While Alyssa Winegarden, of Norwich, ON, is only in her mid-20s, she has been riding horses since she was very young.

Through college and early working years, Winegarden was away from her horse world for some time, but her passion for horses and riding was never far from the surface.

With a background in dressage and riding and re-training off-the-track thoroughbreds, Winegarden decided in 2016 to pursue her dream.

“Owning my own horse was something I had dreamt about,” said Winegarden. “It was something that I wanted to commit to now. There were always going to be things in life that would stand in the way so I decided to go for it.”

Winegarden had been following the work of LongRun Thoroughbred Retirement Society, based out of Woodbine racetrack, and filled in an application as a potential adopter.

In the summer of 2016, a 9-year-old warrior of the track, Village Drive, had recently been retired by Tish and Nick Gonzalez Jr. who had a small, successful stable at Fort Erie racetrack.

Village Drive had been claimed by Nick as a wedding present for his new wife (they were married in May, 2016) in the hopes the hard-trying bay gelding would run in Fort Erie’s famous long-distance race, the Tour de Fort.

Village Drive had plenty of back class. A Kentucky-bred who cost $70,000 (U.S.) as a yearling, the son of Congaree won two very rich races (a maiden allowance and allowance race) for his first owner, Roger Fortier, and trainer, Reade Baker, and even picked up small shares in stakes races.

But by the time he came back to the track as a 4-year-old in 2011, he was dropped in for $12,500 claiming and was purchased by Connie and Kathy Patton. The gelding would go on to win six races for those owners during the following five years before the Gonzalez’s claimed him at Fort Erie.

“He was so big and gorgeous,” said Tish Gonzalez. “We immediately bonded with him but we found out that he seemed to be a bit sour on training. We tried to find ways to make things interesting for him, with jogging and trail rides.”

It was clear to the Gonzalezes, however, that Village Drive simply was finished with racing. He had won 10 of his 61 races and earned over $268,000 and the couple retired the gelding before contacting LongRun to see if the group could offer the horse for adoption.

“I had people offer me money for him for a jumper but I was uneasy about that,” said Tish Gonzalez.

Winegarden spotted Village Drive on the LongRun website and made plans to visit the gelding at LongRun’s newly-opened facility in Hillsburgh.

“When I first saw him, he immediately caught my attention; he had kind eyes, the sweetest face and he was alert and inquisitive,” said Winegarden. “I knew I was taking him home.”

Winegarden brought ‘Village’ to a private boarding farm in Ayr on December 27 – “it was a great Christmas present” – and let the gelding enjoy some downtime.

After a month, she took her first ride on the gelding and was thrilled with the horse’s calm disposition and willingness.

“I just wanted to focus on establishing a bond with him, get him to trust me. I changed his diet so he would put on some weight and trotted him over poles to help him engage his hind end.”

On March 9, 2017, Village celebrated his official 10th birthday and had balloons and a birthday sign strung around his stall. Winegarden has been documenting her new life with Village Drive on her Facebook page with dozens of photos entitled “A girl and her OTTB horse”.

“He has found exactly the life I was hoping for him,” said Gonzalez. “She’s a lucky woman to have found a horse like him.”

And Village Drive is certainly one lucky horse.

“I was looking for a life partner for my first horse,” said Winegarden. “I wanted a forever horse and I found him; it has been life-changing.”