By: Susan Stafford-Pooley
Ashlee Brnjas started riding hunters but now she trains world-class racehorses like Johnny Bear who is vying for his third G1 victory in the 2018 Pattison Canadian International.
When the gates spring open for the $800,000 Pattison Canadian International at Woodbine Racetrack on Saturday, Oct. 13th, you can bet the hometown connections of Johnny Bear will be cheering the loudest. Trained by Woodbine-based Ashlee Brnjas, “JB” will be part of the star-studded international field of some of the finest three-year-olds-and-upwards on the planet, offering a juicy $480,000 to the winner.
JB, a now seven-year-old chestnut gelding, was a relative late-bloomer who did not win his first race until December of his three-year-old season and finally saw his career really take off as a six-year-old. He was bred in Ontario by Tall Oaks Farm and was purchased as a yearling in 2012 by John Brnjas’s (Ashlee’s father) Colebrook Farms and Danny Dion’s Bear Stables Ltd.
An active competitor in the hunter/jumper world, Ashlee had fairly recently stepped into her new role in the thoroughbred racing realm at the time of JB’s purchase.
She recalls her competition days. “I started out riding in the Trillium circuit doing the local shows when I was eight or nine at what was Eglinton Equestrian back then. I had a wonderful pony named Snuffy; he was a birthday gift from my Dad. As I got a bit older, my Dad decided I should make the move to the A circuit and we purchased China Doll, a beautiful large pony. At that point the decision was made to move me to Looking Back Farm to train with Dave and Sandy Ballard; they were wonderful. I grew up with Erynn Ballard (she was one of my bridesmaids) and I rode with the Ballards for years doing mostly hunters and equitation.
“I moved to Kim Kirton’s, where I did hunters, equitation, and jumpers. I was fortunate to ride talented horses and learn from talented riders. I rode with Tim Grubb for a few seasons and learned a lot from him. Once Erynn was training, I moved to her and had success in the hunters and high amateurs.”
Her life with horses took a brief hiatus, and then a major shift, in her mid-twenties. “Moving forward in the equestrian world would be too expensive to proceed, so I left the horse business. I worked in the event planning industry for a few years, but finally realized I missed the horses so much I would like to learn about the thoroughbred industry. I had always been around the racehorses, but not on a professional level.”
Her father started her out as a hot-walker, but “that did not last long. I was at the track for about a month and was given the outfit to train. At that time I had thirty-two at Woodbine, and Tommy Bowden was running the training center, a lifeline at that point. I was very green and new to the industry. It was literally birth by fire; my Dad said, ‘Here is a stable; figure it out.’”
Now 36, Brnjas says, “I miss the show horses all the time, but there is a satisfaction in winning for my Dad. I am the trainer, but he is the breeder. It’s pretty special to win a race where he bred the horse and I trained it. He is very knowledgeable with the breeding and pairing all the mares with the current stallions he stands at our farm. He is a huge promoter of the Ontario Sired Breeding Program, so it’s so nice to win on home turf.” Colebrook Farm currently stands 10 stallions at the 300-acre facility in Uxbridge, ON.
Ironically, Brnjas was not even present for one of her career highlights to date ‒ her first stakes victory in 2011 ‒ but had a good excuse to be elsewhere. “Winning a stake race with homebred Reconnect on my wedding day was one of the best days of my life!” she remarks, having been informed by her bridesmaids that the 70-1 longshot filly had won the La Prevoyante Stakes.
With 40 career starts resulting in eight wins totalling $689,265 in purses to date, “Johnny Bear is a horse of a lifetime for me,” says Brnjas of her current celebrity charge. “My Dad and his partner, Bear (Danny Dion) purchased the horse as a yearling and I was privileged to be able to train him. I was honoured and petrified all at the same time! He took a while to develop, but his breeding indicated that. Once he figured it out, it was a sigh of relief. My Dad and Bear have devoted so much to the sport, it is so nice to have a talented horse to run in big races for the connections. It’s not often trainers have the opportunity to have a horse run in two Grade 1 races [Northern Dancer Stakes in 2017 and 2018], let alone win, with the same jockey no less. Luis [Contreras] has been a good luck charm for our outfit and has stuck with JB through his maturing years.”
She describes JB’s chill personality, with a nod to the team who helps keep him that way. “He is laid back, friendly, kind, and easy to train. His rider, Nick, has been a huge part of training him. He knows him inside and out. His groom, Pablo, has always taken care of him like he was one of his kids. I am very fortunate to have a wonderful crew.” And a good crew is critical, as she and her father have about 45 stalls at Woodbine, and nearly 100 horses in training between the veterans and the youngsters.
She admits the Pattison will not be a walk in the park. “The International will be a very tough race. I will be humbled to run against such talented horses and trainers. We are all just praying that the weather is on our side. [JB] is not a fan of the soft turf, so fingers crossed at this point.”
Brnjas still has a keen interest in the horse show world, especially seeing some of her own graduates pick up new jobs outside of racing. “It’s nice to see so many of our horses move on from their racing careers to other disciplines. We have had many racehorses transition to hunters, jumpers, dressage, and three-day eventers. It’s always fun seeing them in their new lives after their racing days are over.”
Date: Saturday October 13, 2018
The Race: 1 ½ mile turf race for $800,000 was inaugurated in 1938 and is contested over Woodbine’s world-renowned E.P. Taylor Turf Course.
Where: Woodbine Racetrack, 555 Rexdale Boulevard, Toronto, ON, M9W
Self-parking is free – Valet parking available
Online Betting: HPIbet.com