By Keith McCalmont
October 25, 2013
“When I was little, I used to make my mom pull over at the side of Thompson Road and let me look over the fence at the racehorses on the Fort Erie backstretch,” laughs Allyson Walker as she recalls her first view of the world of horseracing.
Now, at the age of 25, she has arguably the best view in the game as the exercise rider of leggy Canadian International contender Perfect Timber, who at 17 hands high, provides Walker with a unique vantage point.
She’s not really meant to be riding horses at Woodbine in the morning. Sure, Walker put in her time walking hots and grooming horses at Fort Erie as a teenager but horse racing was supposed to be a job that paid the school bills.
“My mom wouldn’t let me gallop horses until I finished university,” says Walker. “She said it was too dangerous, but the day I graduated I took out my exercise rider’s license.”
With her degree in Sociology and Political Science from Brock University displayed proudly on her mom’s living room wall, Walker got busy with real life experience galloping horses.
Riding horses is a dangerous gig and Walker has endured her fair share of split lips, bloody noses and even a broken hand pursuing her craft, one she learned under the tutelage of her ex-boyfriend, the late Wayne Whalen.
“He was my biggest supporter and my biggest critic,” says Walker. “He didn’t want me to get started because he knew I’d love it…in the end, I just wanted to prove him wrong.”
Walker would follow Whalen, an experienced exercise rider and horseman, onto the track each morning at Fort Erie and together they would gallop horses into shape over the dirt strip as Whalen lectured.
The advice came in little snippets.
“Drop your arms. Put your hands here. Trust yourself more. Trust the horse more. Let him go,” recalls Walker.
“I used to think this kid is crazy, but to gallop well you have to lose a piece of yourself,” says Walker. “You have to lose that control because there will come a time when you’re not in control and you can’t panic.”
Most riders will admit that when your job is guiding a 1000 pound horse, often temperamental, at speeds reaching up to 40 kilometres per hour, that losing control is inevitable. It’s more a matter of when, not if.
‘Don’t stop steering’ is the mantra Walker repeats to herself at the prospect of a runaway horse. “Don’t try and stop him just steer him. If you can do that you can keep yourself, and other people, out of trouble. The horse will stop eventually.”
Walker, a quick learner, absorbed Whalen’s lessons and let go of her own fears about how she looked on a horse or, worse, falling off of one, and finally became, in her mind, a rider.
“I remember one morning at Fort Erie being up on Apres Midi, who was a closer, and Wayne was riding Southern Legend who stops at the sixteenth pole like a rock to this very day,” recalls Walker. “We breezed together and all the way through Wayne lectured me, but when we hit the sixteenth pole, his horse stopped and we were gone. He was so mad because he was the mentor.”
Whalen was a reluctant mentor, but only because he had his friend’s best interests at heart.
Walker recalls Whalen saying to her, “I never wanted you to do this, because I knew you’d be good at it and you’re never going to leave the racetrack now. You went to school and your mom is going to be so mad.”
Horse racing is a high-risk industry and in a heartbreaking turn of events this winter, news arrived from West Virginia that Whalen, just 27 years-old, had died instantly after being kicked in the head by a horse he was looking after during the offseason.
Though they had long since stopped dating, they had remained good friends and Whalen was thriving in a new relationship.
“I have emails from him where he was so happy,” says Walker. “He was working hard for his relationship and he had big plans and big dreams. He was trying to make ends meet taking care of horses but one fatal blow…”
Just for a moment, think about how much you enjoy your current job and what you would be willing to do to keep it.
Three years ago, just after the Christmas holidays, Walker was preparing to join the barn of Hall of Fame trainer Roger Attfield as an exercise rider.
Finally, all the hours she had spent at the track since the age of 15 were about to pay off when just weeks away from taking her new position, Walker, while out on a pleasure ride, fell from her horse and broke her hand.
“I didn’t want to let him loose so I got dragged, hit a tree and then a post,” says Walker.
The dream of working for Attfield was fading, so Walker, some would say bravely, made a decision to avoid a more lengthy rehab.
“I opted out of surgery. They re-broke my wrist,” says Walker. “Basically, they stood my radius up and hacked it with an axe. They split it right down the middle, and broke my ulna.”
It’s something to think about the next time a runny nose keeps you from making it into work.
Fitted with a special cast, Walker soon found herself driving stick shift to Florida and a new gig with a Hall of Famer.
“The nurse sliced a side of the cast so it was easy to break off when I needed to,” she laughs. “I took it off the day before I started work and rode in a brace for a couple weeks. I really wanted to work for Roger and he was giving me my shot.”
Pain, or rather the constant threat of pain, isn’t the only deterrent to life in the saddle.
Each day Walker commutes 150 kilometers across the QEW from Fort Erie to Woodbine to pursue her dream.
“My first alarm goes off at 3:40 a.m. and then again at 3:45 a.m. in five minute intervals until 4 a.m. when I have to be on the road,” she says. “My clothes are all laid out at night so I only have to brush my teeth and rush out the door. I get to the barn at 5:30 a.m. and our first horse is tacked up on the shed row ready to go.”
Riding horses is a physically demanding job. She’ll ride six sets each day taking each horse through a mile and a half gallop.
“We have a lot of distance horses,” says Walker. “With ‘Timber’, everything is so gradual with him. He’s so easy and so calm, but by the end of my mile and a half my feet and hands are numb and that’s when I know he’s right. I’m just trying to keep him from letting go. Every time he goes to switch leads it’s a surge of power through their body. They want you to give them the okay to go.”
Her morning ends at 10:30 a.m. by cleaning up the tack, but like many racetrack workers, Walker keeps herself busy taking on additional work in the afternoon.
Walker will often ‘offside’, the task of two workers leading a horse from the barn to the paddock on race day, the horses she gallops. She also ponies horses on post parade at Woodbine and even served a stint in the Fort Erie public relations deparment.
But, it’s riding a horse that stirs Walker.
“It’s an honour to ride these good horses each day,” she says. “The first really nice horse I got on for Roger was Simmard and I was terrified.”
The worrisome questions that Whalen diligently schooled out of Walker still pop up from time to time.
What if I screw this up? What if he’s strong? What if he runs off? What if he bucks me off?
But the threat of danger, the long hours and physical labour can’t keep Walker from making that long drive to Woodbine each morning to be legged up onto a horse.
“It’s still magical to me. It gives you goose bumps,” says Walker. “Even a cheap horse, when you know they’re at the top of their game, it makes the hair on the back of your neck stand up. Everything is right, you know where every foot is, every leg feels even and sound and they’re balanced. Every stride they build and build.”
Perfect Timber, Walker’s favourite horse and pet project for the past few years, has been perfecting his game under Attfield’s tutelage for the same length of time as his exercise rider.
“I’ve known ‘Timber’ since he was a two-year-old,” says Walker. “My first year with ‘Timber’ was his first year at the track. He was so big when he came in, my first thought was, ‘Oh my God, I’m not getting on that crazy baby!’”
‘Timber’ is a physically imposing fellow, but he doesn’t seem to know that.
“He was so dopey,” she laughs. “If he had an ounce of mean in him, he’d be dangerous but he was always a gentle giant and always a plodder. Just getting him to go, you were exhausted.”
Well bred and with a lot of talent buried within, it took Attfield some time to chisel away the rough edges as he waited for Perfect Timber to grow into his large frame.
‘Timber’ would constantly be given time off from training and then return to the track.
After going unraced as a two-year-old and then missing his three-year-old year, one had to wonder if the light would ever turn on for the dark bay son of champion Perfect Soul.
“I really noticed a difference in ‘Timber’ this winter in Florida,” says Walker. “He started getting a little cheeky and a little frisky and his works were getting better and better. He was finally getting fit and tucking up a little bit and then you could work him with anything.
“He’d keep up with anyone in the barn. He would try and he was brave and you could put him in the tightest hole in a work and he’d go through it.”
Walker recalls a moment this past winter at Payson Park in Florida when Perfect Timber finally became a racehorse while working in company with stable mates Seeking the Diamond and Good Better Best.
The work was set up with ‘Timber’ and Seeking the Diamond setting the pace into which Good Better Best, who was to race a week later at Gulfstream Park, would close.
The turf training course at Payson Park is a narrow strip. There’s no inside rail, only a ditch, so there’s no margin for error, a fact which became troublesome when horses from the barns of trainer Shug McGuaghey and Christophe Clement waded into their workout.
“Clement’s horses are out there on the outside rail and his horses are just jogging along and talking,” recalls Walker. “Shug had a few gallopers in front of us and now they’re three abreast and it’s really only a five or six abreast turf course and then you’re in the ditch.
“They could hear us coming because we’re whistling and hollering and to make matters worse, Good Better Best is catching up now from behind.”
But Walker knows that sometimes a rider has to deal with situations outside of their control.
“I’m thinking we’re not all going to fit, and just as we got past Shug’s horses, one of Clements’s horses spooked into our path,” she says. “I held my breath, steered, and somehow we got through a narrow hole and the breeze turned out wonderful.”
Walker swells with pride as she recalls Attfield's words after that breeze.
“Roger came jogging over on his pony and said, ‘I’ve got a really brave horse,’” she recalls. “He was so excited with ‘Timber’. Shortly after, Roger entered him at Gulfstream Park and he won his first race.”
On Sunday, Perfect Timber will burst from the gate in the richest race of his career thus far, the $1-millon Canadian International. In addition to some of the top turf horses from Europe and the U.S., he will have to take on his stable mate Forte Dei Marmi.
Forte Dei Marmi, a seasoned veteran at the age of seven, has defeated Perfect Timber on each of the three occasions they’ve faced each other.
Frustratingly, each week Perfect Timber and his equine mentor, Forte Dei Marmi, square off in a workout and more often than not, it’s ‘Timber’ that wins the work. But on race day, there seems to be no denying the more experienced horse.
“Every race he’s quicker in his works,” says Walker. “He comes out of each race a little bit sharper but he keeps it classy. He goes out there and he knows his job. He’s so focused.”
This private battle between student and mentor has become something of a sport for the Attfield barn, as the exercise riders will gather along the rail beside their Hall of Fame conditioner while the jockeys put the duo through their timed breeze.
“We’ll stand on the rail beside Roger and he’ll ask, ‘Who is going to win?’” says Walker. “Of course, I’ll pick the black horse (Perfect Timber) and Taffy, who gallops ‘Forte’, will say, ‘No way!’
“And Roger will say, ‘I think you’re right kiddo. I think the black horse will get him.’ More often than not ‘Timber’ wins the workout.”
Unfortunately, for ‘Timber’, he hasn’t been as successful against Forte Dei Marmi in the afternoon when there’s purse money on the line.
“He is always right there but ‘Forte’ has that turn of foot and when Eurico Da Silva gets him to turn it on, he’s gone. His little legs go so fast,” says Walker.
And yet, she remains hopeful that Sunday might finally be the day that ‘Timber’ wins in the afternoon.
“I can’t think of another horse I’ve been around that’s had this much success in his first year of running,” says Walker. “It would be too perfect if ‘Timber’ won it and I want to see ‘Timber’ win, but at the same time I want what is good for the barn. And if they run one-two, either order, I certainly won’t complain.”
Walker has come a long way from when she was just a little girl peering over the fence at Fort Erie and her life is taking her further and further away from her conventional education.
“Roger asked me to get my assistant trainer’s license this year, which I got, and hopefully this winter I’ll learn more from him,” she says.
She’s well aware that the hours are only going to get longer and she doesn’t mind.
“It’s a lifestyle. It’s not a hobby, it’s a passion. You have to be committed 100 percent,” she says. “These horses are athletes and as much as I fall in love with them and want them to be a pet that’s not their purpose. They’re athletes.”
In her tenth year at the track, Walker continues to thrive and Whalen was right - - she’s probably never going to leave the racetrack. But, maybe that’s not such a bad thing after all.