TORONTO, MAY 30, 2023– When the skies over the Woodbine backstretch opened and the teeming rain began to fall, Thea Eke smiled.
The rain seemed relentless as Eke stood outside of trainer Katerina Vassilieva’s barn on a cold, grey, damp morning that offered little reason for contentment.
Yet, despite the gloomy backdrop, the University of Guelph (Ridgemont Campus) Equine Care & Management student was in her own happy place.
“When I leave work, I’m always excited to go back the next day,” said Eke, who came to the Toronto oval in April as part of the program’s internship initiative. “It’s a lot of fun. Some days are challenging. I remember that one day when I had to bathe a horse in the rain, and we got soaked. So, the rain wasn’t enjoyable, but I still saw it as an awesome day.”
Eke, who is from Chatsworth, a southwestern Ontario township in Grey County just over a two hour’s drive west of Woodbine, has been around horses most of her life, but in a much different arena from the Thoroughbred world.
“Back home, I train in the Hunter/Jumper ring, but I train for my Rider levels. My grandfather has horses. My love for horses and ambition to work with them started thanks to him. He gave us some land when I was around nine or 10, and we became their neighbours, so I was always going over and helping him with the horses. As I got older, I took on more responsibilities. He has some stallions there and last summer, I was pretty much in charge of their care. One mare, I started out with her, teaching her different things, and now I’m able to ride her. Any time I’m around a horse, I’m happy.”
Which is why, to no surprise, Eke has enjoyed her time working with Vassilieva and her stable of horses.
Any nerves she felt the moment she walked into the barn disappeared moments into being greeted by the multiple stakes winning trainer.
“Katerina always makes sure everyone who works for her is well taken care of. She’s very understanding and she’s very caring. But I was definitely nervous. I had some experience with horses outside of Woodbine, but a lot of things I have been shown are different from what I know. But all of it is so knowledgeable and all done with the horse’s welfare first. Katerina and her assistant helped me get settled in and comfortable with what I would be doing. Katerina has taken time to teach me every little thing.”
Eke isn’t the only one who appreciates those interactions.
“She is a really bright, enthusiastic young woman who loves horses,” said Vassilieva. “She really wants to immerse herself in everything that horse racing has to offer.”
One highlight for Eke was the chance to have a front-row seat to watch a group of Vassilieva’s horses take to the main track in the morning.
It wasn’t only the sights that made her a captive audience.
“I really enjoy watching the horses training and listening to Katerina talk about what she is seeing and sharing that with me. Being right there and seeing that is so amazing.”
Moments like those made Eke embrace her internship experience in its early stages.
It has also been the ideal environment to help further her long-term career goal.
“It was pretty early when I knew this was going to be something special. Within the first couple weeks, I knew this was a really good spot for me, and it felt like home. I want to be a jockey, so this has been great for me. I thought I would stay closer to home and work there, but I fell in love with the place and the people are so nice. Katerina is so nice and amazing to work for, so I decided I wanted to stay.”
A decision Vassilieva was pleased to hear of.
“She told me about wanting to become a jockey, so it’s the right place for her to be. She wants to learn about the business from the ground up. She’s enthusiastic, hard-working, willing to help, willing to learn, and has a great attitude about everything. She is a big asset to the barn. I’m happy to help usher in the new generation of horse people into our industry, people who are going to work hard and understand the horses.”
Eke’s bond with the Thoroughbreds and the industry continues to grow stronger each day.
It’s something Vassilieva has seen, first-hand, since Eke’s arrival, even on those less-than-ideal weather days and working with some of the spirited types in the barn.
“She’s realized the horses require attention regardless of what it’s like outside. It’s a very physically demanding job, but she holds her own. She convinces me that she can handle it. I had her in the stall with a 2-year-old colt and I was a little concerned about her safety because the horse was new and so was she. I said, ‘Maybe just leave this stall for now and we’ll come back to it.’ She looked at me and said, ‘I would like to finish this, please, if you don’t mind. I started it, so I would like to finish it.’ I love that willingness and attitude that shows she is ready to roll with the punches. She might not know everything, but she is willing to try and to learn.”
By the end of this week, Eke will have five horses under her watchful eye.
That number can change depending on the circumstances of the day.
Whatever the number, the 20-year-old doesn’t bristle at any task she’s asked to tackle.
“If a groom is away, I’ll look after their horses. I do other things too. I walk horses, look after laundry, and help out with feeding horses and other things. I’m happy to do anything.”
Rain or shine.
“It has its challenges, like any job, but it is so rewarding. The horses are so amazing. And so are the people. This has been even better than I could have ever imagined.”
Chris Lomon, Woodbine Communications / @WoodbineComms