“The racetrack was my babysitter.”
Kevin McKinlay remembers piling into the family car as a kid, accompanying his parents to Orangeville Raceway where they worked in the mutuels.
“I was about 10 and eventually I would sneak into the backstretch there and walk horses for people. It became a passion.”
That passion has evolved into McKinlay’s Hidden Springs Farm, his 50-acre farm in Zephyr, ON, where his Thoroughbred hobby began eight years ago.
McKinlay, who got his start in standardbred racing and still races a stable in that sport, has a small band of mares and horses of racing age that he enjoys. This year he anxiously awaits the first foal of his darling mare, Hidden Turn, who earned over $387,000 on the track and has his sights set on adding to his broodmare band.
“The breeding part is so fascinating to me,” said McKinlay. “And having the babies come, that’s what I love the most.”
Born in Newmarket, ON, McKinlay didn’t take long to graduate from those childhood trips to the track to learning how to jog standardbreds at the farm of noted harness driver Kevin Waples. “I worked at the farm on long weekends, on summer days and it was something I loved.”
At the age of 18, McKinlay also picked up part-time work in the mutuels department, working at Greenwood Racetrack among other tracks, a job he kept until he was in his early 30s. Still a teenager, he partnered with a couple of friends and bought a $1,000 trotter that raced at Kawartha Downs.
At the same time, once he finished a year of college, McKinlay also quickly set out into the business world, taking his knowledge of fixing appliances and starting his own business. That business, Universal Appliances, based in Toronto, now has a staff of about 30 and installs and services appliances for the condominium market in Toronto.
McKinlay’s first thoroughbred venture was also a partnership, what he calls a “friendship” venture, and that first horse won a couple of races. McKinlay wanted more and purchased Hidden Springs, the former Red Oaks Farm, from Thoroughbred and Quarter Horse owner Les Baker.
“I named it Hidden Springs because at the back of the property is a big pond that apparently is fed by seven freshwater springs.”
Unfortunately, McKinlay’s timing of his farm purchase wasn’t perfect. Six months after he began to fill the place with boarders and a few of his own horses, the Ontario government pulled the slots-at-racetracks partnership revenue program.
“It wasn’t great,” he said. “And I had about 10 to 15 boarders there and the owners just walked away, they couldn’t afford them.”
With a very uncertain future for racing and a collection of horses that were mostly broodmares, McKinlay carefully slimmed down the herd.
“I re-homed some, making sure they went to good owners and I kept a few. One of them, El Pradiva just produced my first foal of 2020, a Silent Name (Jpn).”
He is also proud to own another from that abandoned group, Yellowenglishrose, now 24, who helps keep weanlings company in the fall. Yellowenglishrose is the dam of Princess Elizabeth stakes winner Rose and Shine, the dam of 2019 Eclipse Award winner British Idiom, America’s top 2-year-old filly and winner of the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies (G1).
McKinlay, who owned the farm with his brother and another partner, powered on and raced the first Hidden Springs-born horses in 2012. Through its first five years from just over 70 starters, the farm won 16 races.
The star of the show was Hidden Turn, a grey Sligo Bay (Ire) filly from the Cozzene mare Turn to Me who won 10 of those initial Hidden Springs wins. Trained throughout her career by Kevin Attard, Hidden Turn won a total of 11 races through 2017. She is due to foal in early May to one of Canada’s top sires, Silent Name (Jpn).
“She was amazing as a racehorse,” said McKinlay. “She won on all surfaces and has a really big heart on her.”
McKinlay took over Hidden Springs himself two years ago, around the time his star standardbred pacer Stag Party won the $890,000 Metro Pace at Mohawk. Owned in partnership with John Fielding, Mac Nichol and West Wins Stable, Stag Party won the O’Brien Award as 2018’s top 2-year-old colt pacer.
“That was very exciting being a part of that colt,” he said.
McKinlay, who has a home in Holland landing, found himself doing most of the farm chores when he took over Hidden Springs from turning out horses at 5 a.m. to bringing them in and watering them after returning from his Toronto business.
Last fall he hired Heather Prien, an experienced horsewoman who had worked at Frank Stronach’s Adena Springs, to manage the farm.
“She is doing a great job for me at the farm,’ said McKinlay. “She is always there, working day, or at night if needed. She lives on the farm now and I moved back to Holland Landing.”
Last year, McKinlay had half a dozen starters with Hidden Artifact, leading the stable with two wins. That flashy chestnut gelding by Ontario sire Signature Red has done well for McKinlay this past winter in Ohio, winning once and placing twice in four races at Mahoning Valley with trainer Kevin Buttigieg.
A fan of pedigrees, McKinlay says he is mostly self-taught when it comes to his racing and breeding business but “asks a lot of questions of people who are more in the know than I am.”
He shares the joy of racing, broodmares and foals with his two daughters, Justine, 30, who was married on the Hidden Springs Farm in 2019, and Erin, 26, both of whom have helped out on the farm.
McKinlay’s partner Cathy Van Beek, executive director at Valley Care Community, is also keen on attending the races when a Hidden Springs horse is racing.
He admits that breeding racehorses these days is a tough business and that the racing program, which has drifted away somewhat from Ontario-sired races to Ontario-bred, has changed a great deal since he started the farm.
“We have to hope that all of us breeders get a little more recognition from the track and hope that the purse structure for this year will help our Ontario-breds. I only bred two mares this year because there is still uncertainty but I might go to Kentucky and buy a mare this year.”
Eventually, McKinlay says he would like a racing stable of 5 to 10 runners but adds, “if I didn’t have the income of my other business there is no way I would be able to support my horse passion.”
And while he may be soft-spoken when you talk to him you can hear the love for the horses and excitement when he talks about the industry.
“I love the sport, the game and the animals,” said McKinlay. “I always remember what someone said to me years ago when I was working in the mutuels; ‘the track is one of the only places in the world that you ever get the richest man and poorest man together, getting along and having fun.’”
With his enthusiasm and passion, there are sure to be a few more hidden gems to come from Hidden Springs.