Julie Mathes is not your typical leading Thoroughbred trainer, considering the young woman from Wainfleet, Ontario, had no horse background growing up and was working as a cook not long out of school.

But in a relatively short time, Mathes, 40, is now firmly one of Fort Erie’s top trainers in the last decade, her 18-year-old daughter Alysha is one of her ace assistants, and husband Dave leads all owners at the popular track.

As the COVID-19-shortened Fort Erie season of 2020 comes to a completion Oct. 13, Mathes, who recently won her 200th career race as a conditioner, will collect yet another leading trainer’s title. With just two cards remaining, Mathes had sent out 26 winners from 99 starters (28 more in the top three), 10 more than second-place Sharon Ceccato with a hefty 26% win percentage.

“It has worked out really, really well,” said Mathes, 40. “Dave has helped me out so much. This year we decided to do more for us in racing with him claiming horses.”

Julie Mathes with Josie’s Riddle.

Thoroughbred racing entered the life of Julie Mathes, born Julie Stouth, a little over two decades ago. Working as a cook at a small restaurant not far from Fort Erie racetrack, she was introduced to the exciting sport through her first husband, Joshua Robillard, at the time an assistant to trainer Dave Schmidt.

“I actually got laid off from my job and started to go to the barn at Fort Erie,” said Mathes. “I originally started out with my owner’s license, thought it would be a cool idea to get involved that way.”

Off-season ventures to tracks in the U.S. had her working for various trainers including one of Kentucky’s all-time top conditioners, Bernie Flint. “Bernie is such a sharp horseman, I learned a lot of tricks from him,” said said.

Mathes took out her own trainer’s license in 2008 with the support of a client of Robillard’s Six Brothers Stable of George Tharrenos, a busy claiming stable that had a lot of success.

She won seven races that first year, her first with Muriel’s Pride, a Six Brother’s filly who was just her third starter that season.

By this time, Mathes and Robillard were raising their young daughter Alysha but the marriage had ended and Mathes found herself focusing on home life for the next year.

She got back to training in 2010 with a small stable for Heste Sport, owned by Darlene and Rene Hunderup. “I essentially had to start over again after the break-up, but I started getting clients again,” said Mathes, who credits her parents with helping her with her daughter.

After two seasons of rebuilding her client base, Mathes’ breakout year came in 2012 when she won 27 races, tying Ross Armata for leading trainer and, according to Fort Erie staff, was the first woman trainer to capture a title.

In 2013, Mathes won 34 races and took another Fort Erie title. She was also named the year’s Outstanding Trainer at the annual Fort Erie awards dinner.

“I got a lot of owners who gave me free rein to pick out horses to claim and run them for them,” said Mathes. “Six Brothers, Bruno Schickedanz, good claiming stables who let you do things on your own.”

Two years ago, Mathes married husband Dave, owner of Paul’s Tree Stump Removal in Fort Erie, a father of one who also took an interest in his new wife’s horse business.

With her self-taught knowledge of horses and the sharp eye she had developed for picking out horses with upside, the couple won nine races together before the last two racing days at Fort Erie. Another client, Joey Gee Thoroughbreds, was tied for second with six winners. And even Mathes’ daughter Alysha had won with her first horse, Stardust Kitten, a filly who won at 26-to-1 in September.

Alysha with her horse Butterfly Strike.

“Oh my gosh, we were screaming that day,” said Mathes. “And all the messages Alysha got congratulating her, that was so amazing. Everyone knows her, she was practically raised at the track and now she is soon to be 18 and could run her own barn if she wanted to.”

Alysha, however, is seeking an education first and wants to work in healthcare, but she has been a vital part of the running of her mom’s stable.

“I have people working for me who have been with me for many years,” said Mathes. “Ian Hughes, is great, Tavis Dalziel, Kelly Burcsik and Krista Carignan and Helen Vanek gallop for me.”

Mathes is especially indebted to her aunt and uncle, Cheryl and Bill Farr, who are retired but work at the barn with the team.

Despite the very difficult task of living in a pandemic and with just 40 racing dates at Fort Erie this year, Mathes has made the most of it.

She says the victory by Pier I Racing’s Strategic Vision, a son of Court Vision, in the $33,800 Bob Summers Memorial Cup in August was one of the highlights. She also had a trio of three-win days at the track and then celebrated that 200th career win with her own filly, Lenches Gimme.

“I think we do very well with claiming horses that maybe need a little extra ‘TLC’,” said Mathes. “I like to claim horses with conditions and I watch a lot of replays to see how a horse moves and how they gallop out.”

Each day begins at 4;15 for Mathes and can sometimes stretch past dinner time. “I think that is the toughest part about training: all the long hours you have to put in to be successful. I wouldn’t be able to do so much if it wasn’t for Dave. He picks up hay and supplies for us and he does most of the cooking at home.”

She wouldn’t change any of it, however, and hope to be still training and winning years from now with her family enjoying the ride along the way.