For being only 14 years old, Slickster has had a lot of careers – racehorse, track pony and an ambassador for the Thoroughbred breed. For the majority of it, Slick, as he’s known, has been right alongside his owner Justine Bourque.
Justine, now 27, met Slickster in 2012 when she was grooming at Vancouver’s Hastings Racecourse for trainer Pat Jarvis. She’d had an early start in the world of Thoroughbred racing, first as a hotwalker at Woodbine Racetrack in Ontario at age 12 (with permission from her parents) and then as a full-time groom after high school. Although she’d dealt with many horses and “loved them all,” Justine said there was “something different” about Slickster.
“Maybe it was his laidback ‘I’m a cool dude’ attitude or how he always nickered at me when I walked up the shedrow first thing in the morning, but I just knew from the beginning that I wanted to take this big 17hh chestnut gelding home.
“Slick helped me get through some tough times missing my friends and family back home,” Justine said. “Even though I did bring Melony, my lifelong pony, along to B.C. with me, she was [far] away and I couldn’t get out to her as much as I liked. So, I leaned on Slickster for comfort.”
Slickster was retired in 2013 following a tear in his right front tendon. Knowing how much Justine loved the horse, trainer Pat asked owner Dale Keen if she could have him. He said yes. And after three months of stall rest and a year off, Justine had just started Slickster back to work when she decided to move home to Ontario. She sent both Melony and Slickster on a few months ahead of her.
“The running joke is, I went out to B.C. with one horse and came back with two.”
Returning to Woodbine, Justine ran horses for trainer Stuart Simon and ponied races some afternoons. Pony riders usher often-excitable racehorses, with or without jockeys aboard, from backstretch to track and vice versa for races or training. They can also accompany the horses during workouts.
Justine’s busy schedule meant she didn’t have much time to spend with Slickster, so she thought she’d teach him to pony. They both accustomed themselves to western tack, which pony riders usually use for security and comfort, and she taught Slickster how to neck rein. She then started ponying her mother Debbie’s OTTB off of him. “It didn’t seem to bother him one bit.”
Next, Slickster received some on-the-job training at Woodbine. Justine said the gate was a bit confusing to him at first because he didn’t know why he wasn’t being loaded into it, but otherwise, he took to ponying like a champ, and, in 2016 started his new career. “I got to ride him every morning, which was a dream to have my own horse at the track to help me do my job,” she said.
Unfortunately, a pulled shoulder brought on a second retirement for Slickster. But that didn’t slow the duo down for long. After a month’s rest they were back riding and have since tackled a number of activities including trail riding, camping, extreme cowboying and, most recently, jumping. He might also be considered as somewhat of an equine influencer. Through Justine, he is very active on social media and has represented his breed at events like the Can-Am All Breeds Equine Expo.
“Slick is a perfect candidate to be a Thoroughbred ambassador. He is so versatile, you can do anything with him, and he just goes with the flow,” said Justine, who left the track and is now employed in the film industry. In the long run, Justine said she would like to launch a not-for-profit organization to restart retired racehorses, help them find homes and promote the breed.
“I’ve worked so long with Thoroughbreds and they have given me so much after all these years. Now is my time to finally help give back. I find there is such a misunderstanding of this breed. They normally get labelled as high-strung or hot horses, which, I believe, isn’t valid. They’re smart and willing. All they want is a job to make you happy.”
In the meantime, Justine said she will continue to try different things with Slickster including going on their first hunt and teaching him to drive.
“I couldn’t ask for a better horse. I trust him with my life. He’s had my back more than once. He’s such a sweet, kind, loving soul. He’s every reason I love horse racing and Thoroughbreds.”