TORONTO, June 23, 2023 – Samantha Riosa had just one regret about her placement experience on the Woodbine backstretch.
“I wish I could have stayed on,” said Riosa, who came to the barn of trainer Rachel Halden as part of the University of Guelph’s (Ridgetown Campus) Equine Care & Management internship program. “I really wish I could have, but I had other obligations back home. But I don’t think this is the end of my relationship with Rachel and the horses.”
It’s not something she had initially thought when she first walked into Barn 9 on the Toronto oval backstretch.
Riosa was admittedly anxious when she arrived at Halden’s stable on day number one.
“I was definitely nervous that first day. I had never been to a racetrack or that type of environment before, let alone going to work for a trainer. I knew nothing about the horse racing industry. My whole life has been focused on Eventing, so the Thoroughbreds and the horse people were all very much new to me. I didn’t know what to expect. I didn’t know what the horses would be like, the trainer would be like, the other members of the team would be like… I wasn’t sure what I was getting myself into.”
Her answer came less than a seven-furlong sprint.
“Almost from the first moment I set foot in Rachel’s barn, I had this feeling it was going to be something special. I knew whatever time I spent there I would learn something very valuable.”
Time in Halden’s barn was, in essence, a classroom outside her university classroom, a Thoroughbred 101 education with new lessons learned every day.
“It worked out amazing. The first day, Rachel introduced me to everyone. Everyone answered every question that I had. Rachel explained how everything worked. She took me through the process of entering horses in their races, which ones she put them in and why. She taught me all the technical things. The team in her barn showed me around and were very welcoming. I got to watch the horses train and when I went back to the barn and the grooms showed me their daily routine, then I spent time with the hotwalkers who showed me how things were done. It was nice because everyone was very kind, very present, and willing to answer every question I asked. They went above and beyond the whole time I was there.”
Halden, a multiple graded stakes winning trainer, had high praise for Riosa.
“First off, she’s just a very personable, pleasant young woman. She was there for work experience, but also to learn about the industry. She was very helpful, but at the same time, we were looking to help her see everything that goes on and to learn as much as she could about racing and the horses. She didn’t have a particular job, per se. It wasn’t just hotwalking or grooming. She came in and picked up on the routine and was able to help, but also learn about every aspect.”
Working closely with Thoroughbreds was an eye-opener for Riosa.
Asking her to pick a particular horse she had a special connection with prompts a heartfelt response.
“I would say there were quite a few,” Riosa said with a laugh. “Rachel has very sweet horses, very nice and gentle. A lot of them really enjoyed getting groomed at the end of the day. They are also big fans of getting outside to graze as well.”
They also gave Riosa some food for thought, in this instance, literally.
“I can’t believe how much those horses eat. I know that my mare gets a scoop of her grain every so often, but these horses get huge scoops, and they eat it all. But they look fantastic, and you can tell how well they are taken care of.”
Halden, whose list of top performers include Nipissing, Nipigon, Niigon’s Eclipse, and Camp Creek, saw, first-hand, Riosa’s enjoyment working closely with the horses.
“She connected with what was going on and with the horses. She was very good with the younger ones – I have a lot of 2-year-olds at the moment – and was very calm with them and talked to them. We weren’t going to overwhelm her, but she listened to whatever we shared with her about each horse.”
Now back home in Quebec, Riosa’s association with Thoroughbreds might not be a fleeting one.
In fact, the odds suggest she could be back with Halden later on this year.
“It was fantastic. I liked working with Rachel a lot. Hopefully, this winter I’ll get to see her soon, this time when she’s in Florida. She’s just a wonderful person and a great trainer. She even offered me a job at the end of the placement, but I had previous commitments, unfortunately, that I had to come back home for.”
Halden is hopeful that more young people will consider a career in horse racing.
“I was hoping Samantha would stay on, and I’m sure if she lived closer that would have materialized. I’m glad to hear that she enjoyed it as much as we enjoyed having her there. I hope this program continues. We need to open up this industry to people like Samantha. This is a fun, exciting industry, and it would be wonderful to see young people give thought to being a part of it.”
Riosa often thinks about her time spent at Woodbine.
And when she does, a big smile soon follows.
“The Thoroughbreds, they really do have a presence. They are beautiful. I didn’t think I would be working with racehorses any time soon, but apparently, I am now. And that’s great. It really was a life-changing experience.”
Chris Lomon, Woodbine Communications / @WoodbineComms