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Trainers excited to be back at the track for Opening Day

Trainers excited to be back at the track for Opening Day

 

By Hayley Morrison

When horse racing returns to Fort Erie on May 28, it will be as much a family reunion as it will be the season opener for the historic border oval. 

Just ask horse trainer, Kevin Buttigieg, who can’t think of a better place to call home.

“It’s the only place I want to train at. I’ve been offered by a couple of owners that spend decent money to go to Woodbine and it’s just not my cup of tea. I grew up in Mississauga, like border line Oakville and I liked it as a kid but it’s just not for me. This kind of lifestyle is what I like to live,” said Buttigieg.

Buttigieg began training horses over two decades ago and secured his first win with his very first starter Frank’s Approval on Sept. 16, 2002. The trainer has won a handful of big races at the track including two editions of the Puss ‘n Boots Cup. He also met his wife Sarah at the track. Sitting on the picnic bench outside their barn, Sarah reflected on how happenstance is really a natural measure of life circumstances.

“If you are here enough, you find somebody,” said Sarah. She grew up in the Niagara region and back in the late 90s walked hots and groomed horses for David Schmidt and Kim Dobson before eventually learning to gallop horses on the farm and then the track.

“I ran my first horse ever for Dave Schmidt. Stop the Hammer was her name,” recalled Sarah, who is easy to spot on a race day. Walking over to the frontside with their horses, Kevin and Sarah both sport hunter green shirts, in tune with Buttigieg’s barn and brand. 

The couple will have their hands full on Opening Day, where they’ve got a horse in each of the two cup races, Ami’s Girl in the Summer Solstice Cup, and Follow Me Home in the Sprint Into Summer Cup, both of which are $30,000 races. Fort Erie opens the season with a nine-race card, all of which feature a minimum of eight horses. 

Kevin and Sarah are always on the move – whether it’s getting horses ready to work, cleaning the shed, feeding, and even tending to the fans secured above the horses’ stall to ensure they stay cool. On a few occasions, Sarah has kept cool by jumping into the infield pond as part of the tradition for winning the Puss n Boots Cup.

“I’ve done it twice now. The first time was really gross, the water was really algae and murky, I hit the bottom, and it was mud. And this time it was a lot better, it felt cleaner, it looked cleaner, and it was refreshing – that day was hot,” said Sarah, who jumped in after securing last year’s Puss n Boots with Nikolaou, and nine years prior, after Catch the Luck won the race.

A life swept up by early mornings and long hours, racetrackers lead a unique lifestyle in stark contrast to the conventional 9-to-5 work grind. Some find themselves sucked in from an early age with family connected to the sport, while others just get sucked in.

“It’s like a magnet or something,” laughed Sharon Ceccato when asked about why people keep coming back to the Fort.  

Originally from Buffalo, New York, Ceccato stepped onto Fort Erie’s backside in 1975 to walk hots.

She eventually found her way into the irons, galloping at Woodbine and race riding at several tracks in Florida and Japan before finding her way to the Fort. During her time in the saddle Ceccato recalls a special moment, exercise riding a filly named Genuine Risk who went on to win the 1980 Kentucky Derby.

“She had come into Payson Park as a youngster, and I was working for LeRoy Jolley. She was one of the least expensive babies that were bought. I got on her and a Spruce Pine filly and I got them out of the gate, and got their first works into them, and then they went down to New York, and I went back down to Hialeah (racetrack). And all sudden here she is all over the map, winner, winner,” said Ceccato, who recalls the memory with ease.

Ceccato began her training career at the Fort eight years ago. The multiple stakes placed trainer has raced horses at Fort Erie, Woodbine and several U.S. tracks with 145 wins to date. Last year, she won eighteen races at the Fort.

“Everybody is good here. Everybody is pretty happy,” said Ceccato, who lives close by to the track.

“We have our trailer at Windmill Point, so it’s like a working vacation, we enjoy it.”

 Ceccato’s daughter, Brittney Parsons epitomizes someone who sleeps, eats and lives the horse racing game. Growing up on the track with her sister Laurie, she can attest to knowing a lot of people on the track.

“Pretty much everyone on the backside has babysat me. When I walk around town people know me from babysitting me,” said Parsons, who spent her childhood on the backside in the 90s. Asked about her current job roles, Parsons recites a list, echoing the labour of love she’s been tied to since infancy. 

“Groom, pony person, exercise rider, I guess one way or another a friend - all my horses are my buddies. They are not mine, but I treat them like my own,” said Parsons.

To Parsons, Fort Erie Race Track remains a tight-knit community. “We are all in the same game and there is some fun banter that goes on but at the end of the day everyone wants the best for one another,” said Parsons.

Racing begins at 4:30 p.m. on May 28 for the season opener, with racing on most Mondays and Tuesday between then and the end of the season on Oct. 22.

All the usual special events are returning this year, including the popular wiener dog and basset hounds races, which are joined by the new corgi races. The track has four special Sunday cards, the first of which lands on Father’s Day. This season, all of the track’s Sunday races and special events will begin at noon.

For a full list of events and race times, visit www.forterieracing.com