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The Hope Horses Bring

Story by Chris Lomon / @ChrisLomon
 
Photos by John Watkins
 
Emily Leak takes a few steps outside of the barn before she stops, turns around and then, just like she always has, heads back to the horses.
 
“I’m usually done around two in the afternoon, but I head home a little later than that,” started the 26-year-old standardbred caretaker. “Even if the work is done, I want to spend as much time with the horses as I can. I might even dawdle a bit just so I can be with them a little longer.”
 
It’s a connection that goes back as far as she can remember.
 
“Horses have kept me levelheaded my whole life,” said Leak. “I can’t even express to anyone what they have meant to me. When I was young, I was that girl who only took out horse books at the library. Any project I had to do at school… it was about horses. It’s all I’ve ever known.”
 
Growing up on a horse farm in Langley, a city of over 140,000 people that lies east of Surrey and about a half hour’s drive from Vancouver, Leak’s association with the equine world began at a young age.
 
The love of horses is in her DNA. Her father, Paul Megens, and grandfather, Bill Megens, are both accomplished standardbred horsemen.
 
“When I was 14, I would start going to the racetrack on weekends because there were family friends of ours racing. I did rodeo, competitively, until I was 19, but I realized I could make more money working at the racetrack. My first job at the racetrack was at Fraser Downs (British Columbia) with Al Anderson when I was 16. He passed away and then Ty O’Neill took over the stable and I worked for him.”



Two years later, at the age of 18, Leak travelled east, a fact-finding mission of sorts, to explore and learn more about the Ontario horse racing scene.
 
It would be the start of a journey of self-discovery, creating a series of twist and turns that would include heading home to British Columbia, trying her hand at different careers, returning to the rodeo and barrel racing worlds, and putting in a few hours at Fraser Downs.
 
“I originally came out to Ontario to explore what horse racing was like, but I was torn between rodeo and horse racing. It was horse racing that has always stuck with me. There were a few times I went away from it… it’s just so hard to get away from. I tried welding as a job for a few months and came back, and then I left for almost a year. I would paddock on weekends, but I missed it. I was a mortgage broker’s assistant for a while, but I always ended up at the racetrack. I really loved horse racing in Ontario and it ended up drawing me back.”
 
It was a year ago when Leak and her boyfriend Preston Shaw, a farrier by trade, made the decision to come back to Ontario. The couple ended up at Shamrock Training Centre, near Cambridge, ON, the first stop in their search for work.
 
And, as the name might suggest, luck happened to be on their side that day.
 
“Rod Boyd happened to be hiring, so I’ve kept on with him ever since,” said Leak of the trainer who has over 600 career wins, including a career-best 96 victories in 2019. “We really lucked out. He’s a great guy. Rod introduced Preston to his brother, Jeff (also a farrier), who in turn introduced Preston to a lot of people who have now become his clients for shoeing horses.”  
 
Recent times, however, haven’t been nearly as kind.
 
Leak, like thousands of horsepeople in Ontario, is contending with live horse racing in the province being put on pause in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.
 
A strain of the coronavirus, COVID-19 has spread around the world in recent months, halting sporting leagues and events across the globe.
 
Horse racing has also been affected. Signature events, including the Kentucky Derby, have been moved to later dates on the calendar. Numerous racetracks around the world have temporarily ceased live racing.
 
Woodbine Mohawk Park, home to some of the sport’s most prestigious standardbred races, halted live racing after its March 19 card.
 
When the announcement was made, a myriad of thoughts immediately came to mind for Leak. One thought, in particular, kept returning amid all of the uncertainties.
 
“I just wanted to see the horses,” she said. “The connection you make with them is something you could really never out into words. Throughout my life, the one thing that has got me through everything, good times and bad, is the horses.”
 
It’s top of mind she wakes up and readies to head off to Shamrock. And it’s her last thought before she calls it a night.


Emily Leak and Mister Of All
Photo by John Watkins

 
“I find myself taking longer around the barn. There might be less to do, but I’m definitely not in a rush to leave. We are very lucky that we get to go to the barn every day, to have that joy. Horses have kept me levelheaded my whole life. I can’t even express to anyone what the horses have meant to me.”
 
They aren’t the only ones to have had that type of impact on Leak.
 
“Your whole world gets turned upside down when you find out you’re not racing for a while. But the support is there and we all need that from one another. It’s a really uneasy time for everyone. Rod has really tried his best. He talked to his owners, who have been very supportive, and this was the way we could all stay on until we start racing again. I’m really grateful for that. We all have rent, we all have bills – it’s tough for us and for so many others during all of this. At a time like this, when I’m so far away from home and my family, the horses and the horsepeople here in Ontario have kept my head up. I’m not as scared as I thought I would be.”



It’s a comfort that brings a smile to Leak’s face each time she heads in and out of the barn.
 
And on this day, just like all the others, she’s in no hurry to leave.
 
“Horses always find a way to bring me back. I’ve never taken for granted what they have done for me, but now, during this tough time, they have never meant more to me.”


Mister Of All sets new lifetime mark
Photo by New Image Media


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AFTER THE WIRE
 
Leak won three consecutive editions of the Powder Puff (all-women’s standardbred race) event as part of Harness the Hope night Fraser Downs, an annual fundraiser for breast cancer research.
 
“The first year I did it, I was looking after a horse called K G Mattattack. I absolutely fell in love with him and the owner took recognition of that. He told me that I could buy him if I wanted to. I was about halfway done getting the money to buy him and the owner – it was around Christmas – called me and said, ‘Merry Christmas. He’s all yours.’ He’s my heart horse. I still have him and I’ve leased him out to a little girl who just loves him. He’s the coolest, classiest horse and he won that race twice for me. He did it all in those races. I can’t take any credit for it.”

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