Written by: Hayley Morrison
There’s not much owner, trainer, breeder and training centre operator Paul Buttigieg doesn’t do and do well.
The bright purple sign of Buttigieg’s Training Centre appears just as the GPS cuts in: “you will need to park and now walk to the destination.” Disobeying the command and instead of pulling into the driveway, you take note of several paddocks filled with dozens of thoroughbreds basking in the warmth of the fresh fall air.
At the top of the laneway, a silhouette of a man in a golf cart suddenly appears. Sitting with ease, Paul Buttigieg is dressed in a beige sweater and blue jeans. A small curve of a smile appears on his face as he starts up the cart and begins a tour of his farm in Egbert, ON.
The racehorse owner, trainer and breeder has been working in the thoroughbred industry for over four decades.
“I galloped horses for about 40 years. I was an assistant trainer to Glenn Magnusson and then I started training on my own,” he said.
In the mid-‘80s Buttigieg bought the 100-acre farm in Egbert and began his breeding business not long after.
At this September’s Canadian Thoroughbred Horse Sale (CTHS), Buttigieg had over a dozen yearlings up for grabs. His top seller was a chestnut filly by Giant Gizmo, a sire that has produced the likes of graded stakes winners Brooklynsway and this year’s Prince of Wales winner Amis Gizmo. Buttigieg’s filly sold for $70,000 to local Woodbine trainer Michael De Paulo.
Currently, Buttigieg has about 41 broodmares on the farm.
“We bred to Giant Gizmo — I breed to pretty much everybody. I breed two here, five there, three here, everywhere. Giant Gizmo we bred quite a few to, Old Forester, we bred quite a few to, but we went all over.”
Leery about the future of Ontario’s breeding industry in view of cutbacks to the Ontario Sire program, Buttigieg has already begun culling his group of broodmares.
“If the program does not improve I will be cutting way back on broodmares. I got rid of 12 mares over the last three months. And, I will cut down to eight to 10 if the program does not improve.”
Other breeders are following suit and dispersing their broodmare stock through sales such as the CTHS mixed winter sale. At this year’s sale, you will find broodmare listings from several different breeding operations including Clayborn Farm, Shannondoe Farm and Hill ‘n’ Dale.
Despite the uneasy outlook on the breeding situation, Buttigieg is able to generate revenue from other sources on the farm, including boarding horses for Woodbine trainers. “My main one is Bobby Tiller. He has been with me since I’ve been here. I’ve got Mike De Paulo, John Charalambous and Nick Gonzalez.”
Additionally, Buttigieg has had a successful year at Woodbine with Thor’s Rocket, a horse he bred, trains and co-owns with Gus Vlahos. The three-year-old son of Old Forester won the $125,000 Vice Regent Stakes back in October. The seasoned horseman has about 25 to 30 horses in training at Woodbine and watches his horses work every morning. Unlike most trainers though, Buttigieg is rarely present for the afternoon card of racing.
“I enjoy racing, but I’ve got an hour drive each way and I’m at the track at four o’clock in the morning. I’m usually there until about 10 or 11 then I come home and usually watch them on TV like everybody else. Even when they are racing them, they are watching it on TV.”
Buttigieg leaves the racing side in the hands of his assistant trainer, Ricky Hayashi. “He’s been with me around 30 years, so if I don’t trust him I don’t trust anybody.”
Steering the golf cart down a dirt path past one of the barns, Buttigieg looks out into a deep field of horses. Their winter coats are slowly growing in but noticeably lightened from the sunshine, a sure sign they’ve been frolicking about free and their racing days are long gone.
“We’ve got a little bit of everything…broodmares, babies and we’ve got a few retirees.”
One of those retired racehorses is already waiting for him at the gate. Ears pricked forward, eyes fixed intently on Buttigieg, the majestic frame of Phil’s Dream greets Buttigieg and nuzzles him for treats.
The dark bay gelding is one of his biggest stars on the farm.
“We raised him, we raced him and he ended up to be a good one.”
A good one indeed, with two dozen starts to his name, Phil’s Dream banked over one million in career earnings.
In 2013, the son of famed sire Philanthropist won several stakes races at Woodbine Racetrack including the Grade 1 Nearctic Stakes and went on to claim the Sovereign Award for Champion Sprinter that same year. In the following year, he captured the New Providence and Ontario Jockey Club Stakes. Finishing his career on a high note, the gelding won his last start in the Shepperton Stakes in August 2015.
Phil’s Dream turns his attention away from Buttigieg as the steady clip clop of hooves draws closer. A trio of youngsters and riders soon make their way around the corner, a set of hopefuls that will be race bound next year.
While breeding continues to be the cornerstone of Buttigieg’s farm, he’s also built a training operation to break, school and condition thoroughbreds for their racing careers. Heading back to the golf cart, he drives over to the training track and parks at the tipping point of where the road merges into the layered dirt track.
Constructed around the heart of the weanling paddock the five-eighths of a mile track is where Buttigieg conditions his two-year-olds before they are shipped off to Woodbine.
A friendly voice greets Buttigieg as he reverses the cart back towards the lower barn.
“Trouble. I don’t know if I would drive around with him,” Rita Schnitzler laughed as Buttigieg pulls up beside her.
Schnitzler has been working for the horseman for the last eight years.
Part of the racing industry also for the last four decades, Schnitzler currently oversees both the breeding and breaking of horses on the farm.
“It’s different at every time of the season, we have a different season for everything. In the spring it’s foaling the mares, in the summer we are getting the mares pregnant and once the mares are all foaled out that’s the quiet time, that’s usually when I get a couple weeks holiday in July. After that it’s getting all the yearlings ready for the sale and then it’s breaking the yearlings when they come back from the sale and weaning the babies from their moms right at the beginning of September.”
An extensive operation, to say the least, Buttigieg currently has about 41 weanlings and 80 yearlings on the farm.
Walking into the weanling paddock, Schnitzler finds a tag from one of the young horses’ halters.
“One of his friends must have chewed it off.”
As she looks up, a small herd of inquisitive furry faces come to greet her.
“Right from birth, we start taking their temperatures. It gives you a good idea of what’s happening with them. Because you can’t always tell when they are sick until it’s too late. So we try and do their temperatures every day. Nowadays you can tell if one’s under the weather — their heads will be hanging down. But when they are young it’s hard to tell.”
A mob of gangly legs continues to descend upon Schnitzler, but she claps her hands together and taking their cue the spunky weanlings gallop off into the field.
“They are turf specialists,” Schnitzler laughed as thundering hooves begin to circle the field. “They learn to run with other horses. Some horses are scared of other horses when you are training them. When you are training a young horse you got work them with another horse beside them and that. Well, these guys are never scared of that, these guys have grown up running head to head with another horse and they enjoy running. You can protect them all you want but they need to learn to be a horse that can run in the field and enjoy running.”
Uncharacteristic of most breeders in the business, Buttigieg does have an advantage when it comes time to sell his freshman crop in the yearling sale.
“He has the option of racing them. A lot of breeders can’t do that. Whereas Paul can race them himself and he doesn’t have to sell. So if he buys them back they get broke. Sometimes he will sell them privately to other people,” Schnitzler said closing the gate behind her and heading back to meet Buttigieg at the barn.
As Woodbine’s thoroughbred meet draws to a close, Buttigieg’s barn continues to fill up with more four-legged athletes. According to Schnitzler they already have several horses coming home with injuries, ones that have had surgery, or just need the ‘lay-up’ (rest period) for the winter season.
“It’s kind of a quiet time in the winter. When they all come home in December we can turn them all out, get the stalls done, bring the next ones that gotta go out. They are rotated, we don’t leave them out most of the day. ”
Perched in his golf cart, Buttigieg watches a set of riders walk through the barn as they cool off some of his greener horses. As the daily grind continues seven days a week both at the track and on the farm, the 70-year-old horseman continues to keep himself immersed in all aspects of the business.
“I will be honest with you, I like all of it. I like the racing part, I like the breeding part and I love raising the horses. It’s just in me…don’t ask me why. It’s just something I do.”