TORONTO, July 5 - “Usually the first question is, ‘when did you get a pony?’” trainer Kelly Callaghan said with a laugh.
No, that light framed, loudly coloured horse turning heads on the backstretch at Woodbine is not a pony, but a 2-year-old Thoroughbred racehorse named Starresha. When she makes her debut in Saturday’s second race, she’ll have a B. under her name in the program denoting she is registered as a bay with the Jockey Club. But to find her in the paddock you’ll simply need to look for the one horse that appears to have ran through a river of white paint.
[Click the 'WATCH VIDEO' button on the right-hand side of the page to see video of Starresha from earlier this Spring]
Bred by Deb Holmes in British Columbia, Starresha gets her unique colouring from a mutated gene passed down through the family of her dam Painting Shadows. This genetic anomaly occurs at random in Thoroughbred bloodlines, but once present can be passed down from generation to generation. In 1989 a filly was born to seemingly plain parents – the filly came out white with a few scattered patches of chestnut hairs. Named Not Quite White, she passed on the mutated gene to her offspring, including popular stallion Airdrie Apache, the sire of Painting Shadows. While Airdrie Apache was mostly chestnut, the unusual white spotting along his barrel and rump were strong signs that he was affected by the Dominant White (also referred to as white spotting) gene, and as he passed it on to his progeny it showed itself to many different degrees – from an almost completely white son named Arctic White, to Painting Shadows who exhibits a pinto colouring of white spattering on a black body.
Starresha as a foal with her mum... (Deb Holmes Photo)
By the bay stallion Second in Command, Starresha shows the characteristics of a bay horse when you look closely. She has brown ears, similar to a “medicine hat” marking, with brown spotting over her barrel and rump that is reminiscent of her damsire, but boasts a (mostly) black mane and tail. The white spotting gene has removed over 50% of the colour from her coat, with the starkest areas of white being her legs and face. Spotting along the sides of her head darken even further around her eyes, giving her protection from the dangers of sun damage and cancer that threatens horses with little to no pigmentation around their eyes. Mottled brown and white spots cover her neck and torso, becoming larger over her back and hip, ending in a tail comprised of brown, black, and white. She is a horse of a different colour, to put it mildly.
“I get a lot of questions, and I’ve actually learned quite a bit,” said Callaghan. “You get a lot of attention. Most people love her and want to see her run. It’s nice because the attention is good for the game. She knows to stop for photos and how to pose. She thinks she’s something.”
There are over 20 unique mutations of the white spotting gene that have cropped up in equine bloodlines – Airdrie Apache’s family is W22. Patchen Wilkes Farm’s White Beauty, who received the gene from sire KY Colonel (W2), and the lineage of white Thoroughbreds from Japan’s Shirayukihime (W14) are a result of an individual mutation in the family. The Japanese family is likely one of the most successful to race, producing multiple stakes-winners with coats ranging from pure white like their dam to spotted white and brown like Starresha. This has raised the level of interest among fans to an even higher degree, resulting in merchandise such as hats, pens, and even spotted stuffed horse toys. Every once in a while a “plain” coloured horse will be produced from the same outcross. Starresha herself has a yearling sister that is solid brown with only a small white star on her face and little bit of white on her legs. But it is possible the yearling filly carries the same gene, and could produce white coloured foals herself.
When it came time for Starresha to get her start, she was sent to Paul Sharp’s farm for training in Florida. In January she joined Callaghan’s barn at Winding Oaks in Ocala where she breezed and began her gate training, preparing her for the move to Woodbine.
“We brought her up here and she’s been great,” said Callaghan. “We’ve never had to stop on her. I need to knock on wood, but she’s never been sick – she’s actually been quite easy. She’s not a very big filly, but she’s never put a foot wrong, she’s just done everything we’ve asked her to do like she’s already done it. When she goes to the gate she’s been perfect, when you ask her to breeze she figures it out, she goes in company or by herself. She’s very smart.”
But it was while she was in Florida that Starresha began exhibiting a ‘loud’ quirk other than her colouring.
“She’s a bit of a talker,” said Callaghan. “You can’t walk into the barn without her saying hello or greeting you. She used to scream all the time, yelling at her friends when they came in and out, but with the consistent training I think she’s matured a bit. But you can’t sneak into the barn. If I forget something and the barn is quiet and I have to go down the shed row she’s like the police, she alerts everybody. She’s not quite as loud anymore, but she definitely gives you a little call. I feel like I know her communication. From her ‘hello’ when you walk in, to yelling at her friend, to ‘you need to feed me now’ – she has different nickers for all those, which is pretty funny. She’s very intelligent. She looks different, and she acts different.”
Her coat colour may come as a shock to people on the backstretch, who are usually quick to whip out a camera when Starresha heads out to work. With so much attention being thrown her way, the small group of stable staff put in the extra effort to make sure she is always picture ready.
“This is a big effort, believe me. We have to take her out in the morning and clean her off before she trains because everyone wants photos of her. I have a great groom Rohan Thompson. We all work together as a team. We all do everything, we pitch in and get it done.”
Starresha received her final workout on Sunday in preparation for her first race. With Simon Husbands in the irons, the filly covered four furlongs on the Tapeta in :48.40 seconds, one of her quickest works to date. Husbands is slated to ride Starresha in her debut from post six, facing five other rivals on her inside.
“Simon said she keeps getting stronger and stronger,” said Callaghan. “She is probably only 15 hands tall – I keep waiting for her to grow and fill out, but it just hasn’t happened. She is very well balanced. The first thing everyone says who gets on her is that she is just so light on her feet. She’s got a really nice stride to her. She’s very easy on herself.”
“She doesn’t want to be hustled, she doesn’t have that Second in Command speed,” Callaghan continued. “When we hustle her she just doesn’t like it, so we’ve been waiting for the six furlongs for her, and the first one just happens to be on the grass. I like the idea of on the turf we have that very long stretch. She’s always galloped out really well in her works and just keeps going. She wants to run with that bit in her mouth, she doesn’t want to be scrubbed on – she really backs off from that. She’ll run and chase horses, run at them and gallop out, and I’m happy to let her do that.”
Saturday, all eyes at Woodbine will be on the colourful talking filly to see how she responds.