Hail to the “War Horses”
What defines a runner as a true War Horse? These four Canadian examples — still performing at a high level at an advanced age — are a great place to start.
The winter weather, both bitter and cold quickly descended on the last day of Woodbine’s 2017 racing meet. While horses were hastened to the saddling enclosure for the seventh race, a $12.5k claimer, the bettors were huddled in groups, dissecting the form and seizing warmth through winning picks.
In this race, the past performances — the pp’s — of each horse differed drastically, just as the shaggy winter coats are strikingly longer on some horses compared to the short and sleek summer coats worn by others. Several older horses, including Kitten Candy, Spanish River, Bet On Jack and War Fan have come out to challenge today’s betting favourite, Gentleman Jackson. Trained by Martin Drexler, the bay gelding is a seasoned staple in the game, running over 70 times in the last eight years.
A small crowd of bettors and maybe some fans fastened themselves to the rail across from where he was being saddled. Knowing the routine all too well, the bay gelding stood contently, surveying his audience as they exchanged remarks and browsed his racing history in the form.
“I wonder how old Gentleman Jackson is?”
“10 years old.”
“He looks good for 10.”
“He loves to run.”
“Classy old bastard.”
When asked later about the attention his trainee gets, Drexler was quick to respond. “It’s the age that catches everybody. They see 10 turning 11.”
Aside from age, the trainer also knows the gelding is a warrior compared to some of his racing counterparts. “There’s not many like him — just any of these hard-knocking claimers I would have to say that you could kind of classify as that. I mean there’s not too many of them around I guess, that’s what makes him special. There’s some horses that are sound horses, horses that try every day, the horses that overcome elements, and different surfaces, warm and cold and they seem to just show up no matter what.”
While it can’t be denied that Gentleman Jackson has a special kind of grit and iron will to keep running, can he be categorized as a warrior or ‘war horse’ so to speak?
What qualifies as a War Horse?
According to Woodbine’s archivist Tom Cosgrove there’s actually a couple of features that qualify certain horses as warriors on the racetrack.
“The general definition is a horse that has had a career with a number of starts each season, but the X-factor is the quality of horses that they race against. It’s easy to say, ‘Well a horse raced 40 times,’ but if he was racing and slowly coming down the scale of quality as the races wore on, then that would take something off it. But a horse like Pender Harbour for example was an Ontario Sired horse by Philanthropist and he was basically able to stay at a certain level for those 40 starts.
So, the quality of competition with the number of starts, that’s the equation you have to look at it in my mind.”
Kevin Attard who trains notable champs such as Melmich, also believes it’s important to distinguish the various four-legged veterans that remain in the game.
“An iron horse is maybe a horse that runs frequently, has run a lot and is made out of iron in the sense that they don’t get injured and they just keeping running. A war horse, I think is a horse more like Occasional View in the sense that they go out and they battle against the best horses. He’s a graded winner earlier in his career, and here he is at nine years old and he’s still kind of battling and competing while at the top level of our racing pendulum.”
Occasional View still impressive
Occasional View, a nine-year-old dark bay gelding by Silver Deputy has run 47 times over the last seven years. The graded stakes winner owned by SGR racing has been in Attard’s barn over the last year.
“We ran him eight times this year and missed the board once. Any time you send a horse out there that gives it his all each and every time you begin to appreciate them more, and you kind of love the fact they go out there and they lay it down each and every time.”
In his last appearance for the 2017 meet, the gelding ran a game fourth in the Grade 2 Kennedy Road Stakes against younger counterparts, including stakes champ Pink Lloyd. “He tried in the Kennedy Road and he didn’t disgrace himself against the top sprinter in Canada. On top of it all, at 9 he ran his highest Equibase figure of his career. So, I think that just alone tells you what kind of horse he is. The fact that at 9 he’s actually running his career high numbers.”
Since the gelding has made a good showing of himself on nearly every occasion this year, Attard wouldn’t be surprised to see the warrior return for an eighth season of racing. “As far as I’m concerned there would be no reason not to bring him back in. He’s very healthy and he loves what he does, I can’t see why you wouldn’t want to bring him back.”
Hemlock Channel super sound at 8
Another warrior horse that is set to make a return to racing is Hemlock Channel. Trained by Greg Tracy, the eight-year-old chestnut gelding capped off his 2017 campaign with back-to-back wins including a victory in the Harvest Plate Stakes at Century Downs.
Tracy stumbled across the gelding back in 2016 while shopping around for horses at Woodbine.
“He was seven then turning eight and usually you wouldn’t want to claim a seven-year-old, but the way I looked at it the horse was pretty sound. He was running to a high level for a long time, and he hadn’t really cheapened up and they dropped him in at the end of the meet probably thinking, ‘Just because he is seven, those guys aren’t going to claim a seven-year-old.’ But there was still six or seven claims on him, I had to win a shake on him. When we got the horse, he was super sound.”
Beginning his career in 2011, the gelding has run 36 times; notably placing as one of the top three finishers in 26 of those races.
Although he is not an iron horse in the sense of career starts, Tracy definitely believes the chestnut gelding is a war horse.
“A warrior horse to me is a horse that can stay at a high level. All these horses are kind of like a graph. You start them, they go up, they peak and then they work down and eventually they end up being a cheap horse. This horse, to be able to get up at a high level and be able to maintain his running style at a high level, well you don’t see a lot of horses that even last until they’re eight – never mind still running in stakes races when they’re eight.”
Resting the gelding over the winter, Tracy intends to prep Hemlock Channel for not only his seventh year of racing, but also his return campaign to the circuit out West. “I’ll probably start him back here (Northlands) in January. I kept him up north last year and I got him ready up there and I will probably do the same thing as I did last year. The Alberta circuit they run at Northlands, then they go to Century Downs in the fall, all the horses go there. I do run horses at Hastings, and there’s a chance I could start him there. Being that he’s living in Alberta, he’s probably an Alberta horse.”
Toccet’s Charm still running
Another tough racehorse running out West that keeps on trucking is Toccet’s Charm. Trained by James R. Brown, the bay gelding has made 87 career starts over the last eight years. In 2017, at the ripe old age of 10, the gelding ran a dozen times and hit the board each time, including a runner-up finish in the HPBA claiming championship stakes at Hastings Racecourse.
“He’s a warrior. I think he’s run at 14 different racetracks – won at most of them and run good races at most of them. He just shows up every time he runs,” said Brown who intends to run the gelding in 2018.
While, in one sense, this gelding, like Gentleman Jackson, may be considered a warrior given the longevity of his career, he did not maintain that X-factor with regards to the quality of his competition.
In 2009, Toccet’s Charm secured his only stakes win (black type) at Colonial Downs followed up by a couple of stakes-placed finishes at both Delaware Park and Philadelphia Park. The following year, the gelding began to fade from the spotlight and was gradually dropped into claiming races for a tag of $30k, then $15k, then $7.5, and then $5k at various tracks in the U.S. and Canada. In 2013, Brown claimed Toccet’s Charm for $3k at Turf Paradise in Phoenix. Even though the gelding stayed with Brown for part of that racing season, the gritty racehorse has also been under the tutelage of several trainers and a couple of owners over the last several years. In September 2017, Toccet’s Charm was claimed back by Brown at Hastings Racecourse.
Whether it was the horse’s charm or tenacity, Brown said he knows he’s still got a good runner when it comes to a veteran such as Toccet’s Charm. “Well, number one, he’s a very sound horse. He enjoys racing and he hasn’t had too many physical problems throughout his career — that’s probably why his career is so long.”
Gentleman Jackson hits the board
Not surprisingly, back at Woodbine, Gentleman Jackson has hit the board again, finishing a game third on closing day. Asked whether this will be his last race, Drexler doesn’t hesitate to respond.
“Probably not. I’ll be honest with you, the horse is doing well, he’s old, but he’s doing well and he seems to like it. Now, every race we always consider that it could be (his last), but we are not going to push him. And there’s no secret, the horse is doing well and he is what he is.”
He is what he is, an iron clad gentleman that won’t let up.
In the minds of their trainers and connections, all racehorses may to some degree be warriors, but to classify each horse in that category may be unjust to the true warriors in the game. Based on the horsemen surveyed in this story, it would be fair to assume the war horses are those that continue to compete at a high level of competition throughout their careers even when age starts to creep in. In contrast, the iron horse, may be older and have a longer career, but falls through the ranks of racing and ends up competing for a meagre price tag.
Given that the term ‘war horse’ still remains flippantly used to denote either a warrior or an iron horse on the track, this may actually be the beginning rather than the end of the discussion.
However, the one commonality that does unite all types of warriors on the track is their hustle, the hustle to run with a lot of heart.