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A love affair with thoroughbreds beyond the racetrack

November 9, 2018

By: Beverley Smith for Woodbine.com

TORONTO, November 9, 2018 – The first horse that Robin Hannah-Carlton ever owned was a thoroughbred, sprung from the racetrack.

What a horse he turned out to be. Called Balmy Beach in the annals of Equibase, he competed under his new name of Finders Keepers on the show circuit. So fitting.

Robin Hannah-Carlton with Balmy Beach (Finders Keepers). (Photo by Rachel Sulman)

Now, she and the other members of the family farm, Sherwood Farm, have made a habit of taking thoroughbreds whose career has finished at the racetrack and turning them into stars on the hunter and jumper circuit. And inevitably, they show up at the blue ribbon event of all, the Royal Agricultural Winter Fair in Toronto. This week, Hannah-Carlton has five entries in line and saddle classes. Three of them are thoroughbreds.

Over the past two months, Sherwood Farm has acquired two thoroughbreds that had competed at Woodbine: Canadian Class and D’s Dark Knight.

Previously owned by Mary Biamonte, Canadian Class now belongs to one of Hannah-Carlton’s long-time clients. “All of our students want to get involved with thoroughbred reforming, reusing them to an effective career,” Hannah-Carlton said.

Hannah-Carlton purchased D’s Dark Knight through Liz Elder, a trainer whose father, Jim Elder was a member of the gold-medal winning show-jumping team at the 1968 Olympics in Mexico. D’s Dark Knight had been owned by York Tech Racing Stable, always handled with care by trainer Santino di Paola.

On the track, D’s Dark Knight, a son of Queen’s Plate winner Niigon, earned $44,357 with one win in 31 starts. In his last start at Woodbine on July 21, he finished fifth after leading every step at 85-1. He broke his maiden at Fort Erie the start before that, winning with panache, by 5-1/2 lengths. He raced mostly at Woodbine.

Hannah-Carlton’s mother, Marilyn Lee-Hannah, the business manager of Sherwood Farm, bought D’s Dark Knight on Elder’s expert eye. They have high hopes for D’s Dark Knight.

Neither will be going to the Royal this week. They will be headed to the Thoroughbred Makeover event in Kentucky next year, and they cannot ride them before the beginning of December. Canadian Class and D’s Dark Knight are currently paddock buddies at Sherwood Farm. “They have the racing plates taken off, and they go out together,” Hannah-Carlton said. “And they’re just kind of happy and muddy at the present time. They’re both really quiet and nice.”

Thoroughbreds are a big part of Sherwood Farm. “We have a barn of 30 horses and I would say we have close to 20 thoroughbreds,” Hannah-Carlton said.

She also takes rescue horses of various breeds, but Hannah-Carlton’s heart is with thoroughbreds.

“I love all horses,” she said. “But thoroughbreds are definitely for me, my breed of choice. They’re so intelligent. You ask them one thing one day and they remember it the next.

“They’re very sensitive, so it makes you really have to be quiet and patient – all the things I want to teach to my students. When you ride a thoroughbred, it sort of takes a special type of rider. Somebody nice and quiet and patient.”

Thoroughbred horse Passionate Groom, called Ptarmigan on the show circuit. (Photo by Michael Werner)

The farm specializes in transforming thoroughbred rescues to competitors on the Ontario A circuit, also competing at the Royal in the thoroughbred line and under saddle classes, where they are judged on performance, manners, way of going, soundness, athleticism, beauty, refinement, elegance. Movement is valued at 60 per cent, conformation at 40 per cent.

Future King at the Thoroughly Thoroughbred Horse Show at Ancaster. (Photo courtesy of Sherwood Farm)

The love affair with thoroughbreds started with Balmy Beach. Hannah-Carlton bought him from a trainer at Fort Erie racetrack, which is about 20 miles from Sherwood Farm, near St. Catharines, Ont. She was 16 years old.

“My first horse was me sort of dying to get a horse,” she said. “I went to the racetrack with a friend. We looked at 25 horses. Then out came this little bay gelding. He was only about 15.1. He didn’t have any blemishes on him at all. He had clean legs, everything.

“But he was wild!”

She brought her parents with her a few days later, but Balmy Beach wouldn’t even walk in a straight line. He leapt in the air. Her parents muttered that he just might not be the best horse for her.

But Hannah-Carlton liked what she saw in the little thoroughbred. And they bought him.

“It was a bit of a struggle with him for the first year or so,” she said. “He was so hot, so energetic all the time. He ended up doing the jumpers up to 1.10 metres.”

Balmy Beach did 25 horse shows during his first two years as a jumper, and was champion or reserve champion at every show but two. He showed on the A circuit. “He was just an amazing horse,” she said.

To get this wild horse to calm down? “Just lots of riding,” Hannah-Carlton said. “I just started to suit his style, which is something I find you have to do with thoroughbreds. He was perfectly mannered on the ground. He was so calm everywhere else, except when you were riding him. All he wanted to do was go. He just wanted to jump and do his job. He was never bad. He never wanted to do anything naughty. He was just a ball of energy.”

Balmy Beach raced until he was only four, a well-bred son of Clever Trick. He just wasn’t much of a racehorse. But four years after Hannah-Carlton acquired him, he took them on a path they never envisaged. One day, out of the blue, he became completely paralyzed in his hind end, and could not stand or walk. Veterinarians advised her to do one of two things: take him to the Ontario Veterinary College at Guelph. Or put him down.

“They said it would take a medical miracle for him to walk again,” she said. “I was like a teenaged girl who was determined to keep her horse.”

So the family took him to Guelph where he spent four weeks in a sling. His problem was neurological although vets could never nail down exactly what his ailment was. “Finally, they said that euthanasia is kind of the way to go because he couldn’t walk,” she said. She stayed with someone in Guelph so that she could spend all day, every day, with her horse.

One day, she walked into the barn, and Finders Keepers reared up over the stalls. “I thought: ‘That’s great. He can use his back legs.’”

Eventually they took him home. “He had to reteach himself how to walk,” she said.

After a time out in the field, Hannah-Carlton put a saddle on him again. And back to the show circuit he went again, against all odds.

“He’s an amazing horse,” she said. He’s now 22 years old and retired, spending his time babysitting the farm’s foals.

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