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A story by Mr. Will Wong

A story by Mr. Will Wong

January 1, 2019
A story by Mr. Will Wong
Just three years ago, things were going rather well for Asserting Bear. The strapping bay colt with champion bloodlines was the victor of Canada's most important race for youngsters, the Coronation Futurity at Toronto's Woodbine Racetrack. The following July, he was one of the choices to win the 2014 edition of the Queen's Plate, the most historic horse race in North America. He led the entire way that day only to finish third, three lengths behind eventual heralded queen of Canadian Horse Racing, Lexie Lou. Few however could foresee what lie ahead for him.

Saturday, May 21, 2016 - I logged onto Facebook and although my eclectic inbox ranges from publicist pitches to horsepeople asking me to photograph their horses, one message stood out.

The request was urgent from one of Asserting Bear's occasional exercise riders Kelly List, who had updated me on the latest about this colt who once competed at the highest level locally. He now was racing at Presque Isle Downs in Pennsylvania with the track's least distinguished company. Money and awareness was needed to purchase him back and it was needed fast.

Just one year ago today, he was competitive at the graded stakes level locally.  Perusing his recent race record, I could see he faltered at the $15,000 claiming level at Mountaineer Park in early May as the heavy betting favourite.  

Looking-up his current owner/trainer on the Internet, I grew mortified at the search results that appeared. "Banned,” "fire,” "violation,” "investigation.” These were just some of the words that surfaced over and again. Asserting Bear no longer was competitive as a racehorse and something needed to be done soon.

He was set to race at $7,500 claiming on May 22nd. With just a day's notice prior to his next race at Presque Isle, it was an ambitious task to gather the $7,500 needed to crowd-fund a claim to bring him home. Most concerned of all was another of his regular exercise riders, Ursula Selby, who was ready to accept the responsibility of giving him a new home and being his permanent caretaker.

We tried our best but fell short.

"I remember the day he shipped in as a two-year-old, he always stuck-out,” Selby recalls. "He never showed much in the morning in his workouts, but had one of the best game-faces I'd ever seen.  You wouldn't believe you were watching the same horse in the afternoon when he actually ran. He put his heart out there every time.”

How exactly did Asserting Bear reach his rock bottom?  Standards at Woodbine Racetrack are of the highest level, being accredited by the National Thoroughbred Racing Alliance, which governs the ethical aftercare of a racehorse. Above this, Asserting Bear came from a reputed owner and trainer.  We were mystified.

We were aware of some soundness issues plaguing Asserting Bear, calling for the colt's deserved retirement, considering both his actual achievements and potential as a stallion. This however was not meant to be. Following his trail a bit closer, we see he was bought at a local sale in November for a meager $1,124. Asserting Bear had earned $461,000 in his brief career over 15 starts.

It is our understanding his previous owner, Bear Stables, thought he was being purchased at the sale for the sole purpose of breeding. When a horse is sold at an auction though, there is no guarantee where they might go next.

Quietly, what began was Asserting Bear's downward spiral. The irony despite his name being Asserting Bear, was that we had a horse silenced by a series of misfortunes.

Failing to claim Asserting Bear on May 22nd, Selby with the promise of donations from supporters and the aid of Bear Stables, reached-out to his current owner/trainer. He was unwilling to budge on a private sale at $7,500, an amount which he was willing to accept just hours prior had the colt been claimed.

In fact, the owner/trainer did the unthinkable, raising the stakes financially and emotionally for Selby in his next race June 26th where the colt would compete at almost double the previous asking price amongst tougher competition. As expected, Asserting Bear fared poorly and finished last in a field of seven. He was the casualty of an emotional ransom.

Once again, Selby failed to get her horse back.

Worries mounted as we saw no workouts from the colt in almost a month. That is until July 26th when he posted a breeze on his work tab - an indication he might be running soon.

Sunday, August 7, 2016 would be the day that Asserting Bear would race once again, this time for a reduced claiming price of $5,000 after the owner/trainer failed to obtain the inflated asking price he set back in June. Selby this time was ready.
She had boarding plans mapped-out for the colt with her friend List and was empowered with sufficient funds. Selby still had several obstacles ahead of her.  Knowing that the colt wasn't in optimal condition, would he meet the physical criteria needed to transfer ownership of the colt to her? Who would help her put in the claim seeing that she neither was an owner nor a trainer at Mountaineer Racetrack? What if others were to put in a claim on Asserting Bear?

Despite finishing next to last that day, the race was a huge victory for Selby who enlisted the help of whom she calls her "Midnight Bandits" to accomplish her mission including her partner, blacksmith Peter Carr. Paperwork from there would take almost two weeks to clear, another delay in this great test of patience.

Finally, on Thursday, August 25, 2016 in the wee hours of the morning, the colt would arrive home en route an exhausting journey from Hollywood Casino at Charles Town Races where he was held temporarily.  We had before us the "Dude" as she calls him, who once had the grandstand cheering. A fraction of his strapping self, but nonetheless him. 

"The horse community never fails to amaze me", says a relieved Selby.

While there are several heroes in Asserting Bear's story, including several generous donors and supporters, the true heroes lie here within Selby and the colt for whom she asserted herself.

Story and photos by Mr. Will Wong. 

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