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About Ontario Racing
Cole Bennett: Thoroughbred racing’s jack-of-all-trades
March 25, 2020
Story by Hayley Morrison
Photo by Mr. Will Wong
“I break, I train, I own, I do everything. Everything that there is in racing - I’m doing it,” said trainer Cole Bennett, who continues to wear many hats in the racing industry.
The 22-year-old native of Oak Bluff, Manitoba started training on the Ontario racing circuit about four years ago. However, his love of horses dates back to a time when his family owned a cattle farm out west. Interestingly enough, Bennett actually got his first taste of horsemanship at a cattle auction where they were selling horse stock as well.
“Me and my sister, we both wanted horses in the worst way. We had been taking riding lessons and we both wanted horses. So my parents thought it was a smart idea that we both got a yearling. I remember I bought an Appaloosa yearling and my sister bought a chestnut Quarter Horse yearling and they both turned out to be the worst yearlings ever. We could never do anything with them.”
An experience banked in his memory, but one that most certainly didn’t deter from Bennett’s love of horses. In fact, the young horseman was bitten by the racing bug when his father Glenn Bennett purchased a Thoroughbred racehorse.
“So when I was about 14 or 15 I bought a horse off of Robertino Diodoro who had horses in Winnipeg at that time. Her name was Atta’ Girl. I think she was six when we bought her,” said Bennett whose family raced the mare for about a year.
In the summer of 2015, Bennett started his training career at Assiniboia Downs in Winnipeg, Manitoba. A month into his new career, his third starter, Super Me, helped the trainer become newly acquainted with the winner’s circle. A year later, Bennett clinched the Miss Royal Gold Stakes and Jack Hardy Stakes with a chestnut mare named About a Girl. In October of that same year, the trainer ventured east to Ontario’s racing circuit.
“In 2016, I came out here in the fall just to race with plans of going back to Winnipeg to run the next year. I came out here, it was in 2016 and my mom passed away in the fall. So I had to fly home, I went to the funeral and I came back. She had been sick for many years and I just kind of had a feeling that there was no real reason for me to go back home if I wanted to continue in racing. This (Ontario) was the place to be.”
Moving provinces and starting his business at a new track wasn’t the easiest endeavour for the young trainer to undertake. Yet, somewhere either in his gut or heart, or maybe both, Bennett felt that Ontario was the place he was destined to be.
“I thought you kind of gotta do what makes you happy. Life is short. I always wanted to be at Woodbine, so I just kind of made an irrational decision right there, I said ‘I’m just going to stay.’ It didn’t matter what I had to do. I was just going to stay at Woodbine, stick it out and do what I had to do.”
Planting his feet firmly on Ontario soil, Bennett began training horses for several clients from Winnipeg. However, once they moved their stock back out west, he had to start from the ground up again.
“So when I first came out here I obviously brought horses from Winnipeg and I had my clients from Winnipeg. So they stayed here through the first fall that I was here. But they all intended to go back to Winnipeg to race. So I was fortunate enough that I had a couple horses stay here with me from my Winnipeg clients. But I ran nine starts in the spring and that was it. They took their horses and my business was kind of gone. I didn’t have any business. So I was ponying and galloping. I never had any horses. I was just trying to survive,” says Bennett.
Yes, ponying horses during Woodbine’s afternoon race card was yet another hat Bennett wore, albeit back in 2018.
Last year, he rented a farm in Shelburne and began breaking horses. Bennett admits that he didn’t necessarily think he would come back to the training game.
“I never had the intention of getting back into racing or buying horses of my own, but it just kind of came up, somebody said, ‘Hey, do you want to own half of this horse?’ and I said, ‘Sure.’ Before you know it, I had half of this one and then I bought two more and then somebody said, ‘Do you want to train two more?” So before I knew it I had six or seven horses. I just kind of thought this is what I want to do and I’m going to try it again. It just seemed to work out last year,” said Bennett who owns and operates Cole Bennett Racing Stables out of Woodbine.”
It is sometimes hard to measure success, especially when you are steadily growing your business from ground up. However, Bennett is obviously doing something right. In 2018, the trainer only had nine starts compared to 32 from last season’s racing meet.
This year, the young horseman has 22 horses in training at Woodbine. Although Bennett’s hands are pretty full, he admits there’s more horses to come.
“I’ve got about 10 more to bring in. So we are going to be between the 20 to 30 mark pretty much all year," said Bennett, who also recently acquired a new track pony named Capone. The Irish draught gelding is not hard to spot. Standing tall at 16.3, the flea-bitten grey who was once a jumper, is now trying his hand at ponying.
With a plate already very full, it’s not surprising to hear that Bennett burns the midnight oil working early mornings and long hours.
“I wake up at about quarter to three and I drive down to the track. I’m usually at the track between 4:30-5 a.m. I get done there somewhere between 1 to 2 o’clock. Then I go to the farm and start (working) at the farm. We have babies being broke and horses to bring in, feeds to mix and I usually try to be home around 7 or 8 o’clock to go to bed and do it all over again.”
While training his current stock at the track takes precedence in the morning, his livelihood also depends on some four-legged friends who live on his farm.
“I’ve got about 4 broodmares of my own. I’ve got a couple of two-year olds at the track that I’ve bred and everything,” says Bennett. To add to the mix, Bennett and a business partner are also looking into purchasing a stallion from the U.S. to bring to Ontario.
Breeding, breaking, training, galloping, ponying - you name it and Bennett has done it.
To add to his list of growing accomplishments, the trainer also visited the winner’s circle at Fort Erie and Woodbine last year with his trainees, Marcus and Hold the Applause.
Racing stats aside, Bennett knows that he must continue to navigate the ever-changing landscape of the industry.
When asked about changes he feels need to be made to support racing’s future the trainer is straightforward and candid with his two cents on the matter.
“In order for Ontario racing to survive, I think our local breeders, owners, trainers is where our focus needs to be. I think we need to focus on the people at home and growing their business. And I think ultimately that is the only way that we will have a sustainable industry here.”
Over the recent years a slew of improvements through the Thoroughbred Improvement Program (TIP) have been instituted to support horsemen in Ontario. As a component of the Ontario Horse Improvement Program, TIP offers various programs to encourage horseman to produce and race quality Ontario bred horses. If you take a look at their proposed 2019-2020 budget, TIP has outlined specific funds for various incentive programs including owner bonuses, sales credit, stallion awards as well as the thoroughbred mare purchase program. Last month, TIP also released information regarding their Breeders Awards Package for 2020-2021.
Ongoing industry support continues to be a crucial element to support the livelihood of the breeders and owners who’ve spent a better part of their years invested in the racing game.
In light of the world being turned upside down by a pandemic, horsepeople like Bennett are just taking things day by day. Although people outside the oval are on lockdown each horseman must still turn up to look after their horses and their potential racing stock for the season ahead.
Woodbine’s 2020 thoroughbred racing meet was set to begin in mid-April, however it will now be postponed until further notice. On March 23
Woodbine’s CEO Jim Lawson announced that a new date for the 2020 thoroughbred racing season would be determined once the Government of Ontario allowed non-essential businesses to re-open.
Even within a period of great uncertainty, Bennett offers up an honest and even humbling response to what draws him back to the racing oval and his ongoing commitment to his four-legged friends.
“I think anywhere where I can make a living with horses I will be happy. I’m not going to go and do a desk job. I just love horses and whether I’m breaking horses or racing horses it really doesn’t matter to me. Horses are everything to me. I started with horses and at the end of the day horses have saved my life many times. So I’m going to stick with it no matter what.”
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