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OSAS Featured In Ontario

The latest edition of the Ontario Farmer includes a profile on the Ontario Standardbred Adoption Society and the shows they host for retired harness horses.

Admirals Express and The Big Cat are two of the former racehorses featured in the story written by Karen Dallimore which follows:

Standardbred Shows Give Racehorses a Change of Pace

It's not your typical horse show. Sure there's a judge and a ring steward and lots of horses and riders, but look closer and you'll find you're watching some of the finest athletes from the horse racing world showing off their talent in their second career.

The big grey with the orange leg wraps? That's Admirals Express: his fans still know him as The Grey Gladiator, a tough racehorse who won $2.1 million during his Standardbred racing career, taking a lifetime mark of 1:48.2 for a mile at Woodbine Racetrack with 86 lifetime wins.

Under the rules of the racing game Admirals Express retired at 14 years of age, so five months ago the tough horse traded in his sulky for a western saddle. Under the guidance of his long-time caregiver, Welly Charles, this horse celebrity now shows in the gaming classes, poles, barrels and such, on the Standardbred Show Circuit, where his fans have their photos taken with him and some wore baseball caps with Admirals Express embroidered on them. He's even on YouTube.

"Horses like that make you want to go to the track," said Charles, "he's the people's champ." Now it's horses like that who make you want to go to the shows.

Standardbred racing in Ontario is a huge industry. There are 15 tracks servicing 6,588 horses of racing age at the end of 2009. There are 20,208 people licensed to work in the game including owners, trainers, drivers, grooms, vets, officials and mutuel tellers.

But what becomes of racehorses when they can no longer race? Adoption organizations such as the Ontario Standardbred Adoption Society would like to see the humble track warriors honoured for their versatility. Their shows are a way of demonstrating the big hearts and big talents of the breed but these shows have become much more than that: they've become a place for Standardbred owners and caregivers to unwind and enjoy the company of their favourite horse that doesn't include racing. It's a change of pace, so to speak.

Take The Big Cat, for example. His trainer and driver, Marie Brooking, has the black stallion entered in a race at Kawartha Downs on Tuesday. He's placed well in his last four starts but it's Sunday now and he's wearing a western saddle, and she's in her cowboy hat.

Brooking is from Alberta and she was watching the CBC show Heartland when she felt a little homesick, so Cat was recruited to be her new cow pony. She's only been riding him for six weeks now but both Brooking and her mount look relaxed and happy showing in the Western Pleasure class. This is his second show; Cat's made $250,000 in lifetime earnings at the track.

Burking's friend Crisondra Watson, a nursing student, agreed to ride too, on her retired 19 year old gelding Little Band of Gold, who has over $200,000 in lifetime earnings with 25 wins on his record. Watson has been a caregiver for racehorses for many years but she was competing in classes under saddle for only the second time in her life.

The pair was just bubbling with excitement. He was quite hot as a racehorse and she fed him from a bag of treats tied to the horn of the saddle to keep him calm. As Watson says, what better way to have fun than to spend time with your horse?

Many of the people involved work with these horses all day, every day. They're very competitive, that's part of the sport, but this is their day off. Barrel racers rode in English saddles if they wanted to; the carriage class was shown in a mixture of jogging bikes and formal attire.

There were halter and dressage classes in the morning; the pleasure classes called for a walk/ trot or pace to accommodate the unique gait of the breed. Everyone applauded when each horse completed each obstacle in the trail class.

It can be a bit tough on some Standardbreds to be expected to stand still for long after being a conditioned athlete, but the people involved with the show understand that and will make allowances to make everyone comfortable. If a horse was getting fussy there was someone there to take his head since, for some, the world of showing was very new. The actual show rules may have been relaxed but the high level of sportsmanship and horse experience was evident.

For the OSAS the shows are a way to showcase the versatility of the Standardbred and introduce the horses they have up for adoption to anyone who may be interested. The show season continues with one in London on September 12 and the final show in Campbellville on September 26.

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