It’s a thrill ride Sarah Cuthbertson never expected to have embarked on.
The accomplished equestrian with over a decade of Endurance riding and training under her saddle had never entertained the thought of adopting a Standardbred horse.
West Grey Bay changed all of that.
It was a few years ago when Cuthbertson, who has trained several horses including Standardbreds as well as students, to compete in Endurance races, and Julie Walker, who played a major role in establishing the Racing Under Saddle (a Standardbred trotting race where the horse is ridden, not driven) program in Ontario, found out a particular retired trotter, one with RUS potential, might be available to foster through the Ontario Standardbred Adoption Society (OSAS).
“My coach, Karen Briggs, who I was working with, she’s fostered horses from OSAS before,” started Cuthbertson. “She had lost one of her horses, so there was an empty spot at the farm. She put it out to OSAS that she would be interested in fostering one again. That was around the time I started getting into RUS. I got my license that year and needed a horse to practice on, whether it would race or not. Julie had her eye on West Grey Bay when he was racing and thought he might be good at RUS. So, through all those channels, we spoke with Joanne Colville (Administrator and Events Coordinator with OSAS), and asked her if he was available, we’d like to give him a try.”
Cuthbertson wasn’t quite sure what to expect from the trotter known as ‘Westie,’ who had carved out a decent racing career, lining up behind the starter car on 114 occasions. In all, he notched 15 career wins accompanied by eight seconds, 20 thirds and $85,615 in purse earnings.
“Initially, I didn’t think he was going to stick around, that he would only be a training partner for a little while,” Cuthbertson offered of the son of Fiesty GG, whose dam, Parkside Princess, won $62,693 during her career, highlighted by a couple of Ontario Sires Stakes triumphs.
West Grey Bay, however, had other intentions.
Cuthbertson soon realized her connection with the bay gelding might not be a fleeting one.
“After the first three or four rides, we thought, ‘Let’s take him out on the trail and see how he does.’ We would give it a shot and if it doesn’t work out and I have to get off and walk with him a long time because he’s tired, that would be fine. He always took everything in stride, so we took that chance. And he took to it really, really well.”
It was during their first competitive distance ride in 2018, part of the Ontario Competitive Trail Riding Association, where the bond between horse and rider was cemented.
The experience turned out to be anything but a leisurely stroll for the pair.
About one mile into their trek, Cuthbertson heard a commotion ahead in the tree line, sounding at first, she thought, like people jumping into a pool.
Seconds later, three riderless horses came charging out of the trees, galloping at brisk pace towards Cuthbertson and West Grey Bay.
“I didn’t even think. I just put the reins in one hand and took after them.”
The well-versed veteran rider and the neophyte distance horse soon caught up to the renegade trio.
“I managed to collect all three horses on this horse that I had ridden maybe five or six times. It was absolutely amazing. He was so good about it. He was giving the other horses a look like, ‘Chill out, guys.’ I looked down at him and said, ‘I think you found a forever home.”
Cutherbertson took to social media to heap praise on West Grey Bay, praising, among many things, his work ethic, intelligence, and agreeable nature.
It was the last line of her post that displayed her deep affinity for the trotter.
“I need to figure out a way I can adopt him for myself instead of sending him on.”
And that’s precisely what she did.
It was one of the easiest decisions Cuthbertson, who lives in Alliston, Ontario, has ever made, horse-related or otherwise.
“My other horse, an Arab/Trakehner, was in a horrific accident two weeks after we got Westie, and we weren’t sure if he was going to make it, but he did, and is back to his old self. So, that was another factor in the hope of keeping Westie. I needed a horse to ride while my other one was rehabbing. But everything worked out. I was hoping to find a horse that would be uncomplicated to ride. My other horse can be absolutely wonderful or absolutely horrible. I thought it would be nice to have a straightforward horse and I found that in Westie.”
Since then, West Grey Bay has competed in several Endurance races. In his second sanctioned event, at 40 kilometres, he finished second. In the summer of 2019, he competed in his first 80-kilometre event and placed seventh of 19 starters. A pair of two 25-mile limited distance rides yielded a runner-up effort in his first 25-mile attempt. He has also completed two 50 mile Endurance races, placing sixth and seventh, once with Cuthbertson aboard and the other with a friend in the saddle
“We’ve put a lot more milage in since that first ride. The longest he’s gone is 75 miles or 120 kilometres. That was back in 2020. He did that with my friend Ashley. The neat thing about that is that we had 11 starters between the 75- and 100-mile distance. The way it works is that everyone starts at the 75-mile distance. If you want to move on after the 75 miles, you kind of roll the dice. In the 75-mile, only one horse completed, in the 100-mile only two horses completed. My other horse completed the 100, and Westie was the only one who finished the 75. That race was so difficult, but I was so proud of him for doing that 75.”
Cuthbertson, who has won several OCTRA competitions and has taken part in the world’s most demanding Endurance horse races, a list that includes the Mongol Derby and Race the Wild Coast, continues to marvel at West Grey Bay’s transition from trotter to trailblazer.
She isn’t the only one.
“I still have my have other horse, so I alternate between riding the two. I have only had one horse before, but by keeping Westie, it’s allowed me to have friends come along for the rides. He’s a big favourite of my friends. They all want to ride him. He’s been great for bringing friends out and teaching students. Westie’s had seven different people ride him in Endurance events. Through him, I’ve been able to achieve my dream of bringing more people into the endurance sport because I have a nice, safe horse I can put them on, and send them out.”
Agreeable is a word that Cuthbertson, who has employed West Grey Bay to train riders who want to try RUS, uses often when she speaks of the horse.
“He really is. When I first got him, he was always very workmanlike, a great attitude. The last couple of years, I’ve been experimenting with him, to see if there’s anything that revs his engine. We found eventing last year, it was a schooling series, an eventing Kindergarten. I took him through that, and it turns out he really loves jumping. Now that I’ve introduced him to that, he’s turned into a completely different horse. Even though he never does anything nasty, you can just see him fire right up when there’s a new trail ride or if he gets to go jumping. He’s figured out what his life is after the racetrack. It’s really great to see him embark on these new journeys.”
Taking Cuthbertson to places she had once never dreamt of.
Chris Lomon, Woodbine Communications