By Chris Lomon / @ChrisLomon
Every time he watches the horses thunder over the track, John Evans is reminded of what was missing in his life and more importantly, what he was able to find again.
He knows the drill.
Almost every Sunday before he takes his usual spot along the rail at Tomiko Training Centre, Evans, a 47-year-old father of two, has come to realize the path to the coveted “front-row spot” will be slightly delayed.
Sometimes the conversations are abbreviated. Sometimes, they are extended chats.
Interactions of any duration are the norm for the horse owner and Julia, his 11-year-old daughter, whenever they make the hour trek from their home in Innisfil, Ontario, to a Standardbred stadium of sorts in Campbellville, a sprawling spot that boasts a pristine half-mile training track, two barns and trackside cafe.
None of the exchanges are ever an inconvenience for Evans, not in the slightest. In fact, it’s welcome.
“I’m an operations guy at heart, so watching these people do what they do, strictly for the love of the industry and the animals… with all the noise going on in the world today, it’s nice to see this side of life.”
It is, in every way, his happy place. Not just his, but Julia’s too.
Being around horses has always been a source of contentment for Evans. Through the years, in good times and bad, he has always felt most at peace through any association with horses.
Watching them race as a kid. Reading stories about them. Working as a groom.
Evans eyes light up and his soft-spoken tone gives way to quite the opposite inflection when he talks horses.
“It’s always been that way,” he said. “There’s always been something about them that stirs a lot of emotions in me. It’s what ultimately made me decide to become an owner.”
The path to ownership began through a conversation with his father Brian this past June.
More precisely, it started with a father wanting to show his son a qualifying race that included the racehorse he had recently purchased part-ownership in through TheStable.ca, one of horse racing’s largest and most successful fractional ownership entities. Founded in 2015, it boasts over 700 clients in 11 countries.
Seated at Evans’ dining room table, neither man said a word as they waited for the laptop to load the qualifier, the one that showed Dontblvmejustwatch,
a two-year-old bay pacer bred in Ontario by Mark Lane and Gary Bye.
Evans liked what he saw. A lot. So much so, in fact, that he couldn’t stop thinking about it well after his father had left.
As it drew closer to midnight, he opened the laptop again. This time, however, it wasn’t to watch qualifiers.
“I placed an order for the remaining 10 shares of “Peanut,” which I quickly found out was his barn name. From that moment, things changed for me. Actually, I should step back to where my story really started.”
Photo by John Watkins
That would be over 40 years ago, the days when a Kindergarten-aged Evans would accompany his father to racetracks throughout Ontario, including Greenwood, the iconic horse racing oval that stood just north of Lake Ontario and a short drive east of downtown Toronto.
The dual-breed track, which featured both Standardbreds and Thoroughbreds, was a treasure trove, on and off the racetrack, for both father and son.
“My memories and my dad’s vary, but the point is I was bitten by the horse racing bug at a young age. It was never forgotten but simply buried under the weight of life. I remember being young, very young, and spending time at Greenwood watching some of the biggest names in the sport. My dad was involved with Project Five Stables. If his horse lost, my disappointment generally lasted a few seconds and I would go back to the coffee, beer or pop cups I had jammed together to make a ball so I could kick it against a fence waiting for the next race.
“I have such great memories of travelling to places that seemed like days to get to… Orangeville, Windsor, London, Leamington. I remember I had a groom’s license. I don't know why for sure, but it always seemed mysterious to me and almost like I was in a secret club that I should not be part of. I got to go to where they kept the horses before and after races, where I got to see figures larger then life to me. I got to see a part of racing very few others got to see and it made it personal to me. I was personally invested. Then those times where a driver would toss me the whip after a race or a set of gloves more than likely anchored something in my soul or spirit that had laid dormant.”
All of that changed last year.
Evans’ decision to join the ranks of racehorse owner brought back a myriad of memories from his childhood connection with racing.
It also made him realize how much the sport had impacted his life, and how he needed to rekindle that link to the Standardbred world.
Aside from his father, he now had someone else in his life to share it with.
“Julia instantly became invested – she had her dad and grandpa in her ear every time she turned around,” said Evans with a laugh. “We had been to races off and on over the years and she enjoyed it, maybe actually loved it, but I missed it because I had the weight of every day life lifted for a moment. I’d unknowingly slipped back to a part of my life that was more important to me then I may have ever remembered. I had taken a small amount of interest in the sport again.”
Photo by John Watkins
An interest that has since grown exponentially.
Currently, Evans owns 469 shares in 37 horses.
“I got to see how hard everyone at TheStable works, how much they take what they do seriously, respectfully and refreshingly, with ethics.”
For Anthony MacDonald, President and co-founder (along with his wife, Amy) of TheStable.ca, having John and Julia along for the ride has been both gratifying and eye opening.
“Rarely in this day and age do you get to share a hobby or activity with your family that has something for all of them,” he started. “I'll admit, I had no idea of the scope of what of our barn meant to many of our clients until I got to interact closely with them as we grew. People like John and Julia truly love the horses and want to see them grow as athletes and succeed on the track — not just for a simple financial gain, but for the horses themselves. John's and Julia's comments are both flattering and humbling.”
There have been highs and lows – far more of the former – throughout Evans’ time in ownership, but it hasn’t wavered his affinity for the sport or admiration for its horsepeople.
“Watching Canadian Titan and Capistrano compete in the Ontario Sires Stakes Grassroots series was phenomenal,” he said of two of his horses. “We went through the excitement of every single stakes race. I went to Hanover Raceway, and watching her race, I just fell in love with her (Capistrano). That was the first time I felt that emotional attachment. As we started going to the farm to see the horses, there was even more emotion. And Julia, she just loves to run around and ask, ‘Do we own a part of this one?’”
It’s difficult to discern who has more passion for the ownership game, father or daughter.
Consider it a dead-heat.
“I don’t know it happened, but whenever a ‘Stable’ horse was racing, we’d watch it on our laptop,” noted Evans. “And we also bought HPItv (Canada’s national horse racing channel) for that same reason – watching them live. We’d be out grocery shopping and Julia and I would huddle around my phone to watch. Whether it was our horse or not, it was just the excitement of being part of this community.”
Photo by John Watkins
“The best part is being able to watch your horse race and to get a picture with it,” added Julia. “Or going to the farm and being able to just touch any horse and be around them.”
On a recent family trip to Mexico, time spent watching horse racing rivaled time spent on the beach and in the pool.
“We had five horses go one night and I went on Twitter and asked, ‘How am I going to do this?’ People just told me to do it. I knew I was going to, but it was going to be hard that two of us were going to watch and six weren’t. We got a laptop set up by the pool and watched the races.”
Christmas dinner was no different.
This time, however, Julia managed to grab a majority of the people’s attention.
“We ended up watching some past races, which gave Julia a chance to show people her horses. Everyone could tell how happy she was to share all of that with them. It had everyone smiling.”
Evans isn’t interested in acting as a spokesperson for TheStable.ca, the same way he isn’t intent on convincing people to consider racehorse ownership.
Instead, he’s simply grateful to have rediscovered a long-lost connection with horses.
“Shortly before our Christmas Open House on December 15, the staff arrived to the barn one Monday morning to find professionally made stall signs for each horse,” said Kelly Spencer, Director of Business Development with TheStable.ca. “He also purchased folding lawn chairs with TheStable.ca logo on them for the caretakers to take to the track with them.”
Just a small token of gratitude, explained Evans.
“Julia and I would go to the races and we’d see someone we knew through ownership. Julia would see how hard the grooms work. I remember her saying, ‘They stand up for so long. Maybe we should buy them lawn chairs?’ So, that’s what we did. We went out and bought a bunch of lawn chairs. It shows how much this adventure means to her and what the people mean to us.”
The number of people across Ontario racetracks that know father and daughter by name continues to grow.
Photo by John Evans
“Everyone’s willingness to talk to us, to say hello, to have a conversation – that’s been something we’ve really noticed,” said Evans. “The industry as a whole – I could name so many people – here they are, recognizing an 11-year-old girl’s love for horses, and they take time to speak with her. And that’s a big smile on her face and on mine. That goes for people at the racetrack. They’ll see us there and say hello, and talk to Julia. It’s refreshing to have that connection.”
It was something he recalled on a snowy Sunday in January when he pulled in to Tomiko.
His spot at the rail was waiting, but it would take some time for him to get there.
After all, there were conversations to have, horse talk and all.
“This sport, and ownership, it’s grand. When you are the racetrack or training centre, no one ever asks you if own 98 shares or one share, everyone is treated the same. Julia and I try every weekend to hit the farm to look at, feed and pat all the horses. She loves it and it has had a very positive impact on her life.
“Bottom line, everyone has to spend money on entertainment. For the cost of one night at a hotel, you can have a share in a horse that you can watch live at the track or on the web and get to visit weekly. You’re a horse owner… and that makes you part of an amazing community.”
Photo by John Watkins
What was once missing in his life, that meaningful connection beyond the ones with family and friends, has now been found.
By his own admission, Evans has never been a man of many words. But not when it comes to his horses or fellow horse owners.
“Maybe it’s the mixed-up jumble we’re all in when it comes to everyday life. It’s not to forget everything else, but perhaps all of this is a nice distraction from all that’s going on in the world. I’m beyond grateful for that.”
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