Steven Chircop could very well be talking about himself in the way he describes his horses.
“I have always wanted the collective identity of our horses to be grinders, competitors who go out and whether they win or lose, they gave everything they had.”
It’s no different for the trainer who oversees operations at Barn 30 on the Woodbine backstretch.
The blueprint for success, maiden claimer or graded stakes contender, has remained unchanged since Chircop launched his career in 2009.
“Preparation, at every point, is the key,” said Chircop. “I want to be able to say that we, as a team, and our horses, were 100 per cent ready to compete.”
Chircop started out in modest fashion nearly 15 years ago. His rookie campaign yielded three wins, 11 top-three finishes and just over $61,000 in earnings.
His sophomore season didn’t inspire confidence in the young conditioner.
Near the end of his second year, Chircop found himself questioning his future in the sport.
“I started my first year with one horse and ended the year with three,” Chircop recalled. “My second year, I went in having one stall with a horse that had just come off surgery. There was a point in time after that first year where I wasn’t so sure I’d make it.”
It was a combination of encouragement, family ties and fondness for the horses that kept him pushing forward.
“My uncle Joe [Chircop] supported me in so many ways,” said Chircop. “He put together a racing syndicate, who were with him for many years, and they all gave me a chance to show what I could do.”
An astute Chircop claim for the ownership group would be a game-changer for everyone involved.
“My owners had money to claim, to replace the horses we didn’t have from my previous year. I had two stalls to fill and didn't know with whom. The second horse I claimed was for $20,000, Kara's Orientation.”
The dark bay almost didn’t make it into Chircop’s barn.
“The day I claimed him, he didn't come out of the gate that well and spotted the field 20 lengths and ran second – we just got beat,” he remembered. “The stewards put up an inquiry to see if he received a fair start. If he didn't, the claim would have been void. Luckily for us, it worked out.”
The son of Orientate won six races from 30 starts and earned more than $453,000. His biggest win was a 2 ¼-length score in the 2011 running of the Grade 2 Sky Classic Stakes, contested over Woodbine’s E.P. Taylor Turf Course.
“He did so much for me as a person, as a trainer, and brought my family together. I will always feel a debt of gratitude to him. He helped put me on the map.”
Success and a sense of contentment in his career soon followed.
Chircop reached the 20-win mark for the first time in 2018 when he won 21 races. The following year, his horses made 21 trips to the winner’s circle.
After tougher campaigns in 2020 and 2021, 17 and 16 wins, respectively, he won a career-best 29 races in 2022.
Over the past several years, taking some of his horses to Penn National after the curtain closes on the Woodbine campaign in December has been a winning formula for the conditioner over the winter months.
It was no doubt a major reason behind Chircop’s 29-win campaign in 2022 and across-the-board career-best 2023 season, which so far has produced 45 wins and north of $1.3 million (U.S.) in purse earnings.
“I didn’t go into the year with any particularly special horse, one where you knew what to expect,” recalled Chircop. “My best horse was Uncle Joe and he got hurt earlier in the season. I guess when things started happening, when everything started to come together, was when I knew we had a good chance to have a career year.”
A pair of horses, one a gelding, the other a mare, come to mind.
“I started the year with average horses, ones that anybody could have claimed. We claimed Aim for the Sky the previous year for $25,000, non-winners of two, and just thought we could work with him and see what we could do. He wound up winning four allowance races in 2023. I claimed Jill for $15,000, who had barely won a non-winners of three. She went on to win two big allowance races.
“Aim for the Sky, I didn’t think he was going to be as good as he was. That was nice. Jill would be the biggest shock of them all. She just turned into an absolute beast. I have to admit that I didn’t expect that.”
A pleasant surprise like so many others for Chircop, who teamed with friend and co-owner Eric Ross to go 11-7-3 from 43 starts, along with $288,625 in purse earnings.
“There was a time this year when I could walk down the stable and everyone was first or second in their previous race. I did a good job in placing them in the right spot, but the horses did a great job in performing out there. That doesn’t always happen, but it was that type of year where every horse was running hard. There were a lot of horses who had great campaigns, including Financial Advice, who we claimed for $75,000 at Belmont. [Owner] Chris Nolan gave us the opportunity with her, and she won two of her three races for us this season. JMR Speedy Escape, a homebred who I own with JMR Racing, also won two races. Romantic Gamble, who I own with Eric Ross, one of my biggest supporters, won a nice Starter Allowance race at Aqueduct in March.
“Win or lose, you appreciate them. You appreciate their athleticism, their strength, their power, their competitiveness – they are amazing athletes. I thought I would have a good year, but this group of horses made it a special one. From start to finish, they showed up every time.”
It is anything but a one-man show in Barn 30.
Chircop, who had nearly two dozen horses stabled throughout the majority of the year on the Woodbine backstretch, was surrounded by a top-notch team.
“You begin to realize when you have 20-plus horses that you rely on so many people. I could never have done this on my own. I had some of the most dedicated people that I had ever worked with. The year we had wouldn’t have been without them. We had late nights, and they were there early in the morning. When you have a good team, you have good energy and I believe the horses feed off that.”
Just before Christmas, two of his horses, namely, Mo Tough and Lady Brew, came up with big efforts at Laurel Park.
Mo Tough, a 3-year-old daughter of Mo Town-She’sa Tough Tiger, broke her maiden.
Two races earlier at the Maryland oval, Lady Brew, a 4-year-old daughter of Point of Entry-Ginger Brew, was third in the Carousel Stakes.
“I thought from day one Lady Brew would be a great horse. She was a bit of an underachiever, but she put together a very nice, consistent season.
“I thought the races at Laurel were outstanding efforts by both,” continued Chircop. “They gave it their all.”
Just like their trainer.
As for what he will look to achieve when the 2024 Woodbine season starts up in April, Chircop, as he typically does, will work to surpass last year’s numbers.
“You always hope to be better than the year before, but with the ups and downs of racing, there are never any guarantees.”
One thing he can control, however, is the collective identity of his horses.
“I want them to be grinders who showed up every day, every race. I know last year will be tough to match, but we’re going to give it our best, that’s for sure. I think we did that in 2023.”
It was something he thought of during his most recent trip to the U.S.
“I was reflecting with my dad when I was driving down here, from where it all started to where it is now,” said Chircop, who was joined by Bailey, his beloved golden retriever, for the trek to the States. “You are so busy. You run a race and then you move on to the next. But I wanted to come here and try to keep the momentum going from Woodbine this year and into 2024.”
Over the next few weeks, when time permits, Chircop will allow himself a few moments to watch what he and his team achieved in 2023.
He will no doubt like what he sees.
“I think when I watch the replays and see everything that our group was able to do in 2023, it will make me appreciate everything, including our wonderful horses, that much more.”
Chris Lomon, Woodbine Communications / @WoodbineComms