On Friday, millions of spectators across the globe will focus their attention on the Opening Ceremonies to kick off the London 2012 Olympics.
The extravagant ceremony, arranged by film director Danny Boyle of Slumdog Millionaire fame, is set to thrill Olympic Stadium in Stratford which will be packed with 62,000 spectators, 16,000 athletes, 10,000 performers, 70 sheep, 12 horses, 10 chickens, three cows, two goats, eight geese and three dogs.
Among that array of athletes and performers will be 28-year-old Uxbridge, Ontario equestrian Jessica Phoenix, who will compete in the upcoming Olympics with her star horse, 15-year-old Exponential, once a hard-knocking claimer named War Buckaroo who raced at Woodbine and Fort Erie.
Phoenix and Exponential, a dark bay Ontario-bred son of War Deputy-Misspent Bucks, will compete as part of Canada’s eventing team, a test of smarts, stamina, courage and athleticism that includes dressage, cross country and show jumping. The duo will make their Olympic debut on the grounds of Greenwich Park in London on July 28.
Phoenix, named Equestrian of the Year by Equine Canada in January following an historic individual gold-medal finish at the 2011 Pan American Games in Mexico, visited Woodbine last fall and enjoyed a day at the track that included a visit with jockey Emma-Jayne Wilson.
“My hats off to those guys to gallop horses around the track with that many other horses,” said Phoenix. “Even just shaking Emma’s hand, you can tell she has so much strength behind her and so much power to be able to ride those horses.”
Under some urging from Wilson, Phoenix climbed aboard the Equicizer machine located in the jock’s room and tried her best to emulate the aerodynamic riding style of Woodbine’s equine pilots.
Phoenix, who maintains a tall posture unique to the eventing world, was then treated to a furious example of race-riding, complete with a whip switch from Wilson, who is approaching her 1,000th career win.
“From sitting on that Equicizer, it’s a completely different set of muscles and a different skill set from dressage,” smiled a breathless Phoenix. “The strength they require to hold that position as long as they do, it’s amazing.”
Wilson is equally amazed at the transition Phoenix has engineered in War Buckaroo, taking the thoroughbred from a three-time winner in 44 starts as a racehorse to a full-fledged Olympic athlete.
“What really strikes me is the horse,” said Wilson. “We work with racehorses every single day and sometimes you have horses that don’t want to be racehorses. To see Exponential go on and compete at such a high level is so impressive. Not all athletes are sprinters, turf horses or Polytrack horses. They can go on to do different things as athletes and that’s what really strikes me about Exponential. It’s a testament to how versatile these horses can be.”
As horses circled underneath the willows in the walking ring, Phoenix noted her appreciation for the thoroughbred athletes that compete on Woodbine’s oval.
“Watching the horses walking around here, they do not have an ounce of fat on them,” whistled Phoenix. “They are complete muscle, just ripped bodies. The event horses definitely carry a bit more fat and their muscles are rounder, not as chiseled. I think because they have to do the dressage, it’s a different type of muscle that they need to have that carriage and I think they probably carry more weight on their hind legs than they would when racing.”
Phoenix notes the eventing competition provides its own unique challenges.
“The hardest part of eventing is having an extremely fit horse that can gallop for 12-minutes straight and having them be calm and quiet in the dressage ring,” explained Phoenix. “A horse that has been bold on Saturday in the cross country has to then be extremely careful and clever on Sunday to do the show jumping.”
In November, Phoenix added to her stable of off-track thoroughbreds when she adopted Down by the Docks from LongRun Thoroughbred Retirement Society. Down by the Docks, an eight-year-old Ontario-bred son of Sea Wall-Peek a Boo Ruckus, was winless in three attempts at Woodbine and was graciously donated to the LongRun program by trainer John LeBlanc, his wife Maggie and son Douglas.
Perhaps Down by the Docks will become the next Olympic athlete to have made his start at Woodbine – but that potential will only flourish with the same dedication and attention that Phoenix, who has worked with Exponential six days a week for five years in reaching their Olympic goal, has shown with her star pupil.
“He’s incredible,” said Phoenix, of Exponential. “He’s the first horse with his head out of the stall in the morning looking at you. He’s quite a showman. He loves to have people looking at him and he loves to perform.”