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Part 2: Road to the Ontario Sires Stakes

"Sometimes we try to do too much thinking and for whatever reason Mother Nature looks after it or the gods of training help you out.”
By Sandra Snyder

Through this four-part series Ontario Racing is charting the journey of two of Ontario Sired trotters acquired by trainer John Bax at the 2017 Lexington Selected Yearling Sale. Follow Magical Journey (Kadabra – Some Like It Lindy) and Radical Roy (Royalty For Life – Radical Janey) along the path their connections hope will lead them to the 2018 Ontario Sires Stakes.

Part One: From Lexington to Campbellville

Part Three: Early Successes and Surprises

Part Four: Joining the 30 Per Cent

A new home, routine and circumstance

Once Magical Journey and Radical Roy walked off the horse van at their new home, the first step for the Baxes and their staff was to assess the colts’ health. Young horses encounter a wide variety of unfamiliar germs during the course of the yearling sale and many spend the first week or two at their new homes feeling a bit under the weather. Fortunately, neither colt was seriously ill and after a period of rest they were ready for their first lessons, which consisted of an introduction to the harness, lines and jog cart.

“We’ll just start working on them as they come in, putting the harness on them, starting to break them,” said John Bax. “Magical Journey was so quiet we weren’t sure there wasn’t something wrong with him, because he was just so laid back and lackadaisical and he didn’t act like he had a whole lot of energy. The other colt, he was little hyper right from day one, he had lots of energy.”

With colts all trainers face a choice, to keep the horse entire or to geld them. The Bax’s tend to geld most of their colts — only one of this year’s two-year-old crop remains a stallion — so once they had mastered their introductory lessons Magical Journey and Radical Roy had an appointment with veterinarian Dr. Huw Llewellyn and some time off for recovery.

One advantage to gelding the youngsters is that they can then be paired up with another horse in the paddock, an option not afforded to stallions, and Magical Journey and Radical Roy were buddied up soon after being gelded.

“We like to pair them up as soon as possible. We just find they’re happier that way,” explained Bax. “Sometimes you’ve got to move some around, some aren’t very friendly, but these two, they’ve been together right from the start.”

Building the foundation of a racehorse

With the gelding process complete and their partnership in place, the trotters settled into a regular routine of jogging clockwise each morning on the Bax farm track, steadily increasing their cardio-vascular capacity, muscle and bone strength, and confidence.

“We start them out usually around two miles and then just build up to three miles, maybe three and a half. The horse will tell you what he can handle or what he can’t handle. If they act like it’s a little tough on them, you might give them two or three days off,” said Bax. “You’re not worried about speed or getting them legged up so much, you’re just trying to get them into a routine.”

John White jogs Radical Roy on the Bax farm track. (Sandra Snyder photo)

Soon after the geldings had settled into their routine John and his wife Vicky moved to their winter base in Florida with six horses, leaving the rest of the stable in the care of son Matt and the Campbellville-based staff. Magical Journey and Radical Roy stayed in Ontario and continued to steadily gain knowledge and experience, causing Matt very few moments of anxiety.

“I wouldn’t say they did anything interesting,” recalled the 29-year-old horseman. “Those are usually the better ones, the ones that are uneventful. Every day they go out, they do their work; you don’t have to even focus that much on them, because they just do everything perfect each week.”

In addition to their jogging routine, the geldings were also seen regularly by blacksmith Tim Curtis. Pontypool, Ontario resident Curtis had worked with the Baxes while they were headquartered in Peterborough and was willing to continue his weekly visits when the family relocated to Campbellville. Through the winter Curtis steadily made very small adjustments to Radical Roy’s left foot in an effort to mitigate the gelding’s tendency to swing in toward his right knee.

After three solid months of jogging the Baxes started thinking about turning the geldings the right way of the track (counter-clockwise) to see how they would perform when asked for a little more speed, with a three-minute mile their general target for these early training sessions.

“Usually we don’t turn them too often before the first of February, and again they’ll tell you what they can handle or what they can’t handle. I don’t worry too much about the watch until then,” said Bax. “You kind of look at them and say, well this one can handle it, or this one looks a little weak, so you just don’t bother.”

As they had all winter Magical Journey and Radical Roy cruised through their early training sessions. Their connections were never concerned about Roy’s ability to produce speed, but it would take an unusual encounter to spark a burst of speed from the lackadaisical Magical Journey.

Magical Journey meets the Wood Chipper

One morning a crew arrived at the road that runs along the front of the Bax farm, about 500 yards from the track. They were cutting tree limbs and most of the horses simply went about their business, paying the crew and the noises they were making little mind. However, while Magical Journey was on the track the crew fed the limbs into a wood chipper and the noise sent the gelding trotting for home, at a speed he had never come close to achieving in a training mile.

“Magical Journey, he didn’t want to really go, he just plodded around and plodded around, and then one day the wood chipper was along the road and it scared him and he took off and went real fast. It was kind of like an awakening for him,” recalled Bax. “And I said, wow this horse has got some go to him.

“Things like that happen, sometimes you change a bridle, or another horse comes up behind them and all of a sudden they want to race,” the trainer reflected. “You never know why — you don’t worry too much about the why as long as they do it. Sometimes we try to do too much thinking and for whatever reason Mother Nature looks after it or the gods of training help you out.”

Ken Webb jogs Magical Journey on the Bax farm track. (Sandra Snyder photo)

As they added speed to their repertoire the geldings made steady progress from the three minute miles they started with down toward the two minute mile that is the target, signalling that a two-year-old is ready to qualify. As with everything else, each one dropped time on their own schedule, without any significant setbacks or hiccups.

“You might drop them 10 seconds a month, but that’s a very loose rule. Sometimes a horse will drop five seconds, but it’s easier to drop five seconds at three minutes than it is to drop five seconds at 2:20, so the horse will tell you that he can do it easy or he can’t and you just go from there,” Bax noted. “You try to have kind of a routine, but one training day they see something and jump all over themselves, and the next time they take off and they go great and they drop twice as much as you wanted to, so then you give them time off or you back off. At least that’s the way I train, there’s no hard and fast rules, you just go with what they tell you they can go.”

For his part, Matt Bax said Radical Roy and Magical Journey were not on the list of horses that kept him up at night worrying about how he could improve their performance as the first date for two-year-old qualifiers drew near.

“You kind of have ones that are closer to the top and they’re going good, so then you’re not worrying too much about them,” said the younger Bax. “It’s the ones that aren’t going as well; you’re always trying to bring up the bottom, you’re not worrying as much about the top ones.”

With a solid foundation of miles and speed under their belts, Magical Journey and Radical Roy would soon be ready for the next steps along the path to the Ontario Sires Stakes — training miles at the racetrack and qualifying with their peers.

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