For the Love of the Thoroughbred

For the Love of the Thoroughbred

A Life After Racing Story

TORONTO, January 26, 2023— Whether it is before the sun rises standing at the training track or watching intently from the owner’s box on race-day afternoon, Andrew and Jean Vecchiarelli’s thoughts will invariably lead them to a place beyond the finish line.

For 25 years, under the banner of Rainbow Stables, the Vecchiarellis have owned dozens of Thoroughbreds – stakes winners, allowance-level types, and blue-collar claimers.

Open-length win, top-three showing or off-the-board result – every horse is treated like a beloved family member.

“Going to see the horses in the morning, watching them train – we have been doing it for a while,” said Andrew, whose love of watching and betting on the horses led him to join the ownership ranks. “I only race in Ontario because I want to be there, to see them in the morning, to feed them carrots and mints, and watch them race.”

“We are people who love to go to the backstretch,” said Jean. “We are retired now, but even before, Andy was going almost every day. I go a few times a week to watch our horses training. We do get involved in that sense and with it, you have more of a connection and attachment to the horses.”

“They are not doing a job for you,” she continued. “You only want the best for them and that is the way it should be and needs to be.”

It is why the Vecchiarellis are steadfast in their devotion to finding suitable homes for their horses once their racing careers end.

“We don’t have a farm and we don’t ride, so when the racing chapter is over, we need to have somewhere else to place them,” said Jean. “You want to make sure they are being well looked after and have a nice life afterwards. They deserve that.”

Andy shares the same sentiment.

“We became owners because we love the horses, the sport, and the atmosphere. We want these great athletes to live happily when their racing days are over.” ​

A few years ago, they found out about Southern Belle Thoroughbreds.

The matching service pairs off-track Thoroughbreds (OTTBs) who have competed at Woodbine or Fort Erie with new career and life opportunities beyond the racetrack.

Southern Belle’s raison d'être resonated with the Vecchiarellis.

“I am so grateful for this coming along,” said Andy. “You want to be able to find a home for the horses. With Southern Belle, when a horse’s racing career is over, they find the right place for them. They do everything – the photos, the postings on social media, the paperwork – and it runs so smoothly. They have found superb homes for our horses. Everything is done so professionally.”

Established in 2017 by Katie Larsen, Southern Belle has had over 1,000 Thoroughbred success stories to speak of.

Larsen, along with Chelsea Clouter, an exercise rider at Woodbine, and Natalie Frost, who represents Southern Belle at Fort Erie, comprise the team.

“Katie and the others do such a wonderful job,” praised Jean. “They care about the welfare of the horses, which gives you that feeling of contentment. We know our horses are in good hands.”

Spanish Prince would be such an example.

The 5-year-old dark bay son of Cairo Prince went 2-2-6 from 20 career starts for Rainbow Stables.

Bred in Kentucky by Denny Andrews and Northern Dawn Stables, Spanish Prince finished second this past October at Woodbine in what was his final race.

“We are still in contact with some of the people who bought our horses,” noted Andy. “We see Spanish Prince’s continuing story by following his new owner’s posts on Instagram. We also receive greetings and photos from the owner of the first horse we sold through Southern Belle two years ago. It is wonderful to see how they are doing and how much they are cared for.”

“If anything, they are like your children,” added Jean. “In that sense, you want them to do well when they race, but most importantly, you want them to be happy.”

Soaring to new heights

It is by no means a playful pun when Holly Simkins tells you she would jump at the chance to work with Thoroughbreds.

A handful of years ago, Simkins, then an aspiring show jumper, was in the market for a horse who could help take her to the next level in a sport that had become a bigger focus in her life.

Her research eventually landed her on the website for Southern Belle Thoroughbreds.

Simkins reached out to Larsen, curious to know if there was a horse who might suit her needs.

One short conversation later, the two met up on the Woodbine backstretch.

Larsen had someone else waiting to greet Simkins that morning in November 2019, a sturdy dark bay gelding named Strut N Stomp.

“When I first met him at the track, he was so sweet,” recalled Simkins. “He was incredibly kind and that is what sold me – he had the best personality.”

Not long after the paperwork was signed, Strut N Stomp, a stakes-winning son of Strut the Stage, was in Simkins’ care.

It is a match made in horse heaven for both.

“I brought him home and he continued to blow me away over the years. He exceeded all my expectations. He took me from where we started to jumping 1.10 metres at the Silver Series and winning. He took me to the playoffs, and we finished in the top five at a Grand Prix event – just so incredible.”

Any question marks she had about Thoroughbreds excelling in the show ring were answered emphatically by Strut N Stomp.

Simkins, who resides in Bethany, Ontario, an hour’s drive northeast of Woodbine, was hooked, thanks to the Ontario-bred whose racing resume includes a victory in the 2016 running of the Halton Stakes.

She reached out to Larsen once again.

This time, she purchased Juan Pablo, a six-year-old son of Street Sense, who won four races and recorded $141,132 in purse earnings over a 41-race career.

“After my experience with Strut N Stomp, I had to get another horse from Southern Belle. I had All Better, a nice mare, for a short time. She has gone on to be an Eventer for a new owner.

“My most recent horse from Southern Belle is Juan Pablo, who I got last April. He is the kindest, quietest horse I have ever been around. He is very easy to work with, he takes everything in stride and loves jumping.

“I would love to get up to 1.20 metres or higher, maybe do some Gold shows and dabble in Eventing. So, he has a ways to go, but I’m excited to see what the future holds for him.”

Simkins has become an ardent champion of the Thoroughbred breed.

“I find the Thoroughbreds incredible. I am a huge fan. I have had a few Thoroughbreds in my life, and I adore them. They are so eager to please. Every single one I have been on, rode or bought is so incredible. They want to make you happy. They are my go-to if I am looking for a horse.”

She holds Southern Belle, whose Facebook page shares updates and photos of horses in their new callings, in the same regard.

“They are wonderful to work with. They always post wonderful information about the horses, along with photos. I am always confident that if I purchase a horse through them, the horse will be perfect for what I am looking for.”

Or, on occasion, for others.

Simkins has convinced friends to purchase horses through Southern Belle.

“I have bought three and I also helped three friends buy horses through them too. It is wonderful to see the horses have two careers and to find a new calling beyond the racetrack. To go from something as intense as racing and then move on to a second life, whether it is jumping, Western – whatever someone is looking for – I think that is wonderful that they can do that.

“Ultimately, they just truly enjoy their jobs. If you can provide them with the right environment and program, you will see how amazing and athletic they are.”

Larsen checks in often with Simkins.

“Katie will message me and ask me for updates, and I am happy to share them, to show her the progress of the horses and how happy they are. It’s nice to know she cares about their life after the racetrack.”

The ultimate win-win

Woodbine-based trainer Steven Chircop is a staunch supporter of Southern Belle.

The conditioner, who had a career-best 2023 campaign, highlighted by 45 wins and over $1.3 million in purse earnings, has provided several horses for Larsen to rehome.

Chircop, who began training in 2009, views it as a win-win for everyone involved and the industry.

“Southern Belle has become very important for numerous reasons. Sometimes it’s very hard to find homes. In some cases, it could take up to three weeks or a month. Katie, based on my experience, has found homes within an average of 2-4 days and that’s huge because the owners then turn around with the money that they sold their horse for and reinvest it back into the game.”

The multiple stakes-winning conditioner tracks his former racehorses after they move on to their post-race lives.

“Seeing them go on to excel in other disciplines is such a great feeling. Knowing that these wonderful animals are loved and cared for by others and are thriving – it’s just as good as winning a race.”

It’s music to the ears of Larsen, who worked in the financial industry for 10-plus years before changing pace.

Fittingly, it was an off-track horse named Mia Bella Amore who was the inspiration behind the creation of Southern Belle in 2017.

“I went to Fort Erie — my first time at a racetrack— and got in touch with her old trainer,” recalled Larsen, who began her equestrian career at the pony ranks before competing at the Trillium level and ‘A’ circuit in the 1.10-metre jumper division. “That sort of opened my eyes to the backstretch and how alive it is, and all the beautiful horses.

“I got my exercise rider license, started galloping and fell in love with it. This wasn’t the intent, to start rehoming racehorses – it started with one horse of a trainer who I was riding for.” 

Business at Southern Belle is booming.

In the past two years, approximately 350 horses moved on to new homes.

Southern Belle’s 2023 played out like a compelling horse race, one that started strong and ended with a well-earned and treasured triumph.

Hustled from the gate. Took control early. Pressured late. Dug in gamely.

Just like the footnotes found at the bottom of a race chart, it was, in every sense, a winning trip for Larsen et al.

Seeing those results come to fruition was no easy feat.

Not by a longshot.

“At one point, I had 11 calls in one day from people wanting to find a good home for their horses. Chelsea went and took photos of all 11 horses that same day, and we had them all rehomed within two days. That was the most we had ever done.”

Despite the hectic times, Southern Belle remains a labour of love for Larsen.

“I could never turn my back on it. If I was in another line of work, I would still do this for the rest of my life.”

A comforting thought for those like the Vecchiarellis, who know there is much to look forward to past the finish line.

Chris Lomon, Woodbine Communications / @WoodbineComms

Grace Martin
Grace Martin Communications Specialist, Woodbine Entertainment
Horse Racing - TB
About Woodbine Entertainment

Woodbine Racetrack is Canada’s home the biggest and most exciting thoroughbred races. Located in Toronto, Woodbine Racetrack typically operates thoroughbred racing from April through December. Premier races include the longest continuously ran horse race in North America, The Queen’s Plate, Breeders Cup win and you’re in races the Woodbine Mile, Summer and Natalma Stakes, along with the fan-favourite Canadian International Stakes. 

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