When the race is over
The focus on Thoroughbreds well-being once their racing career ends has never been more intense. JO MCKINNON spoke to Fiona McIntyre, winner of the 2020 Victorian Lady of Racing Award, on her considerable success in transitioning Thoroughbreds from the track to the show ring.
It’s certainly great news that the Australian horse racing industry is now investing heavily in the development of initiatives designed to provide racehorses with pathways to a meaningful and comfortable life after their racing careers are over.
These proactive measures are also beginning to improve the negative public sentiment that had understandably built up around horse racing and the way the industry cares for its most important asset.
But well before the implementation of various Off the Track programs across Australia, the welfare of retired racehorses was a top priority for Victorian equestrian Fiona McIntyre.
For more than 25 years she’s prepared retired racehorses for the show ring. Two of her highest profile and most successful graduates, Sirmione and Precedence, both trained by the late Bart Cummings, are outstanding examples of exactly what’s possible with a little care and dedication.
Sirmione was a two-time Group 1 winner, and grand stayer Precedence competed in four Melbourne Cups and won two Moonee Valley Cups over his 69-start career.
Thinking that other horse lovers might be interested in sharing their post-racing journeys, Fiona posted regular social media updates on Sirmione and Precedence’s progress, building up a strong following in the process. And it was one of those followers that initiated the chain of events that in 2020 culminated in Fiona receiving one of racing’s greatest accolades the Victorian Lady of Racing Award.
Run by the Victorian Wakeful Club in partnership with Racing Victoria, the award celebrates women who have made an outstanding contribution to the Thoroughbred racing and breeding industries. It was lovely to have been nominated by a lady that follows me on social media. That in itself was flattering and humbling, Fiona recalls.
But being announced as the winner of the prestigious award at a gala function in Melbourne came as a total surprise to the 46-year-old. I did not expect to make the finals. When I got the call to say I had been selected as a finalist I was quite surprised. I was not expecting to have my name called out, that’s for sure, she says.
At the award ceremony Racing Victoria CEO Giles Thompson was warm in his praise: Fiona has long been an advocate for life after racing and has worked tirelessly to ensure former racehorses lead happy and healthy lives once they have left the track. We are very fortunate to have Fiona as one of the Racing Victoria acknowledged retrainers who support our Off the Track program, which aims to facilitate the placement of retired racehorses in secondary careers and drive demand for Thoroughbreds as performance and pleasure horses.
Fiona, who has ridden and competed with show horses most of her life, sources many of her prospects from racing stables. Her enthusiasm is obvious: I always enjoy taking that diamond in the rough. Transforming them and then finding them suitable homes is really satisfying.
Based on the outskirts of Geelong, Fiona has a busy life juggling her horses training with a full-time role managing an employment services business. I start the day doing horses, do my day job and come home and do horses at the other end. I am fortunate that I’m in a situation where I have facilities and can give them time, she says.
Fiona’s hard work has certainly paid off, with both Sirmione and Precedence achieving great things in the show ring.
At 16, Sirmione is now semi-retired and Fiona reflects fondly on some of their achievements together, which include Supreme Champion Led and Grand Champion Ridden Hack at the Geelong Royal Show. He also carried Fiona to qualify for her riding class at the Grand Nationals on no less than three occasions. He has always been such a reliable, consistent horse, she says.
Whilst Sirmione and Precedence might have hailed from the same stable, the horses were poles apart, presenting Fiona with two very different training propositions. They have both been really good, but I guess the biggest challenge with Sirmione was to go straight. Early on he was a crooked-going type who didn’t want to go forward whereas Precedence is quite explosive. The biggest challenge with him was his pulling, she recalls.
Precedence was notorious for pulling on the track, which made Fiona’s first ride on him interesting to say the least: I honestly thought, hell, I won’t be able to hold this horse. He was so hard in the mouth and pulled like a train. So I played with different bits until I found one he was comfortable with, and then I taught him to carry himself.
Every horse has its quirks and Fiona is largely forgiving of this but says there are fundamental qualities an Off the Track horse must possess if they are to make the grade. Their temperament is a huge thing and their trainability. You can pick up early on their attitude and ground manners, which indicate how trainable they’re going to be. In early rides you soon notice whether they have that disposition and willingness to learn new skills, she explains.
During her long career in working with horses, Fiona has been fortunate to have a number of influential mentors, but says that two of the most important are her father Ricky Bogle and John Willis. John was a breaker at Flemington and I used to work for him after school he would cart me around the country side competing. My father, Ricky, was incredibly good with horses and taught me early on the skills you need to handle them.
Horses are central to Fiona’s life and her commitment to them is certainly not waning. She is in the midst of building a new horse property on the outskirts of Geelong and is now taking on a handful of retired horses for outside clients.
Horses are so giving and forgiving to a certain point. They’re majestic animals. I see them as incredibly rewarding and loving. The relationship you can have with them is really satisfying, she says.
Fiona’s passion for Off the Track horses is palpable, as is her dedication to encouraging more and more people to give these horses a home and a useful life. It’s something I really enjoy, she says, if I can inspire one person to take on a horse, then that’s one more horse that has a life post-racing.