Thunder of hooves, thrill of the win has Saskatoon trainers hooked on horse racing

The rhythmic pounding of galloping hooves, the jingling of buckles and stirrups, and the metronomic breaths of a powerful animal moving at full speed. Saskatoon trainer Chris Babiy has had a passion for the racing world since he was a boy.

Marquis Downs race track celebrates opening weekend

Jockey Neville Stephenson with horse "Street Map", known affectionately as Marty around the stables. (Alicia Bridges/CBC News)

The pounding of galloping hooves, the jingling of buckles and stirrups, and the metronomic breaths of a powerful animal moving at full speed.

These were the sounds of Chris Babiy's childhood. Now a Saskatoon race horse trainer, he still hears them every day. 

"I followed my dad to the racetrack every day in the morning and I would come watch," said Babiy at the Marquis Downs race track in Saskatoon on Thursday.

"In fact when my parents got out of it I remember riding my bike to Marquis Downs and watching the races, I loved it so much.

"I would bet, I knew how to read the program and the charts, the condition books, all that kind of stuff."

Babiy is now a Saskatoon trainer of 12 years. He wakes early — without an alarm — to get down to the track before he starts his full-time job as a sales representative at a wholesale company. Before work, he watches while jockeys exercise his eight horses at the Marquis Downs track. 

Chris Babiy feeds his horse "DJ" a peppermint the day before this year's season opener at Marquis Downs in Saskatoon. (Alicia Bridges/CBC News)

His instructions to the jockey depend on the day, and the personality of the animal. Is the horse anxious today? Is there a race coming up? Should the jockey push harder or back off?  These are all considerations for Babiy as he prepares for each race.

On Thursday, he and the other trainers were gathered at the track to prepare their horses for the first race of the local season. 

Babiy said he's been hooked on the sport ever since he started learning the ropes from his father-in-law.

You should see me in the stands, I'm running all over the place yelling 'Go Dad, go Dad!' It feels good.- Brianna Stephenson, daughter of jockey Neville Fitzroy Stephenson

In 2006 he got his first horse, and, experienced his first win. He said nothing compares to the feeling of seeing a horse he trained flash past the post ahead of the pack.

"It's very rewarding when you win, and it's tough to win, no matter where you are," he said.

"And if you have 10 losses in a row, when you hit that one win, it's like a B-12 shot, it just makes you feel so good. [You want to] do it all over again, it never gets old."

Jockey Neville Fitzroy Stephenson has already ridden about 10 horses when he joins Babiy at his section of the barn on Thursday.
Saskatoon trainers like Chris Babiy were preparing their horses last week for this year's opening weekend at Marquis Downs, with races on Friday and Saturday. (Alicia Bridges/CBC News)

Like many of the jockeys in Saskatoon, Fitzroy is originally from Jamaica. Although he has been around horses since a tender age, he said his career as a jockey started about 13 years ago.

He was introduced to the sport by relatives who owned horses. They suggested his small stature would make him well-suited to the job.

From Jamaica to Saskatoon

Stephenson was invited to ride in Saskatoon by a local trainer. He said staying fit and understanding the horses are key elements of being a successful jockey.

"You have horses that will run from the front end and some will come from off the pace, you got to figure out what type of equipment they like to run into and stuff like that," said Stephenson.

"So it's good to get onto your horses in the morning and figure them out."

Stephenson's daughter Brianna was at the race track on Thursday to watch her dad warming up the horses before opening weekend.

She said watching her father race is excitement enough without trying be a jockey herself, laughing as she explained that she is "not the horse type."
Race horse trainer Chris Babiy has four horses at Marquis Downs and four at his farm. Pictured are mare Daughter Derek and gelding Devil In My Head. (Alicia Bridges/CBC News)

"You should see me in the stands, I'm running all over the place yelling 'go Dad, go Dad!' It feels good," said Brianna.

"He always wins. You could bet a million dollars on him, and he always wins."

As Brianna chats to Babiy, his four horses lengthen their necks out of the stable doors to nuzzle his pockets for their daily peppermints.

Babiy said he tries not to play favourites with the horses but his daughters tease him about his soft spot for an eight-year-old gelding called DJ, who has big bright eyes and a soft expression.

In the opposite row of stables, trainer Colleen O'Hagan's horses are munching out of hanging hay bags.

Young trainer branches out

O'Hagan started her career working for Babiy before branching off about three years ago to start training herself.

"I was not confident at all. I think the first time I saddled a horse Chris had to come in and help me and I was very nervous and now I've settled in and it's good now," said O'Hagan.

"I'm really into the horses and the horse care and the riding. I like the racing but I think I'm just more into the horses."

She is now training 12 horses, and would like to have more. O'Hagan said most of the horses she trains become riding horses at her boarding stable after they finish racing.
Trainer Colleen O'Hagan has about 12 horses at Marquis Downs in Saskatoon. (Alicia Bridges/CBC)

O'Hagan was 18 years old when she started galloping horses at Marquis Downs.

Babiy said his daughters, aged 13 and 10, are already showing a keen interest in horses and the racing world.

They help him out at the stables and his eldest daughter reads the racing program at night.

"She'll either text me or she'll come into my room and say 'Dad! Did you know such and such horse, this [and that]," he said.

"She's definitely into the horses big time."

'Training' the next generation

As he prepared for the first race of the season last week, Babiy admitted he sometimes feels some nerves when the race gets underway.

"It's funny you have more pressure on you when you have the favourite horse in the race because everybody is kind of expecting 'oh hey you're horse is going to win,'" he said.

"[But] it's a horse race, things happen. There's no pressure if you've got a long shot it seems," he said, laughing.

The second race night of the season begins at 6:35 p.m. CST on Saturday at Marquis Downs.