By Beverley Smith for WoodbineEntertaintment.com
Standardbred folk celebrate Christmas just a little bit differently from everybody else.
Sure, there are gifts, and twinkly trees and turkey dinners and Santa Clauses darting to and fro. But if you are Canadian Hall of Fame trainer Bob McIntosh as a young boy, you open gifts, you eat lots, then you head to the track to jog a barn full of horses. He didn’t consider it work. “It was fun,” he said.
“The horses don’t get a day off,” he said. “Neither do we.”
His most memorable Christmas gift was a black Shetland pony that used to “bite me like an alligator,” he said. “And if you rode him, he would try to scrape you off on the fence posts.” Midnight, as he was called, was McIntosh’s to sell, and he did in the spring – when everybody wanted a summer ride and prices were good – and he bought another in the fall, when prices were down. It was the start of his successful career buying and selling horses.
If you are driver-trainer Larry Walker, he and the rest of the members of his family would tie themselves with a rope behind a gate, and whiz around the farm track on cross country skis and “see if we could knock each other down,” he said. Who knew the Walker family were all kamikazes?
If you were Hall of Famer Ron Waples as a young boy, between six and eight years old, he’d be awake at 4 a.m., wondering what he got. (In those days, when times were tough, he’d be lucky to get a pair of used skates. But the excitement was just as palpable.) However, 4:30 a.m. was the cut-off point set by his parents. Cross that timeline at your own peril. Strangely enough, when Waples had his own young children, Ron Jr. and Randy, he was the one who was downstairs before the crack of dawn, ready to unwrap gifts. He had to wake his sons up. “I could never understand that,” he said.
And Hall of Fame candidate Trevor Ritchie? At a similar age, Ritchie wasn’t too sure that Santa Claus really existed. So one year, he set out to discover the truth. On Christmas Eve, he stared and stared at the skies outside his bedroom window for what seemed like hours. (It was probably 20 minutes). Nothing.
Eventually, he crawled on top of a linen closet that was known to house gifts. There he might see if Santa came to unload his wares. He doesn’t remember what happened next. He does not know if he fell asleep there. He doesn’t know if he woke up and went back to bed, or if his mother carried him there. It’s still all so fuzzy. But he never did discover the answer to his question. He’s still wondering.
When John Kopas was a little guy, say about three years old, his parents, Hall of Famer Jack Kopas and Alice helped him set out milk and cookies for Santa on Christmas Eve. “Gee, what about his reindeer?”” Jack said, always thinking of the animals. Young John hadn’t thought about that.
“Well, come on,” Jack said. “We’d better go out and leave some feed for his reindeer.”
They lived in a house trailer right next to the barn in Trois Rivieres, Que., at the time, and Jack set eight feed tubs out in the alleyway of the barn. And put some grain in them.
The next morning, the milk and cookies were gone. John could hardly wait to see what had happened to the feed tubs, too. Lo and behold, it looked as if the reindeer had licked up every grain. John’s eyes opened wide at the thought that Santa’s reindeer had actually been in the barn.
The feed tub thing became a tradition for the next four or five years until some older kids spoiled it all for John and spilled the beans: There was no Santa. (Spoiler alert.) John continued the tradition for his own kids years later. After they went to bed, he’d empty the contents of the feed tubs into his SUV and take the grain back to his Mohawk Raceway stable.
“They thought that was pretty cool, too,” John said.
Christmas was always a special time for John, who once bought his father a saddle horse in Florida. John found the half-quarter-horse – half thoroughbred in a newspaper want-ad. “This woman that knew nothing about horses had bought this horse for her daughter,” John said. “He was just a little too much horse for her.”
As soon as John saw the horse, he thought: “Oh god, what a beautiful horse he was.” So he bought him. The owner also sold him a western saddle that she had. Jack had the horse for 23 years, usually leaving him in Florida year-round, until the horse got older. And Jack couldn’t bear to leave him down south, so brought him back to Canada to live out his days.
There was a horse park just behind the Kopas house in Orlando, where they wintered, that was used for show-jumping pursuits. The winter after Jack had the horse, John drove over one day and said to Alice: “Where the hell is dad?”
“Where do you think he is?” Alice replied. “He’s riding that damned horse you gave him. He’s probably over at the horse park.”
Riding this horse, Jack would cut through the orange groves and he’d be at the park in a twinkle. John took his car and found his father jumping four-foot fences with the horse, which is entirely astonishing for a guy who spent most of his time sitting behind horses in a sulky or training bike. “He was an interesting fellow,” John said. “He ate, slept and thought about horses. That’s all he knew. That’s all he ever did.”
Jack also had a team of Percherons that he’d ship down to Florida for the winter. In days when the Kopases trained upwards of 100 horses, Jack would go home for lunch, stretch out on the couch for an hour, then head out on his saddle horse, and perhaps fool around with his team in the afternoon.
He used to take the team up to Ben White Raceway in Orlando two weeks before Christmas. He wanted to do something for underprivileged kids and in cahoots with the local Kiwanis club, organized a toy drive. The deal was: get a ride with Santa and his team in return for an unwrapped toy. The first year, Jack got a half-ton truck full of toys. For the next few years, it was a few half-ton trucks, full of toys.
Freddie Bach, who used to own all the thoroughbred prompters used in time trials, would dress up as Santa every year. And a couple of guys that worked for Jack – Willie and Bob – would dress up as elves.
“They’d take that team up on a Sunday and they were there all day, giving kids rides,” John said. “And it was a lot of fun.”
So many years after the reindeer tubs brightened John’s Christmas, John thinks wistfully of his father. Jack died last April 10 at age 88. This will be the family’s first Christmas without him. “I think about him quite often, still,” he said. “Like every day,
“And those are some of the things I’ll always cherish and remember.”