The story of Watery Moon is far more than an unassuming, fleeting life on the racetrack.
It was a modest career, the one fashioned by the chestnut, a lone win accompanied by a pair of thirds from nine starts with just over $50,500 earned.
Yet the chronicles of the Kentucky-bred serve as a warm, welcome reminder that there are good people, many of them, in horse racing, whose care and concern for the welfare of Thoroughbreds far outruns the pursuit of stakes glories and front-page recognition.
Just as it is for those who have been closely connected, past and present, with Watery Moon.
Bred in Kentucky by Eldon Farm Equine LLC, the son of Malibu Moon-Sweet Nanette came to the Woodbine barn of trainer Mike Doyle eight years ago after six races in the U.S., which included a winning debut at Keeneland in April 2014.
After the half-dozen starts at three other racetracks, a trio of them at Delaware Park, the horse was shipped to Toronto with the hope of turning his fortunes around.
“The owner wanted to see if a change in scenery could get her back on the winning track, so to speak,” said Doyle, a veteran horseman who has over 1,160 wins to his name. “That was the initial plan.”
Watery Moon finished sixth in his first start at Woodbine, followed by a tenth and a fourth, the latter a 1 1/16-mile claiming race on June 29, 2016.
The horse that was sold on three occasions, the first time for $160,000, the next for $275,000 and the third time for $23,000, ran with a tag of $9,500 in that June start, which would ultimately be his final race.
Injury to his sesamoids (two little bones sitting at the back of the fetlock that anchor the suspensory apparatus which allows a horse's foot and fetlock to move properly) ended Watery Moon’s racing career at age 5.
The question then became what the next step would be.
Doyle provided a quick answer.
He paid for the operation himself, a procedure performed by Dr. Orlaith Cleary, who was far along in her pregnancy.
“I called the owner and said, ‘If it’s okay with you, I’m going to pay for his surgery and then find him a good home,’” recalled Doyle. “They were agreeable to do that. I can’t quite remember all the details of who chipped in, but the priority was about getting him well.”
After a successful operation, Watery Moon shipped to LongRun Thoroughbred Retirement Society’s farm in Hillsburgh, Ontario, for his rehabilitation period.
Established in 1999, LongRun is one of the most respected horse retirement and adoption organizations, and the first industry-funded adoption program in Canada. Its scenic property, a 100-acre home to over 50 retired Thoroughbreds, is less than an hour’s drive northwest of Woodbine.
“Mike Doyle is a hero to me for making sure this lovely horse was physically able to transition to a new career,” said Vicki Pappas, co-founder and chair of LongRun. “Dr. Cleary did such a wonderful job on his surgery. He is able to go on to do almost anything.”
After his rehabilitation at the farm was complete, Watery Moon was adopted. Soon after, the woman whose care he was now under had to relocate to the Maritimes, specifically, Nova Scotia, which meant she was unable to bring him out east with her.
Enter Rob Marling.
A farrier by trade, Marling is also a trainer and coach at All In One Equestrian, a private facility in Ontario that specializes in the training and development of young and neophyte horses. All In One competes in several disciplines, including Hunter, Jumpers, Eventing, Dressage, and In-Hand Conformation classes. As a horse progresses in its training, it is matched with its preferred discipline with the goal of achieving enjoyment and success in its respective field. The picturesque facility, located on 175 acres in Tottenham, is about an hour’s drive northeast of Woodbine Racetrack.
When Marling found out Watery Moon needed a new home, he stepped to the fore.
“Originally, he was adopted by one of my shoeing clients through LongRun, but she had to move and wasn’t able to take him with them. I was her blacksmith and offered to take him, which was last April. He had a prior injury to his leg, so the first thing we did was to have him x-rayed when he showed up at our place. He had a hairline fracture in the cannon bone of his front right leg, which they put five screws in. It healed up very nicely – he was doing that rehab at LongRun – and came through 100 per cent. The vets then cleared him to jump up to four feet.”
Marling maintained a patient hand with Watery Moon, eager to see if the horse could make the leap from racing to jumping, but willing to let it unfold at a steady pace.
The more Marling saw, the more he realized the gelding was a natural.
“We started riding him and bringing him along in his fitness and understanding of the jumping. This year, we took him to the Caledon Horse Park and started him in the two-foot six Hunters and as the summer continued, we went to the two-foot nine Hunters. We ended up at the three-foot Hunters, Adult Opens, with myself. We did a couple of Hunter derbies. He has learned everything so fast.”
The once headstrong horse, who, on occasion, would recklessly rocket towards the jumps, had indeed come a long way.
“He has a lot of confidence and sometimes he tries too hard,” noted Marling. “He’s doing extremely well. As the summer progressed, as you turn the corner and start your jump, he started to read the question to be asked, where he assessed the height and adjusted his stride to understand the distance better. Before, he would blast towards the fence and sometimes he would run through the fence. In his mind, he was saying, ‘I’m going for it.’ But he really started to learn and to understand what it was all about.”
So much, in fact, that he has become a podium regular.
“We started being successful in the Hunter ring, with seconds and thirds,” said Marling. “Going into this year’s Royal Winter Fair, I had a student, Julia Riddle, ask if she could show the horse, and she did. Next year, she asked for the opportunity to take him out and show him and compete with him. So, he will have one of our students showing him in the Adult Amateur Owner Hunters.”
Doyle is understandably thrilled to know Watery Moon is prospering in his second career.
“It’s great to see that these beautiful horses find a new life and that they are going to be taken care of. I have a longstanding relationship with LongRun and they have taken some of our horses over the years. Every horse we have, we find a way to help them.”
For Marling, who has worked with Thoroughbreds over the years through his farrier business, watching Watery Moon excel in a new arena is a source of pride and accomplishment.
Every time the pair steps into the ring together, it is a special moment for Marling.
“Racehorses have such a big heart and big passion. Patience isn’t typically one of their strong points. They want you to get on and get down to business. But, transitioning from a racehorse to a show horse, he settles in so well. He’s become a perfect show horse. He’s easy going. I’ve had six-year-olds ride him in lessons. He’s sweet. All in all, he wants to get down to work and try his heart out.”
When the time for jumping fences is over, Watery Moon won’t be going anywhere.
“He’s going to stay with us forever. Whether it’s myself or my students showing him, he’ll be well taken care of. We’re going to try him in the Eventing world next year, just to see how he does. Thoroughbreds have always been my passion. They have been, in the hunter and jumper worlds, a bit of the underdog. They have a different language and structure, but they are people pleasers. They are misunderstood in the hunter and jumper worlds, but they are wonderful. He is wonderful.”
For Doyle and his crew at Barn 38 on the Woodbine backstretch, it is the perfect outcome.
More than enough for him to be, one might say, over the moon.
“It’s so nice. These horses don’t owe us one thing. We should be indebted to them, and they should all be cared for in the same way.”
Chris Lomon, Woodbine Communications / @WoodbineComms