OTTB: Down by the Docks

Jessica Phoenix is aiming Down by the Docks for Toronto’s Pan Am Games.

Thumbnail for OTTB: Down by the Docks

By: Jennifer Morrison |

Down by the Docks was not really interested in being a racehorse. The tall, chocolate coloured gelding had all the tools to be a competitor: pedigree, a long, smooth stride and a good trainer. But after three races, and three last-place finishes, it was evident to John LeBlanc Jr. that “James” was not going to have a future on the track.

“He was a beautiful moving horse,” said LeBlanc, whose wife Maggie bred the son of Sea Wall from the mare Peek a Boo Ruckus, a daughter of Bold Ruckus. “He was sweet and nothing bothered him.”

The LeBlancs, who have a successful racing, training and breeding operation near Alliston, ON, are active in racehorse retirement with a collection of their own former racehorses in their paddocks. They also have donated and placed dozens of other former runners and Down by the Docks was promptly retired from the track to await a new home.

“We waited about three years to find the perfect home for him,” said LeBlanc, who said a struggling Ontario industry in recent years meant the demand for horses was low.

In the fall of 2011, the Leblancs were visited by Olympian and Pan Am Games gold medalist Jessica Phoenix, who had heard there was a horse “she must see” through LongRun Thoroughbred Retirement Society, based out of Woodbine Racetrack.

“One of my clients, Mark Greenwood, told me that LongRun had horses for adoption,” said Phoenix, who has ridden ex-racehorses in the Olympics, Pan-Am Games and World Equestrian Games. “I went to the LeBlanc’s farm and from the moment I saw (James), I knew he was an incredible athlete.”

In less than three months, the gelding, now named Exultation, was competing in his first shows and learning the moves for three-day eventing, made up of show jumping, cross-country and dressage.

This summer, Exultation has a good chance to be representing Canada in the Pan Am Games that will take place in Toronto.

“[Thoroughbreds] come out of their previous career with huge stamina, they know how to gallop and they have endurance,” said Phoenix, who operates Phoenix Equestrian in Oshawa, ON.

Phoenix said the show jumping and cross-country events come naturally to most retired thoroughbreds and that 90 per cent of re-training involves dressage.

“It is the first class of three-day eventing at the Pan Am Games and is about being pretty and accurate and looking fancy in a little, white arena,” said Phoenix. “It is the hardest event to train a thoroughbred for.

“The cross country event, that is where they are in their element. They get to full out gallop over obstacles, up and down banks and over water. It is the best event for a thoroughbred. The show jumping class is about accuracy, being collected and controlled so that would be the second thing we have to train them a bit harder for.”

Phoenix has already had a lot of success with former racehorses; the late Exploring (Digby) was a member of the silver medal team at the 2007 Pan Am Games in Brazil and Exponential (raced as War Buckaroo) is still a top-rung competitor on the Phoenix team.

“They are 110 per cent heart,” said Phoenix, who is 31 and expecting her second child. “They are incredible, unique animals, if you are willing to take the time and work with them they can do anything.”

Phoenix has often said that she would not have the successful career and business she has now (there are over 30 horses on the Phoenix team, half of which are thoroughbreds) had it not been for adopting retired racehorses.

“They gave me a real opportunity to get into the sport of eventing, to compete at the highest level and be competitive without spending a lot of money.”

Exultation spent the early months of 2015 in Florida with Phoenix team members. In early February, he was scheduled to compete in the Ocala Horse Properties Winter Series as he continues his bid towards a start in the Pan Am Games.