A picturesque farm, a vibrant red barn, and a set of happy thoroughbreds grazing in the field dominate Lewis Farm, a property owned and operated by Beverly and Steve Owens, in Kleinburg, Ontario.
Immersed in the scenic setting, it’s easy to miss the hoof pick sized ‘Beware of Dog’ sign clinging to the bottom left hand corner of the weathered wooden sign. But Chase, a monstrous dog wagging his tail by the barn, offers endless kisses. A rough and tough Daschund by the name of Rudy alerts every horse that there is a visitor.
Owens has yet to arrive back from the early morning grind at Woodbine Racetrack where he works seven days a week as a trainer. When Ownes arrives, he is dressed in a crisp blue shirt sans the safety vest and riding helmet he is usually sporting on Woodbine’s backstretch. Inside the first barn he quickly turns on the TV to watch the afternoon races at Woodbine.
The seasoned horseman who grew up in Liverpool, England, moved to Canada in 1967 and started out as a hot walker on the racetrack in the 80s for Sam Dixon. Given that his career in the racing industry spans over three decades, it’s not surprising that Owens currently has two homes, one on the farm and one at Woodbine.
A lot has been written on Owens, specifically in relation to a horrendous fire that engulfed his and several other racing outfits in 2002. Owens starts with his backstory.
“I wanted to get a job in racing so I was helping out on the weekends as a hot walker. Then I wanted to be a rider so I took the pony out when I wasn’t supposed to and got fired – but I still wanted to be a rider, so I got a job with Conrad Cohen and he put me on some horses around the shed and I was self taught. A lot of veterans used to teach the younger guys how to ride in the olden days. They had a lot of time so if they liked you they would give you some lessons and that’s how I learnt and I galloped for a lot of years freelancing for big outfits.”
Owens pauses, rocks back in his chair and smiles.
“Funny story, my first horse that I ever got on as a freelance rider was for Mike Doyle. I just showed up with a helmet and a stick – I didn’t know what I was doing. I got on the horse and Mike told me to take it to the training track. I took it to the training track and got run off with the wrong way – all the way back to the barn. Mike told me after, ‘I don’t think I will be needing you after that.’”
After galloping as a freelance rider for several years, Owens then transitioned into owning and training horses for himself. “I bought the horse Miss Ottavia and she made $90k, I bought her for $500 and I won a couple of races with her. She won my first race with Ricky Griffith on as a jockey in 1989 at Greenwood and I started claiming a couple of horses for myself. I claimed a horse called Key For My Dad for $10k and I think he made like $89k from a $10k claimer. Then I claimed my third horse called Avies CoverGirl for $12.5k from Gordon Huntley and I liked her so much, I ran her for $40k in her next start and she ran second and then I ran her for $62k maidens and she won. Then I ran her in a stake and she won – so I made a $150k with Avies CoverGirl.”
As Owens became a force to be reckoned with in the claiming game and developed a steady clientele, he met a girl named Beverly Lewis along the way. The Lewis Farm is her family farm and it became the set up for Owens’ thoroughbred breeding operation.
All they needed was a foundation mare and soon enough Owens made a fateful claim that would spur the breeding operation around 1998. “I claimed a horse called Easy to Praise off the Stronachs. She was by Alwuhush and she was a pretty nice mare, she was the foundation for a lot of really good horses that we had bred coming off the farm.
“We started out with one broodmare and now we have 15 horses at Woodbine. We have 11 on the farm right now. So we’ve got 26 horses that we have care and custody for.”
Building the foundation for a successful bloodline through the years, Owens claimed another filly by the name of Hawk Lake Fire from Glen Magnusson. “She became a really good broodmare for us, a lot of her offspring were producers. But Hawk Lake Fire was a producer herself. She won a nice stakes race at Monmouth Park with Jerry Bailey on her.”
Hawk Lake Fire produced Town Dance who in turn produced Owen’s multiple stakes winner Seffeara. Owned by Empress Stables, a family syndicate composed of Owen’s wife Beverly, his mother in law and daughter Emma, Seffeara captured the Clarendon Stakes in 2014 and the 2015 Bold Ruckus Stakes.
As a boutique breeding operation, Owens enlists the help of several horsemen during the breeding season. “We breed them and maintain them here until they are ready to foal and then we send them to Silver Duck – Sue and Tim Drake. They are at the old Kinghaven farm in Nobleton. So when they get ready to have the babies we send them over to Silver Duck. Tim does a great job, and once they’ve foaled, they stay there for about three to four months, then they make their way back to the Kleinburg farm and they grow up here until they are ready to go to the races.”
Owens’ breeding operation wouldn’t be complete without Head Chopper. The son of Kentucky bred Mutakddim was a runner up in the Gr. 3 British Columbia Derby in 2006 and also went onto win the 2008 Elgin Stakes at Woodbine. The 14-year-old chestnut horse currently stands stud at their Kleinburg farm for a fee of $4,500.
“It’s like anything else, there’s a job for somebody to do and there’s a job for most racehorses to do whether it’s pleasurable or being a show horse – Chopper’s job is to be his own little stallion you know.”
Head Chopper has so far sired the likes of London Tower, a mare that has banked close to $500k for Owens Racing Stable. Breaking her maiden first time out, the mare went on to win a flurry of stakes and was pegged as one of the favourites going into the 2015 Woodbine Oaks. Despite a runner-up finish, Owens is very proud of her. “Every horse that wins is a great feeling but London Tower when she was on top of her game, she was absolutely phenomenal for a homebred and I think honestly she should have won the Oaks but she ran second in it. But when she wins any kind of stakes race, it just makes you feel so good.”
While London Tower continues to climb in career earnings at the track, her sire Head Chopper has been keeping busy in the breeding shed. “Last year he bred 13 mares which was really nice for him because he’s a good racehorse and he put some good looking babies on the ground. We don’t charge a lot and it helps keep him happy.”
Patiently waiting to see Chopper’s next set of offspring in the headlines, Owens continues to juggle his hobby of breeding with his love for racing his four-legged counterparts.“When you are breeding, training and owning racehorses it never ends, it’s 24/7 and my life is 24/7 with the horses. There is a week for vacationing in the wintertime and it’s tough on relationships when you are working 24/7 with racehorses. After 30 years being with Bev and my daughter Emma, I mean nobody asks me when I’m going to take a day off anymore. It’s always like, ‘Oh, you are home today’ and it’s like a surprise.”
The afternoon grind is set to begin, and Owens is off to feed a bunch of kittens that recently arrived on the farm. Before he does he introduces the big stud, affectionately named ‘Chop Chop’ by his owner. Head Chopper looks over but then returns to grazing. Given the backstory of both his racing and breeding career, you can tell Owens is grateful for those winning moments that his stallion and his broodmares continue to provide him.
“It’s so hard in the industry, I mean people get lucky in this game and there are people in this industry – 30, 40 years that have never walked across the Woodbine track to the infield to have their picture taken in the stakes area. So when you breed one and you do everything properly and everything right and you watch them go out there, break out of the gate, finish the race in first place and knowing that some part of you is running around there inside of that horse because you brought him up from nothing.
“It’s a great feeling.”
“When you are breeding, training and owning racehorses it never ends, it’s 24/7 and my life is 24/7 with the horses.”