Halfway around the track, Vintage Favorite sat in dead last. With a half mile to go and a $3,800 purse up for grabs, owner and trainer Carrie Clarke Scott thought it was over.
“He can’t get away last,” she explained. “You might as well turn around and go back to the barn.”The Elmira resident felt like she was going to have a heart attack. Could this be it? Was Vinnie, a harness racing veteran at 13 years of age and just a season removed from mandatory retirement finally finished?
“I always try to watch for signs that maybe he doesn’t want to do it anymore,” Scott said. “If he doesn’t want to, than he shouldn’t. He is 13 years old, he doesn’t owe anybody anything.”
Without the sound of trailing horses, Vinnie, as he is affectionately called, normally loses interest.
“If they’re all ahead of him and he’s not in the game and there is no one behind him that he can hear, he doesn’t really want to participate,” Scott said.
But, like so many times in his career, Vinnie surprised his trainer.
The lead horse “started to quit going down the backside and kind of caused a bunch of traffic troubles,” Scott said. “That caused Vinnie to have to go three or four wide around them all… He was looking like he was going to go forward. I was surprised, but I was glad. I was hoping that maybe we could get a fifth out of the deal and it would be some pocket money or gas money even.”
By the three quarter pole Vinnie “kicked it into gear” and pushed by seven of his competitors, crossing the finish line in second place.
“It’s really something to watch when a horse goes from last to almost first like that,” Scott said, beaming with pride. “It’s the mark of a good horse.”
The $5,000-claimer at the Grand River Raceway August 1 netted Vinnie and Scott a crucial $1,000 paycheque. Housing and training race horses is increasingly expensive, especially with shrinking prize pools across the province’s racetracks that followed the Ontario Lottery and Gaming Corporation’s decision to scrap the slots at racetrack program in 2012.
The racing season is short, and the winter is long. Racehorses need to earn their keep, and Vinnie, well past the typical prime racing years, continues to produce.
His most recent performance at “The River,” the Elora track’s nickname amongst regulars, served to solidify his reputation as a special horse.
“Almost every start he pulls off something remarkable,” she said. “In this business they call it heart. They race on heart. It is amazing to watch. Every time he goes out on the track, he tries – he still loves to do it. So I’m not going to tell him he can’t. If he wasn’t sound, I wouldn’t let him do it. But he is an old warhorse, that’s for sure.”
And he has come a long way from when Scott purchased him four years ago.
“He’s been a claiming horse for most of his life,” Scott said. “I got him when he was nine and he was crippled. So we let him stand in a stall for three months.”
With a broken knee and a broken pastern, there was no guarantee Vinnie would ever race successfully again. But Scott had a feeling about him.
“He had two pretty serious injuries, especially for a horse at the age of nine,” Scott said. “But I had watched that horse race that summer and he was a beautiful, beautiful animal. He really is a stunning animal. The (kind of) horse that you dream all your life you would have. That’s what he looks like. He’s a great big horse.”
She followed his progress throughout the season, getting up close through her job in the racing barn at The River.
“He had a trainer that got down on his luck, and things weren’t going very well and it reflected in the way he was racing,” Scott said. “He wasn’t in very good shape when I got him. The injuries that he had were probably sustained years before but he never had time to heal them.”
So Scott gave him the chance to rest, and it paid off.
Vinnie quickly got up to speed, training with Scott on the half-mile jogging track at her family’s property on Reid Woods Drive in Elmira.
“I can’t really teach a horse anything, but I can allow them the time to heal, and then once you get a horse like that sound, he’ll go, because he wants to go,” she said.
In his first season with Scott, Vinnie earned $10,000 in prize money.
“He kept me that year, because that was the year I got diagnosed with multiple sclerosis,” Scott said. “He kept me; he afforded me that winter. Then the next year when he hurt himself, I kept him.”
Ever since, the two have shared a strong bond.
“He was what I needed at the time,” Scott said. “He gives me a reason to go out to the barn, and to get up and do something, because at one point, just before I was diagnosed with MS, I was pushing a wheelbarrow dragging one leg because I had horses to look after. That’s what kept me moving.”
Scott has been around racehorses all her life. Her farther, Ted Clarke, owned race horses throughout the ’70s and ’80s and now manages the Grand River Raceway. But none of the others compared to Vinnie.
“An animal like him is hard to find,” Scott said. “After he’s done, I’m not sure that I will have another (race) horse, because I think it would be a disappointment. … You would never ever want to compare your children to one another, but in horseracing, how could you not compare one horse’s abilities to another horse? They are horses and that’s what you do. It’s nice if you can love them unconditionally and pet them on the head but these horses need to make money too. But (Vinnie) does it without being asked, and that is something.”