Written by: Nicole Kitchener
Nicole Walker inherited the horse gene from her grandfather.
Like most horse-smitten young girls, Nicole (Nikki) Walker used to favour splashy colours such as dapple greys and palominos. But when she asked her grandpa what colour he preferred, she was surprised to hear he had a thing for plain bays.
“I never understood it as a child,” says Nicole, 24, who is a rising star on the grand prix show jumping circuit, both in Canada and internationally. Her grandpa is none other than Frank Stronach, the Austrian/Canadian founder of auto-parts giant Magna International and the Stronach Group, North America’s largest consortium of various horse racing, entertainment and pari-mutual wagering interests.
“But now, you know what I think?” says Nicole. “There’s nothing better than a plain bay. They’ve got good heads and strong bones.”
These days, Nicole is embracing her grandpa’s penchant for the coat colour. The top horses in her jumper string are all bays: the stallions Falco Van Spieveld, a 13-year-old Belgian Warmblood, and 14-year-old Westfalian Deko De Landetta Z, plus the gelding, nine-year-old Dutch Warmblood Excellent B.
Nicole certainly comes by her enthusiasm for horses naturally.
“It started with a bond between me and my grandpa. He would take me out on ponies around the farm,” says Nicole, referring to Adena Springs in Aurora, ON, one of three Stronach Group Thoroughbred breeding and training operations that also includes farms in Kentucky and Florida. Here, she recalls riding her first pony, a little bay named Gus who delivered an attitude typical of short-statured equines.
“He was definitely cheeky. He has a special place in my heart. We still have him. He lives at our farm in Ocala, living the good life.”
Nicole was around eight years old when she started riding lessons at Barb and J.T. Mitchell’s Cornerstone Farms.
“My grandpa always wanted me to do dressage because he thought it was safer. But I started jumping little cross rails and my heart was totally set on jumping.”
She competed on the Ontario Trillium and A circuits, with early triumphs in the equitation ring, including wins in both the 2010 Jump Canada Medal and the 2011 CET Medal at the Royal Winter Fair Horse Show in Toronto.
As her passion for show jumping burgeoned, Nicole began competing in Wellington, Florida, during the winters and spent summers touring the European show scene with her current trainer Irish Olympian Cian O’Conner. Now based out of Adena Springs in Aurora, she cites her most significant accomplishments to date as last year’s win aboard Falco in the $100,000 Prix de Penn National Grand Prix 3* in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, and a victory in the Under-25 Jumping National Championship at the Royal on Excellent B.
Meanwhile, Nicole isn’t the only up-and-comer in the Stronach camp who’s worth watching. The five-year-old homebred stallion Delta Prince who is – you guessed it – a bay, is set to run the $800,000 Woodbine Mile on September 15th at Toronto’s Woodbine Racetrack.
“He’s a beautiful-looking horse by Street Cry out of a mare called Delta Princess,” says Mike Doyle, Stronach’s racing manager.
Stronach’s Delta Princess, by 1992 American Horse of the Year A.P. Indy, was also dam to three-time Eclipse Award-winner, Royal Delta, who sold in a dispersal at the 2011 Keeneland November sale for $8.5 million – which, at that point, was the sale’s third highest price for a broodmare or racing prospect. She died last year at age nine due to foaling complications.
The Woodbine Mile is a one-mile grade-1 turf race for three-year-olds and up. It’s a “win and you’re in,” meaning the victor procures an automatic berth in the 2019 Breeders’ Cup, which will return for a record-breaking 10th time to the Stronach Group’s own Santa Anita Park in California.
“So, it’s an important event for a horse,” Mike says.
Trained by James A. Jerkins, Delta Prince has four wins, three seconds and two thirds in a mere nine career starts. And the stallion’s results so far this year bode well for his Woodbine Mile appearance. After a 10-month layoff, he came back June 30th to win Woodbine’s grade-2, turf race, the King Edward Stakes, in a blazing time of 1:32.45, not far off the track record of 1:31.75 set by two-time Woodbine Mile winner Wise Dan in 2013.
“He hasn’t won a grade-1 yet,” Mike says. “He was second in a grade-1 at Saratoga his last start on soft turf [in August]. It was a little bit unlucky actually not to win. The Woodbine Mile is a grade-1 and we’re hoping he’s good enough to win it.”
And while Delta Prince has been making a mark on the track with top-three placings every time he’s raced, Nicole, too, has begun establishing herself on the Thoroughbred side of things. She’s actively involved in the Stronach Group’s in-house Adena Springs Thoroughbred Retirement Program, based out of the Aurora farm, which has found quality homes for more than 100 of their ex-racehorses. She is also a member of the Kentucky-based Thoroughbred Aftercare Alliance’s board of directors.
Most significantly, Nicole now works at the Stronach Group, alongside family members including her grandpa and her mom, president and chairman, Belinda Stronach. (Nicole and her brother Frank are Belinda’s only two children from her first marriage to Donald Walker, current Magna CEO.)
Calling her duties “a mixed bag,” Nicole explains her focus right now is primarily on event management, including the Preakness Stakes, held every May at the Stronach-owned Pimlico Race Course in Baltimore, Maryland, and the Pegasus World Cup Invitational – the richest thoroughbred horse race – which is about to enter its third year in January at Florida’s Gulfstream Park.
“I love the family business and it’s nice that each family member can pull their own weight,” says Nicole. “I think definitely I’ll get more and more involved as time goes on. At my age, I feel fortunate that I’m able to see every aspect of the business and have the ability to centre toward what I like and find out what I don’t like.”
As for riding, her “big goal” is to ride for Canada. Having been short listed to the jumping team this year, chances look good for the talented rider.
And chances also look promising for Delta Prince to bring home a Woodbine Mile win next Saturday under jockey Javier Castellano who has piloted him in his last two races.
Nicole, for one, will be watching to cheer on the bay stallion she met last year in Saratoga and whose career she’s been following.
What does Mike think we can expect from the boy on race day as he vies against 20 other horses from North America, France, Great Britain, Ireland and Japan?
“It seems he likes to lay close [to the leader]. You have to hope that after being up close most of the way that they have something left.”
But Mike assures: “Just about every time he’s come with a run.”
Woodbine Mile Stats
Event: 22nd running of the Woodbine Mile, Grade 1 stakes race
When: Saturday, September 15, 2018
Horse Type: Three-year-olds and up
Woodbine Post Time: 1:05 p.m. ET
Distance: 1 mile
Track Type: Turf
Location: Woodbine Racetrack, Toronto, ON
Race Record: Wise Dan (2013) 1:31.75
Television: TSN, 4:00 p.m.
Online Betting: hpibet.com