This chapter talks about the spring of 2020 when Mighty Heart came back to Woodbine as a 3-year-old from New Orleans. He had had two less-than-stellar races there, racing erratically and bearing out. He had a new groom at Woodbine, Siobhan Brown. COVID-19 had set in and racing was delayed.
A Mighty Ride
Soft brush in hand, Siobhan Brown makes short strokes starting behind Mighty Heart’s ears, down the colt’s neck to his shoulder. Long passes of her brush begin at the horse’s withers, down his back and his powerful hindquarters. It is just after 5:30 a.m., and Brown has already been at work at the Josie Carroll barn for over an hour. Brown likes to get an early start in getting the horses she grooms for trainer Josie Carroll ready for training, but ‘Willie,’ the nickname given to him by Jennifer and Brown’s friend and fellow groom, Linda Davis, is still snoozing. Most days, Brown will just work around a prone Mighty Heart, cleaning his stall while he continues to nap.
Once Mighty Heart is up and ready to go, exercise rider Des McMahon puts on the colt’s saddle and bridle and heads out to the track for the morning gallop. Brown grabs the colt’s feed tub and water bucket for a quick rinse. The colt’s stall will be fluffed up with fresh bedding of pine shavings and his hay net plumped with fresh fodder.
Brown has four other horses in her section and will repeat the process for everyone for the next few hours. The mornings are fast and furious as training hours are limited, usually ending at 10:30 a.m.
When Mighty Heart comes back into the barn after his energetic run around the track, Brown bathes him, and a hotwalker takes over and cools out the colt for about thirty minutes. The colt will then get some grazing time on the grass outside the barn before he heads back into his stall.
Bandages are wrapped with care around each leg to protect the delicate bones, tendons, and ligaments. A lunch of oats, salt, and vitamins is served to each horse by 11:00 a.m. The shedrow is raked and tidied before Brown goes home, coming back if it is her turn to feed dinner at 4:00 p.m. or if one of her horses is racing that afternoon.
The job of a groom can be gruelling, but they do it for their love of horses and the pride in preparing them to race—long hours of physical work for pay that amounts to not much more than $100 per day. Should one of a groom’s horses get lucky and win a race, they will receive a small percentage of the winner’s share and perhaps an extra bonus from a generous owner or jockey.
Brown took over the care of Mighty Heart when he came in from Ballycroy Training Centre at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in May 2020. It had been a nail-biting return to Ontario for Brown, who just got into the province as borders were being closed and businesses, including racing, were about to be put on hold.
Brown saw the colt’s name on the list of horses due to arrive at Carroll’s Woodbine barn and had developed a fondness for him the previous year when another Carroll employee was grooming him.
“My friend Linda was working in the same barn and always gave him a carrot when he walked by,” said Brown. “I started doing the same thing to the point where he would stop outside my working area, stomp his foot and wait for his carrot. I think both Linda and I had a soft spot for him because he had just one eye, but he was just such a neat horse. We said to each other, ‘Maybe he could be a good horse if he got lots of love.’”
When Brown found out that Mighty Heart’s groom from 2019 was not returning for 2020, she approached Carroll and asked if she could groom Mighty Heart.
Carroll agreed, but Brown had to give up one of the five horses she was already grooming. She said goodbye to Kid’s Mischief, the first horse she began looking after for Carroll, and ushered Mighty Heart into her life.
“The first thing I did was check the results of his races he had run in New Orleans. I saw a fourth-place finish and his second race where he finished eleventh, and I thought, ‘Uh oh, what was I thinking?’”
Carroll gave Brown a little project to work on with Mighty Heart. The colt was not a fan of having his handlers lift his lip to show his tattoo number, which is needed for identification before each race.
“The first time I tried to do it, he pretty much picked me up off the ground and was throwing me around,” said Brown. “I started using pieces of carrots to give to him while I played around with his lip. It was almost two months before he was better at allowing the horse identifier to check his tattoo, although he still doesn’t like it.”
The good news for Mighty Heart is like all Thoroughbreds born in 2017 or later, he has a tiny microchip implanted in his neck that is becoming the main process of horse identification. The chip can be scanned before a race to give information such as pedigree, date of birth, and markings.
Brown and Mighty Heart had started to build a special bond, and they gained confidence from each other. The colt also thrived under his morning rider McMahon, whose calm demeanour meshed well with the now three-year-old, who quickly showed signs that he wanted to do more.
“I noticed a big difference in him when he came back from Fair Grounds,” said McMahon. “Suddenly, he was snorting and feeling strong when he went on to train. He was a lot more confident.”
Mighty Heart certainly had filled out, with powerful hindquarters, a wide and muscular chest, and strong forearms. It was easy to see a physical resemblance to his great-great-great-grandfather, Northern Dancer.
While Carroll’s barn of equine athletes was well underway with training, so were almost another thousand runners on the Woodbine backstretch. The trainer had made an important addition to her stable, assistant Suzanne Lorimer, a long-time assistant trainer to Roger Attfield and respected horsewoman.
But racing was still on hold a month after the scheduled mid-April start date of the season because of the pandemic. Instead of the excitement of entering horses in races and giving chances to their owners for some purse money, Carroll was spending hours on the phone with frustrated owners, speaking to media about how important the sport and industry was to the province, and trying to keep up the morale of her own staff. The big races of the year, such as the Queen’s Plate and the Woodbine Oaks—the filly equivalent of the Plate—were pushed back for more than two months and mapping out races for her top runners to get to those big events was a guessing game.
Finally, in early June, racing had been given the green light to start, but the protocols for race days were strict: no fans were allowed to attend—something that had never happened in the two hundred fifty-year history of horse racing in Canada. Owners were also not permitted to watch their horse’s race, and only the trainer and the groom were allowed inside the saddling enclosure with a runner. But racing was on, and that was good news.
While Carroll was picking out big-money stakes races for her stable stars, such as the 2019 Champion Two-Year-Old Filly Curlin’s Voyage, an Oaks and Plate hopeful, she had other lightly-raced horses that were in the early stages of their careers. Mighty Heart was in this group, and she was pleased with his progress.
Order your copy of “Run With a Mighty Heart” here.
Run With A Mighty Heart: A Review
A story of hope, endurance, and resilience
As the COVID19 pandemic swept through the province of Ontario in 2020, it hit the professional sports world with a cruel reality. Spectators could not be present, putting events, millions of dollars, and jobs in jeopardy. Public health restrictions particularly impacted the horse racing industry to stop the spread of this awful virus. For horse racing grooms, trainers, jockeys, racetrack officials, and owners, the onset of Covid brought in a frustrating period of uncertainty and, for many who rely on the industry, a feeling of despair.
Out of this darkness lay a story of perseverance and triumph, both human and equine. Jennifer Morrison’s Run with a Mighty Heart is just that. The book explains how a one-eyed horse overcame his visual impairment to win Canada’s most heralded race. Mighty Heart provided a win to ownership connections beset by tragedies, a company making a herculean effort to have the show go on, and to thousands of fans around the country who needed encouragement during a time when there wasn’t much to celebrate
It also shines a light on how the Woodbine thoroughbred racing community came together to fight back against the pandemic and continue the grand tradition of hosting the historic Queen’s Plate against the toughest of odds during a pandemic. But, as they would say in racing parlance, pulling it all off was a 99-1 long shot.
Likewise, Morrison’s splendid book is an account of how some human beings who endure crushing personal losses might ultimately find luck and triumph if they choose to keep living. For example, Mighty Heart’s owner Larry Cordes suffered through tragedy when his wife, daughter and son-in-law succumbed to cancer and later setbacks as a thoroughbred owner when horses were injured or died before they could reach their potential.
While it may be her first book, Morrison’s deep experience as a sports reporter and her knowledge of the people and players who make Woodbine successful shines through the narrative. Decades of research, conversations, handicapping races and understanding the challenges facing horses and the people who care for them inform this captivating story. In addition, the book contains exciting accounts and insights from Mighty Heart’s trainer, Hall of Famer Josie Carroll and her supporting cast on the horse’s rise from an awkward beginning to the apogee of Canadian racing.
Run with a Might Heart also serves as a tribute to the people from all walks of life who get up while most of the population sleeps to provide care for horses. To be sure, there is a lot that goes into the preparation for race day. Horse racing might be the “Sport of Kings” but the people behind it who make a day at the track an enjoyable one for the betters, fans, and enthusiasts come from all social classes. Still, all share a joint determination, attention to detail, and a sense of purpose. It’s about the horses, but everyone matters- from hot walker to groom, trainer to the owner and the staff, officials and executives at the racetrack.
Morrison doesn’t forget about the horses. Documenting Mighty Heart’s rise, Morrison carefully outlines the various physical and health curveballs thrown at these majestic but fragile creatures. For example, a horse may have excellent breeding, but exposure to parasites can make it sick, or a bout of colic could end its life. Likewise, Mighty Heart’s frolicking in the paddock with other horses caused the young colt to lose an eye. These athletes work hard day in and day out, and their journey is often as complicated and uncertain as the road travelled by those who care for them.
Run with a Mighty Heart should be required reading for all Thoroughbred horse racing fans. It is an uplifting tale of our capacity to endure the most complex challenges life throws at us to continue our way of life, great traditions, and recreational pursuits. Run with a Mighty Heart is also a lively story of resilience, endurance, and hope. This book tells a story a lot of people need right now.
~ Derek Lipman