Story by Hayley Morrison
The heart beats quickly in this sport.
You might not see it on the surface, but while racetrackers are constantly absorbed in the daily grind of getting things done, their hearts are beating immensely for the game they love and most importantly their equine partners.
Take a closer look and what do you see?
You also see the partnerships that have developed between people who continue to live and breathe this sport. Sometimes love does work in mysterious ways and when you least expect it, it finds you.
Just ask Chelsea Clouter.
Born and raised in Nova Scotia, the exercise rider didn’t plan on falling for someone who worked at the track, but love found her.
Enter trainer Nigel Burke.
“We did meet through a mutual friend on the track. I guess it isn’t a really exciting story. He saw me (while) I used to ride for another trainer and I happened to come up in conversation with a good friend of mine who he was also friends with. Then she kind of introduced us and that was that,” said Clouter, who has been working at Woodbine for the last several seasons and currently works alongside Burke.
Burke has been working in the industry for a long time, but the Barbadian-born horseman began his training career a couple of seasons ago.
Last year, his impressive trainee Rockcrest captured the $175,000 OLG Simcoe Stakes for the young trainer. The flashy grey gelding and a son of Old Forester is owned by Paul Mouttet and one part of Burke’s ever improving barn of runners.
While the stakes win was a highlight for the trainer’s barn, an extremely important day for both Clouter and Burke was welcoming their son Hayden into the world last May. For anybody who frequents the track and stands at the paddock rail watching the horses, you might have seen the proud mom standing by with Hayden as Burke saddled a horse for a race.
Nigel Burke & Chelsea Clouter and their son Hayden
While keeping a close eye on Hayden is key for the new mom, she was also itching to get back out there in the saddle. Soon enough that happened.
“I ended up going back a little earlier than expected because (Nigel) had a couple of horses he wanted me to get on. That led into a couple more horses and then Hayden was coming to the track every day and Nigel would drive around with Hayden instead of walking to the track to watch (his horses). He would just drive around with Hayden and watch with Hayden in the car. I ended up riding pretty much everything in the barn mid-summer anyways. And Hayden just comes everywhere with us. I mean he is such a good kid, he really is. It’s not easy but we make it work,” said Clouter, who found herself back exercising horses just two months after giving birth to Hayden.
There’s always a debate about whether doing something you love is developed through time or a genetic predisposition. You know, the lifelong nurture verses nature debate.
Well, it’s probably safe to say in this specific case, that Hayden has a heavy dose of racing in his blood and through his early exposure to the racing scene. (stay tuned for the feature on the young lad, in say, 15 to 20 years).
While the doting parents of Hayden split time between home and the track, there’s also another fella close to the couple’s heart.
Tall, dappled and nimble footed, he simply goes by ‘Rocky’ in the barn.
Not just a racehorse, the four-legged athlete has been an important part of Burke and Clouter’s life as his racing career continued to blossom over the last racing season.
“Last year, Nigel’s main horse was Rockcrest, who won a stakes race for us. I didn’t break him, but I rode (him) before his two-year-old year when he was still a yearling. I worked really hard with that horse from the beginning. I stopped riding him into pregnancy, but to see a horse that I rode when he was a gangly chunky yearling to go on to win a stakes race - it’s pretty rewarding. You watch them blossom and you look back at pictures and think, ‘wow, he really looked like that, that’s insane.”
Yes, he’s on four legs, but as the territory goes with anyone working in racing, horses tug on the heart strings just as hard as a baby can.
Asked what she loves about Rocky, Clouter is pretty frank.
“He is kind of a pain in the butt to us a lot of the time. He’s pretty special. He is spoiled rotten and he knows it. He is such a cool guy. He just kind of hangs around the barn and walks out to the track like a snail and he’ll stand up and watch everybody. I mean I gallop him every morning and he will stand there and watch the track for hours if you let him. He is just the quietest dude. And he goes out there and does his job every time - he always puts his heart out. Last year, Nigel took his first horse out the country and went to Keeneland with him. He didn’t win but he tried his heart out and he didn’t get shown up. He’s really put a foot in the door for Nigel and it was kind of an exciting year.”
Stakes winner Rockcrest (Photo by Santino Di Paola)
As with anything, there are good and bad days to any job. Going into her fourth season as an exercise rider Clouter is keenly aware of learning to weather the highs and lows that come with working in the racing game.
“It’s a heartbreak industry. Very few people that work at the racetrack would tell you that they love it all the time. You can’t – it’s tough. It’s long hours. It can be pretty grueling. We put our heart and soul into a horse (last) year that we lost. It’s stuff like that, (that) is always tough.”
People outside the racing oval may never truly understand the ‘blood, sweat and tears’ that go into caring for a racehorse, let alone a whole barn full of them. Yet for Clouter, whose passion runs deep for the equine athletes, she is keenly aware that your heart can break one moment and yet, somehow be very full in the next.
“We had a two-year-old who I started from scratch. I completely broke him and got him going and everything. We had really high hopes for him and he was ours personally. We both thought the world of this horse and we ended up losing him in training - just a complete freak accident and we had to put him down. That was really tough because him and Rockcrest were kind of buddies. They kind of did everything together and they were both buddies in the paddock. We had high hopes for both of them and they were really special to us. So, losing him was kind of tough and seeing his buddy turn around and kick butt was pretty cool.”
That’s the thing about horse racing, it has high peaks and low valleys just like a relationship would. Meaning that your heart is just as vulnerable when you love a horse as you would a person.
“It’s not all sunshine and rainbows,” said Clouter, who continues to juggle a multitude of things - raising a nine-month old, exercising horses in preparation for the 2020 racing season and you know, just trying to enjoy life with Burke.
However, ‘it’s not all sunshine and rainbows’ is a very clear, honest and maybe Instagrammable statement that probably rings true for most horse girls way of life. More so, the words are simply part of the process of truly loving someone or something in life.
Sheer honesty, genuine lover of the sport and an even deeper love for her family, Clouter knows that despite some cloudy days, there are several rays of sunshine beaming bright in her life right now.
Her partner Nigel, who continues to work by her side. Her son, who may follow in father’s footsteps as a trainer one day, or take to the saddle like his mom. Also, that other ray of sunshine, the one that is sometimes a handful but has made the whole family very proud as he struts home under the racing lights.
No doubt, horse racing is a lot about love.
But what does love sometimes involve?
Sometimes the heart unknowingly takes a gamble in this game and it works out right.
A person that knows that all too well is Jennifer Petricca.
Several years ago while she was working for trainer Denyse McClachrie her heart took that gamble. It was a day when jockey Gary Boulanger was scheduled to ride one of the barn’s horses.
“It was funny because we went out to dinner for the first time on a bet. He was riding one of our horses and I made a joke. ‘Well, if you win you’ve got to buy me dinner and if you lose you’ve got to buy me dinner.’ And Gary was like ‘how does that work?’ I was like, ‘if you win I got you into our barn and if you lose you messed up the chance to ride for our barn - so you owe me.’
“I just said that as a joke and a couple days go by, the horse ran, he ran fourth and Gary was like ‘I guess I owe you that dinner.’”
Gary Boulanger and Jennifer Petricca
While Petricca admits she was reluctant to go out at first, McClachrie encouraged her to go out to dinner with Boulanger.
It ended up being a gamble worth taking.
“It was just one of those things, you really didn’t expect anything and all of sudden here’s this human being that walked into my life.”
Boulanger, a multiple graded stakes winning jockey, has been riding at Woodbine for the last several years. Last year he captured the Gr. 2 Play the King stakes with Silent Poet. No stranger to the winner’s circle, the jock has secured 3,610 career wins, steadily inching closer to the 4,000 mark.
Whether it’s a stakes win or not, Petricca is proudly cheering Boulanger for every win.
However, she does admit that his win on McClachrie’s trainee Latonka in the 2017 Bull Page Stakes remains an important memory the couple can share together.
“When Gary won our first stake race as a stable on that horse, it was just the happiest day ever. It was just something we both got to share together. It wasn’t just him winning a stakes race for another trainer, it was like he won it for us and it was just such a great day.”
As many, if not all racetrackers can attest too, a career in this sport, whether you ride in the afternoons or work on the backstretch is not a typical 9 to 5 working day. If your partner works outside the oval it can sometimes be tough to understand the much-needed flexibility of someone who works in the racing industry. Moreover, working early mornings and then returning for the racing card on an afternoon (and sometimes a midweek evening) can be tough on a relationship.
Working in the same industry together Petricca and Boulanger have most definitely found their sweet spot.
“I guess it’s just because our hours are so different from normal people’s hours. Weekends are our busy days. And you know Gary’s Wednesday nights and some Wednesday nights I will have to be at the track. We aren’t neglecting one another - because I don’t work weekends and he does have to work all weekend. We basically have the same schedule. So, we are home together, and we are at work together. That kind of makes it a little bit easier, where we are not always missing each other in everyday life,” said Petricca.
A horse racing enthusiast and horse lover to the core, Petricca has been engrained in the racing industry from a very early age, thanks in large part to her mom. “My mom worked at the track, (and) she was bringing me to the racetrack since I was two weeks old.”
Racing in the bones so to speak, Petricca found herself hot walking horses at age eleven at Woodbine. She has gone on to work in various capacities, such as exercise riding, helping horses be prepped for races, as well as working as an assistant trainer. Petricca has worked for Woodbine trainers such as Denyse McClachrie, April LeBlanc and Michael McDonald. For the upcoming racing season, she plans on returning to assist with McClachrie’s barn.
While Petricca and Boulanger share a passion for the sport and the equine athletes, their household expanded not too long ago with the addition of a four-legged friend. A little black French bulldog, who goes by ‘Bailey Bean’ and is a frequent face on Petricca’s social media.
Photo by April LeBlanc
“We’ve had her over a year now. She is going to be two-years-old in August and she is our little baby, she is our child. My friends have dogs and they are total dog moms. I didn’t get it at first. I was like ‘well, you know the dog is never going to sleep in the bed, the dog is going to have structure.’ No - this dog has taken over our house, our life and she is the queen and she knows it.”
While Gary and Bailey both have a tight hold on Petricca’s heart, the industry continues to as well.
What keeps drawing her back to the track every year? She offers a pretty poignant response:
“Just the horses. I think once you’re a horse person, you’re a horse person in and out.”
Insert another soon to be Instagram quote for horse lovers, everywhere.
Needless to say that Petricca knows her equine friends, those tough athletes can offer an unconditional love that is sometimes hard to find.
“You can have such a horrible day and just be crying at work for whatever reason, you are having a bad day and you just go into a stall and hug that favorite horse of yours and everything is just kind of better. All the silly quirky things they do, you just kind of forget about the bad things that are going on and just focus on ‘here’s my cute little buddy.’”
So far what have you learnt about love, horse racing and partnerships in racing?
Love is not all sunshine and rainbows. Love requires taking risks.
Also, there’s another important thing that love requires - supporting your partner in all that they do.
Sometimes your other half is an important support system or simply ‘your rock’ when you make those transitions in life. Just ask Keveh Nicholls, who last year decided to take the step back into the irons after an eight-year hiatus from race riding.
His rock is Emily Fisher.
Emily Fisher & Keveh Nicholls (Photo by Durand Studios)
“It was very good having Emily there because you know at the end of the day sometimes you need that bit of support and help. And I was glad that she was there for me and to give me that extra push. It was really good,” said Nicholls, who rode at both Woodbine and Fort Erie last season.
Fisher and Nicholls met back in 2012 when Nicholls decided to transition his career from out west to Ontario.
A horse lover herself, Fisher currently works as a vet assistant at Woodbine. Asked to describe how it feels to see Nicholls back riding as a jockey, Fisher is not short of words or praise.
“To (see him) transition back to it - it was inspirational. He always said for the last couple years ‘I’m going to ride again, I’m going to ride again.’ I said, ‘if you’re going to do it, you’re going to do it properly - I don’t’ want your health to decline.’ So, he just disciplined himself and was going to the gym, eating healthy and just cracked down. I was really impressed on how well he did with that. I know how much he loves race riding. Galloping is fun and all, but I’m sure it’s (racing) a lot more thrilling.”
Fisher enjoys watching Nicholls do what he loves, but she admits that it can be scary to watch the person participate in what some may call a high-risk sport.
“One time at Fort Erie a jock fell off coming out of the gate. At the head of the lane, at the quarter pole this loose horse came up on the outside of Kev. So it just takes that horse one jump to go on top of his horse and you know something happens right. So that’s kind of in your mind at all times. But, it’s also all thrilling when he wins and see the joy in his face,” said Fisher.
Fisher also got to be part of his comeback too. “Actually, his first win on Sniper, Preston Ferris (the trainer) wasn’t there so I legged him up in the paddock. So that was exciting.”
Small moments, that happen in a blink of the eye, yet they somehow yield the big moments the couple can share together.
When it comes to a relationship, support flows two ways, not just one.
Nicholls and Fisher have been there for each other in tough times as well.
This was most certainly the case with Fisher and her heart horse, Don’s Folly. A multiple stakes winner at Woodbine, ‘Donny’ found his way to Fisher through LongRun and also via his previous trainer Ian Black after the stallion retired from racing.
Keveh, Emily and Don's Folly (Photo by Amy Bishop)
Moving onto his second career in life (i.e. enjoying life with his new family), Fisher was able to share Donny’s journey with Nicholls as well.
“Donny was special to both of us. He was by far Kev’s favorite of all my horses. He said the only one that had much use, but that’s okay. When we went to the Royal the first year (in 2015) I did the flat class with Donny. And Kev is a stronger rider than I am, so he had to warm him up for me. I was like ‘I don’t know what he is going to do – you get on him. Make sure he is not too crazy’ and then he was really good. So, I was like ‘okay I guess I will get on him now,” said Fisher who is a very proud horse mom.
In 2015 and 2016, Don’s Folly claimed the title of Thoroughbred Stallion Grand Champion at the Royal Winter Fair.
Some people will say a horse is just a horse, but for Fisher and Nicholls, they both know that Donny was much more. “He really meant a lot to us. He was part of the family,” said Nicholls of the late champ who passed away in October 2018.
“It was heartbreaking and sad when he passed. Emily couldn’t get me to go ride any of the rest, but him - I would go in a heartbeat to go ride Donny because I just loved him.”
Donny is most likely running to his heart’s content high in the sky - that is to say, when he is not looking down on Fisher tending to the needs of horses on the backstretch. Or, the champ may even be keeping watch over Nicholls as he rides down the stretch on the frontside.
Just how many furry friends do these horse lovers currently look after when they aren’t at the track?
“Technically, I only have two and then we have a pony and a mini donkey. But then my mom has one and my sister has one. So we have four in the herd, plus the two little guys. And then we have our dog too.”
It’s not hard to see (or hear in their voices) that the couple love horses and the industry they work in.
Nicholls will bring his tack back to Woodbine this year, while Fisher will be back assisting with the vets.
The Bajan jockey offers a very straightforward answer when asked about what keeps drawing him back to the Ontario oval.
“I must say it’s the horses at the end of the day. I love it. I love this sport. Nothing better than actually being in the sport and actually riding in the races. Galloping was good. I mean I love riding and that’s what made me transition to come back to (race riding). It was always my dream to ride here at Woodbine and I tried to make it happen and it did.”
Fisher, who will be back working with the vet echoes those sentiments.
“Like Kev said, it’s the horses.”
Over the last several years Fisher has worked as an exercise rider for various trainers on the backstretch before transitioning to a role with the vets. Day in and day out, she has seen the hard work that goes into getting these athletes to the track on race days. She has also seen the hustle of big-hearted horses when they sprint home towards that finish line.
“They don’t have to go out there and do this. Yes, they are bred for it but as we know they don’t always do that. But the horses that want to go out there and run – like the hard knocking horses. The Occasional View’s, the Pink Lloyd’s – that’s pretty much what I would say – it’s those horses. They give us their all and they don’t have to, but they try. And the care that goes into it. Everybody wants to rag on racing, but those horses are truly loved and taken care of to the best of anybody’s ability. That’s why I really enjoy working for the vets because now I get to go above and beyond with helping these horses do what they love.”