathleen McClay’s Trinity Racing Stable and Martin Bradsen, JC Stables and Section 31 Stables. In 2010, she clicked at a 64 percentage of placing in the top three and she’s hoping her current horses can match that success. Going forward, she’d like to win a stakes race, maybe even the B.C. Derby.
Robbie Henson, trainer, valet, exercise rider, British Columbia
Robbie Henson’s first dream was to be a jockey. And for a short time he was one, riding races in interior British Columbia’s bush leagues. But like many young lads who aspire to ride races, Henson “became a bit too tall and a little too heavy,” to carry out his dream despite his naturally svelte figure. As the son of Steve Henson, a longtime trainer in B.C., the younger Henson has been coming to the racetrack since he was a child. He still gets his riding fix as the regular exercise rider for his father’s horses, and as one of the highest-in-demand morning riders at Hastings. His afternoons are still spent in the jock’s room – working as a valet. Despite all the years Henson spent on the backside of a racetrack, he says that his dad never put pressure on him to follow take up after him; instead the 23-year-old always knew where his heart lay. “I find it easier to work with a barn full of horses than I would with an office full of people,” he says. So, in the fall of 2010, Henson wrote his trainer’s exam and took a string of his father’s horses to Turf Paradise in Arizona for their winter circuit. Twenty-five hundred kilometers from the man who “taught me everything I know about horses and racing” and in full control of the stock, the freshman proved he’d been paying attention all those years watching his dad as he won four of his 21 starts. Henson, who’s soft-spoken and a reserved type, admits that when his father’s clients found out that it was going to be the younger Henson heading-up the fleet down south, they had their reservations. But his results did the talking: In 2011, he had nine wins in 58 starts, including the Walter R. Cluer Memorial Stakes with Boundless Cat, a sixyear- old B.C.-bred gelding owned by Brian and Marg Leight and Foster Armstrong.
This year is no different. Henson is overseeing a productive barn and sharpening his training skills along the way. Since arriving in the Copper State, he’s claimed four year- old gelding Brass Plate and has built him up to stand the test of Turf Paradise’s marathons. “He was a lot of work to get him there, but it’s been a good project,” he says. Brass Plate has already been victorious at the Turf Paradise meeting this winter.
A natural horseman who likes to hang around the barns after training to interact with the horses and get to know them personally, Henson figures he has maybe one more year in the jock’s room as a valet before he ventures into full-time training at Hastings, the track he calls home.