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Ryan Kerbel: An ownership life soaring to new heights

By Chris Lomon

Ryan Kerbel’s first race as a thoroughbred owner was anything but a storybook beginning. But his fortunes soon changed. And it’s only gotten better.

Nothing could have diverted the then 28-year-old’s attention from the starting gate before the seven-furlong race got underway nearly three years ago at Woodbine Racetrack.

No Joke Baby, breaking from post four, was the first horse Kerbel owned outright. Sixth at the start in the field of nine, the bay mare was urged by jockey Gerry Olquin around the turn on the Toronto oval’s main track, but wasn’t gaining on her rivals.

The end result: last at the wire, 10 lengths behind the nearest horse.

For any owner, it would be a deflating loss. Not for Kerbel, though.

“In horse racing, you always have a shot,” he rationalized. “That’s the beauty of this game. Even-money favourite or longshot, you have a chance. I never forget that.”

In case he had, No Joke Baby reminded him in her next start, finishing second in a five-furlong race on the Fort Erie dirt.

Kerbel wouldn’t make a trip to the winner’s circle in his 2014 rookie campaign. He recorded three seconds and one third from 14 starts.

Most importantly, he learned something new about horses and horse ownership almost every day he was at the racetrack.

It was a ‘student of the game’ approach Kerbel learned from his father, Barry, a longtime owner and fixture at Woodbine and Fort Erie, whose association with the sport dates back some 30-plus years.

“My dad owned many horses – as Clocker Stable – way back when in the early 1980s and 1990s,” recalled Kerbel. “It was him and a friend. They had a lot of success. Growing up, I was always brought to the racetrack. I’d be there for the big days, like the Queen’s Plate. I loved playing with and petting the horses when I was a kid. So, I had an early introduction to it all. And I’ve kept the tie through my father’s partner and myself. My father slowly started to get back into the business. He got out of it for a while, but when he got back into it, that’s when I got involved.”

Plenty – most of it good – has happened in a relatively short time for Kerbel.

In 2015, a bay mare named Both Convinced delivered him his first win. At season’s end, Kerbel won three races, along with three seconds and three thirds, from 27 starts.

Last year, Kerbel silk-bearers, trained by Denyse McClachrie, made 14 trips to the winner’s circle from 85 starts, yielding a 16.4 win percentage. His purse earnings jumped from $62,324 in 2015 to $251,496.

“I’m most proud of the care that the team gives to the horses,” said Kerbel. “It’s a great team.”

So, too, is a father-son tandem that might not always find themselves on the page, but whose shared love for the sport ultimately unites them.

“My father and I own a couple together, and the majority I have, I went out on my own and bought mostly through claiming,” noted Kerbel. “I claim a lot of horses. Sometimes, we see eye-to-eye on the horses and sometimes we don’t. And if he doesn’t see a particular one the way I do, I just say, ‘I’ll take that one myself.’”

Kerbel has a great affinity for the thoroughbred claiming game.

“You have to have a good eye,” he said. “My father and I have our own system, a set criteria that we use to claim. Earnings per start, Tomlinson numbers, whether or not their breeding suggest they’ll do well on the synthetic or the turf – we use that system to determine whether we claim or we don’t. I’m proud I’ve been able to attain that skill.

“I feel like I have an eye for the horses. I’m always doing homework on it. I’m at the track at 6 in the morning as much as I can be to see the horses train.”

Kerbel hopes the attention to detail pays off when the 2017 Woodbine season launches on April 15.

There’s one victory in particular he’s after.

“We’re always setting goals,” he noted. “I’ve yet to win a stakes race and my trainer is yet to win a stakes race. That’s a goal. We have horses we know are capable and we’re going to campaign them as such. The odds are in our favour if we are in stakes races. We can get the job done.”

The podiatrist plans to spend as much time as possible at the racetrack this year. That means Kerbel will have to ground one of his favourite hobbies.

Not that he minds.

“Outside of horses, I love aviation,” said the 31-year-old, who owns 15 horses outright and is in partnerships with a couple others. “I’m actually a pilot as well. I have my private pilot’s license, with a multi-engine rating and night rating. I’m pretty qualified to fly, but I just don’t have time for it.”

Kerbel adds with a laugh, “Between the two feet and the four feet, I don’t have the time.”

For now, soaring to new heights will have to be at the races.

“I enjoy the game. I enjoy the thrill. I enjoy the horses. I enjoy being at the races with my father and strategizing. It’s a fun business.”

Winner's circle photos courtesy of WEG / Michael Burns Photography

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