Part 2 in a series looking at the decorated equine athletes that we’ve come to know and love at Woodbine who hold a sentimental part in each fan’s heart.
No doubt, racehorses can play a pivotal part in a person’s life, both on and off the track.
Just ask Ashlee Brnjas. A fella on four legs named Johnny Bear walked into her life and into heart when he was purchased by Bear Stables at the 2012 CTHS sale. Brnjas, who trains for Colebrook Farms, recants the story as if it was just yesterday when they first crossed paths.
“Basically, when they purchased the horse, he was at that time the most expensive purchase ($278,823) at the Canadian sale. In the moment of excitement they handed the photo and I truly thought they were going to take away the horse from me and give it to Reade Baker, because that was their other trainer who was way more established than I was. But they let me keep the horse. Then the horse was a dud for two years ‒ but he wasn’t really a dud, he was just a late bloomer. Everybody wanted to give up on him,” said Brnjas.
Knowing the son of English Channel needed some more time to come into his own, Brnjas fought for him. Sticking with her gut proved right and the chestnut gelding went onto to secure the 2017 and 2018 editions of the Gr 1 Northern Dancer Turf stakes against international turf super stars such as Hawkbill and then Mekhtaal.
Last year, the multiple stakes winner (who is also co-owned by Colebrook) enjoyed the snowbird life and wintered in Florida. He is currently in race training under the watchful eye of Mike Cooke at Classic Mile.
Will the nine-year-old stakes champ return to Woodbine this year whenever racing resumes?
According to Brnjas, the jury is still out and Johnny Bear is taking his time with that answer.
“He is in Florida in Ocala. He is coming back, still in training. If he decides he wants to come back and be a racehorse then he will come back and be a racehorse. If he comes back and decides he doesn’t want to be a racehorse he will live out his days in a very green pasture, or been a pony, or be a riding horse for a very little happy girl,” said Brnjas, who makes sure to find homes for horses once they’ve retired from racing. One such example is Sleepy P. Trained by Brnjas and owned by Colebrook, the former racehorse has moved onto the show ring, stealing ribbons at both the 2017 and 2019 Thoroughbred Classes at the Royal Winter Fair with owner Blythe Miller.
In terms of Johnny Bear’s life after racing, Brnjas also acknowledges that the stakes champ may also take up residence closer to her home.
“Truthfully, and this is a running joke because I’m re-doing my backyard, I’ve said, ‘we need a fence for Johnny Bear because that horse can live in my backyard for the rest of his days.”
Meanwhile, over at the Colebrook farm in Uxbridge, another stakes champ has decided to take up residence at the stallion quarters. A turf warrior at Woodbine for several years, Danish Dynaformer is calling Colebrook home these days.
Owned by Charles Fipke and conditioned by Hall of Fame trainer Roger Attfield, Danish Dynaformer won the 2015 Breeders’ Stakes and also captured the Gr.3 2016 Singspiel Stakes. The son of Dynaformer (out of Danish Wildcat) retired in the summer of 2018 and has been standing at Colebrook for the past two years. The eight-year-old graded stakes winner welcomed his first crop of weanlings this year.
Veteran horseman and breeder John Burness says the stallion has transitioned pretty well into his new career.
“Absolutely. He is a very nice horse to been around. He is a kind horse and he is not a tough customer to handle. He is very easy going.”
Alongside Danish Dynaformer, Colebrook Farms also currently stands Ami’s Holiday, Signature Red, Perfect Timber, Passion For Action and Where’s the Ring. (Charles Fipke announced on April 13th that he would be waiving stud fees for his stallions Danish Dynaformer and Perfect Timber for the 2020 season, to help the small breeders because of the tough economic conditions caused by COVID-19. The next day Ben Hutzel, the owner of Passion for Action who also stands at Colebrook, joined Fipke in waving the 2020 stud fees.)
One of the last sons of Dynaformer at stud, Burness says the turf runner has been received well.
“He’s getting good support. Obviously with the more grass racing at Woodbine with the two grass tracks, now more people are looking to breed to a grass type stallion. So he is getting support from that end. Mr. Fipke who is the owner of the horse. He has supported him with his own quality mares that he sends up from Kentucky to breed to the stallion.”
Patrick Dixon, who works as Ashlee Brjnas’ assistant at Woodbine is happy to see Danish at Colebrook. Dixon, who previously worked for Attfied, galloped the stallion during his two-year old season. He also galloped him during his three-year-old campaign leading into the Queen’s Plate, the Prince of Wales, the Breeders’ Stakes as well as the International.
“Roger and I kind of both agreed if there was ever a time that Roger was going to win an eighth Queen’s plate, it was going to be with Danish. Danish was our best shot that year. He probably should have won the Queen’s Plate, but he just got very unlucky to not win it that day,” said Dixon. Danish was narrowly beaten by Shaman Ghost in the Plate, but came back to capture the Breeders’ Stakes, which is the third leg of the Canadian Triple Crown.
Working for Colebrook, Dixon has had the opportunity to reconnect with his four-legged friend.
“I go in and see him every day. When I was at the farm this winter I would go and visit him every day. He knows me too. I didn’t work for Roger for Danish’s four-year-old year, but when I walked in the barn he knew me right away. As soon as I went over to him, he knew me right away.”
Dixon pauses before continuing.
“Horses are pretty smart. People don’t give them enough credit. They are pretty smart animals, they remember who was good to them.”
End of story? No, this is just the beginning.
Next time: Aldous Snow and Sir Dudley Digges