Woodbine Racetrack blends love of horses with the fun of competition

Apr 22, 2022 | Headlines, News

It’s cold and still dark outside as Doug McPherson walks toward Stable One in the Woodbine Backstretch, where he’ll spend most of the day with the horses under his care.

The 26-year-old groom leaves his home in Tottenham around five in the morning for a 40-minute ride to get to Woodbine Racetrack early. He starts his working day by cleaning stalls, walking four horses currently under his care, and attending to their demands, including brushing, checking for injuries, and feeding specific diets.

He’s been doing this for the past 13 years.

The love and care he has for horses are in the details of each activity he performs, and the same can be said of all the other grooms at Woodbine, in the Highway 27 and Rexdale Boulevard area of Etobicoke.

Behind the flash of the casino and thrills of the horse races at the Grandstand, another world exists where about 1,000 horses are cared for, and pampered by, the numerous hands and trainers.

“It’s good to get the chance of doing what you love, while also making a living out of it,” McPherson said.

His father, Sandy, started working with horses in 1977 and always took Doug to horse races from a very young age.

Sandy, who is a position trainer at Woodbine, said interacting with horses is his favourite part of the job. “I usually spent around half an hour training each horse, and it is nice to see how they all have different personalities,” he said.

On any given day during the week, odds are the McPhersons will be found at Woodbine handling horses, including Maximus Momentus and Capoeira, the mare Doug got himself last fall.

For him, there are two driving forces in horse races: the love for the animals and the love of the competition. Of the 133 races in the 2022 season, there are 37 graded stakes and two $1 million classics — The Queen’s Plate and Grade 1 Ricoh Woodbine Mile — the first full slate since COVID-19.

“I think most people who do it do it because they love the horses,” he said. “But there is also the love for the competition. I was never a good athlete, so this is also my way to be competitive.”

Doug McPherson and his mare, Capoeira, at Woodbine Race. Wednesday, April 20th.

Doug McPherson and his mare, Capoeira, at Woodbine Racetrack. His days starts his workday before the sun rises. Photo credit: Barbara Patrocinio

Both seem to be priorities over any financial prospects for Woodbine’s grooms.

“Most grooms can’t afford their own horses,” Doug said. “I’m lucky to do it, but it is not affordable, especially considering that they are also expensive to keep.”

He said a “cheap” horse can be priced around $3,000 to $4,000. Some horses are valued much higher, reaching millions of dollars.

For Lisa Aitchison, trainer and former Humber College student of the Equine Studies program, it all started with a two-week work experience at Woodbine.

“I started as a walker, as everybody, then I learned to groom and to ride,” she said. “For me, the most magical moment is when…you are in tune with the horse and you have the feeling that things are coming right.

Liz Elder and Chairman Layla at the stables in Woodbine. Wednesday, April 20th.

Liz Elder and Chairman Layla at the stables in Woodbine. Photo credit: Barbara Patrocinio

“Sometimes you are just born with it. It’s a vocation,” said Aitchison, who studied in the Equine Studies program, a two-year course at North campus that ran from 1970 to 1994.

The McPhersons explained Woodbine Race was built in 1955 by E. P. Taylor, a Canadian business tycoon, philanthropist, and horse breeder, as an upgrade to another track in downtown Toronto. In the years that followed, the impact generated from Woodbine’s opening would boost the evolution and growth of the Canadian horse racing industry.

Jockeys, grooms, and trainers visibly have a love for horses, but each have very different routines.

For Liz Elder, who grew up on a farm and has always been around horses, having contact with these animals is the most important part of her role as a thoroughbred trainer.

“They have many different personalities and it is definitely interesting,” she said. “I also love winning, but the bond you have with them is something unique.”

She won the Algoma Stakes in 2010 with a horse named Secret Wish.

“It was my first stake win, which is one of the biggest races you can win at Woodbine,” Elder said.

Nicole Johnston and Musical Ride at the stables in Woodbine. Wednesday, April 20th.

Nicole Johnston and Musical Ride at the stables in Woodbine. Photo credit: Barbara Patrocinio

During the COVID-19 pandemic, Doug McPherson said the biggest downside was being unable to race.

“We make a living by providing a service, taking care of the horses, and we still need to do that even when they aren’t racing,” he said. “But it was definitely hard to stop the races, because it is part of what we love to do.”

Nicole Johnston, a groom, said she misses many of the horses she took care of after they were claimed or sold to different owners.

“It happens and it is part of the business, but I do miss them because we really create a connection and get attached,” she said. “I’m still looking for a horse that was claimed in 2005, and I never got to see him again.

“I’d love to go visit sometime,” Johnston said.

She said she was also worried about the horses’ safety during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Nobody really knows how this virus works, so I was scared for the horses, I didn’t want them to be sick,” she said.

Despite having fun and earning a living, Doug McPherson believes most people in this business do it for the love of the animals.

“If you don’t really love horses, it would be hard to convince yourself of waking up three or four in the morning to come to work,” he said. “And it is a physically demanding job, too.”