Every day, Susan Karrel has the privilege of being reminded that dreams do matter. As President of the Nova Scotia Driving Society and owner of a horse who bears an inspirational name, she knows what it means to be living a dream.
Story by Melissa Keith
Susan and her husband Steve enjoy watching the races from their usual table overlooking the finish line in the Truro Raceway grandstand. None are as exciting as the top class, in which her ten-year-old, homebred gelding has been a major player throughout 2014.
“Matt” or “Mattie” or “Matthew”: the 16 hand pacer answers to a variety of stable names. He was originally owned by a small partnership group, which included Susan, P.E.I. resident Charlie MacDonald, and majority owner Ian Banks, but that changed at the end of his two seasons of regional stakes eligibility. “He had been injured, so rather than sell him to the U.S., we bought out our partners at the end of his four-year-old year,” explains Karrel. On a race day in mid-December, former co-owner Banks is also watching from the Truro grandstand. While solely owned by Karrel now, Dreams Matter remains popular with people who have handled him over his eight years of racing. And that’s even after some unfortunate happenings early in his career.
“As a two-year-old, he showed great promise, but two or three races in, he had to have chips taken out of his hocks,” says Karrel. The son of Matter Of Money, who was stakes-placed in five straight starts to begin his career, spent the rest of the season sidelined. Then, in 2008, after two overnight events at age three, his sophomore stakes debut was marred by some terrible luck. Trainer/driver Clare MacDonald, who worked with Dreams Matter until the end of his three-year-old season, was scheduled to drive him at Inverness Raceway. That same day, she was kicked in the face by another horse and transported to Halifax for emergency medical treatment. Dreams Matter raced with Clare’s husband and fellow driver Ken MacDonald in the bike, but was interfered with in the race and returned with a new problem.
“He came off the track lame. We went back to the paddock. He was obviously injured. They had a hose on it, and he wouldn’t put weight on it,” recalls Steve Karrel.
The three-year old required surgery on a tendon sheath -— “basically like a bowed tendon,” explains Susan. Dreams Matter subsequently spent most of the year recuperating at the Karrel’s farm near Grand Village, N.S. He finished off his three-year-old year late in 2008 with two wins, two seconds, and two third place finishes in six starts, and was then brought back as an overnight horse at age four. The gelding was finally ready to display some of the potential that his early trainers had observed. “Ken MacDonald spent a lot of time jogging and training him, as well as Clare,” notes Susan.
“And Ken called him ‘a Cadillac’,” adds Steve.
Dreams Matter is campaigned carefully. “We don’t over-race him,” says Susan. She bred him and still owns his dam, Reason To Cheer, a mare she once raced. No longer a commercial breeder (“We did breed for quite a while, but it got too hard to part with them,” she admits), Susan bred and sold several foals out of Reason To Cheer. Dreambigorstayhome, Dov Bears Dream (p,4,1:53) and Reason To Dream ($71,196) all became solid racehorses, and in some cases, beyond the Maritimes. Albeit after some scary coincidences involving cars.
“Dreambigorstayhome reared up and didn’t want to turn” on the track at Truro on one occasion, Steve remembers. “He came down hard on a car [an SUV] and kept on going. He wasn’t hurt, but the car didn’t fare so well.” Later, Dov Bears Dream—named for Steve’s father—exhibited a similar contempt for motor vehicles: “He ‘injured’ a car at Inverness, going down a path to the track.” And as a very young foal, Dreams Matter wandered away from his dam at a breeding facility, making his way up a dirt road toward the nearest highway, as if drawn to cars like his siblings. Steve says he had to chase after the wandering colt and direct him back to safety.
“Matt’s has had a pretty good race career for us,” says Susan. “Maybe his fifth season he went lame. Last year, he had a swelling so we had to stop with him and come back with him this year [2014.]” Karrel notes she was worried that the eight-year-old might not make it back to the races in 2013, but a dedicated team helped to optimize his chances. “We figured it was career-ending last year, but his vet Colleen Dickie said ‘No, no, no!’, and Danny [Romo] is really good with not over-training him,” Susan tells TROT.
Scotty Crowell, groom for Dreams Matter, is another important reason why the pacer was still racing in Truro’s top class at age nine. “’Matt’ loves him,” smiles Susan. “Scotty really looks after his legs. If he even has a nick on his heel, he tells me. He takes a special interest in him.”
In 2014, Dreams Matter won eight races and finished in-the-money 19 times in 28 starts. Over his career, he has won 35 races and collected 93 top three finishes in 146 starts. While career purse earnings of $44,562 may not rank among Canada’s top pacers, the tough Truro campaigner is a favourite at the local oval.
Speaking of special interests, Susan Karrel’s passion for carriage driving seems to qualify. As President of the Nova Scotia Driving Society, she actively competes in and promotes the sport of combined driving. “It has three phases: you have to do a dressage test, and you have to do cones, a series of cones you have to navigate. There’s an allowed time—if you go too long or knock down balls, you’re penalized.
"Then there’s a cross-country part, which we all love the most!" She explains that a competitive cross-country course is anywhere from 6 to 14 kilometers in length and features five 'hazards,' such as gates or water crossings, which must be navigated in a certain order and neither too quickly nor too slowly. “That’s where standardbreds excel,” she points out.
The sport of combined driving, unlike harness racing, is rather young in the Maritimes. “This sport started in the ‘70s and early ‘80s in the Eastern U.S. and Eastern Canada, and initially there were a lot of standardbreds,” Susan notes. Over the years, participants drifted toward flashier breeds.
Karrel says her current combined (equine) driving partner is a Welsh Cob (Section D) nicknamed “Odie,” but he’s the only non-standardbred among the horses she owns. “When ‘Odie’ was lame in his three-to-four-year-old year—he had a hoof wall bruise that had to grow out - so I used ‘Q’ instead, and showed him at the July show at Salmon River,” she says. ‘Q’, a clever standardbred rescue horse nicknamed for James Bond’s accomplice, had formerly been trained as a racehorse by Truro Raceway trainer/driver Carl Isenor.
Since Susan has been attending harness races with family and friends throughout her life, and Steve’s father had owned racehorses, the experienced horsewoman sees no reason why standardbreds can’t become carriage horses. In fact, she suggests the breed is a natural choice for combined driving after the racing years are over. “It’s so true, because there are very few places that you can find a horse that has as many miles in harness as does a standardbred, and standardbreds are so tough and so sensible and so easy to work with that you really can’t find a better horse,” she elaborates.
Her own first carriage horse was a retired pacing mare: the now-29-year-old Pepper Allen, pasture-mate and companion of Dreams Matter. “We got her from Morah Kerr and Tom Hollis. They raced her until she was 12 and then wanted to find a home for her,” says Susan. “I got her for my 12-year-old daughter, Mamie Jane. She was a good riding horse, and an even better carriage horse.” It took only minor shoeing changes and training to keep Pepper Allen consistently trotting, as required in competitive events—and Karrel observes this is the case with most retired standardbreds, even natural pacers.
“We’re often asked what kind of horse to get for carriage driving,” Susan says of her role with the Nova Scotia Driving Society. “I often promote the standardbred. I get teased about it, because there’s a bias against standardbreds.” She’s heard it all: they pace; they are too sport-specific as a breed; they are unattractive horses. None of the reasons are valid, argues Susan: “I think it’s more the old-fashioned standardbred that had a very ugly head. That’s the bias, but standardbreds are getting more and more beautiful every year.”
The wide availability of standardbreds in Canada is one selling point, although the breed still rarely shows up in Nova Scotian driving competitions. “I’m pretty much the only one and I don’t have one right now that I’m competing with, but I do know they turn up from time to time, and there will be more.”
Karrel is Canadian Vice-President of Human Resources at Intertape Polymer. It was while working at their Truro offices in 1999 that her interest in harness racing was revived by co-worker Morah Kerr’s stakes filly. “We started following Island Tradition because she was doing so well, and started going to the races,” says Susan. Another co-worker, Ian Banks, soon wanted to purchase a harness horse for his son Anthony to train and drive, and Karrel bought in on the good mare selected by Clare MacDonald.
“That was Reason To Cheer (dam of Dreams Matter),” adds Susan. “She was a really good racehorse.” Karrel eventually became her full owner. On one occasion, she notes proudly, her mare not only beat males in a New Brunswick pacing series final; she later won a roadster class in the exhibition’s show ring as well.
Dreams Matter inherited his dam’s speed, yet injuries kept him from reaching full potential. He took a lifetime mark of 1:56.3 at age six at Truro. For his owner, the gelding has been a source of happiness and excitement, even if renowned for his aversion to the winners circle. It’s not that “Matt” doesn’t win a significant number of races, rather, he likes to keep on going after the mile is over and tends to move right on through the winners circle. Dreams Matter has stamina to spare.
“You know, if you look back at ‘Matt’s’ year, you’ll see that he spent most of his year on the outside,” notes Susan. “He always races on the outside because often, he’ll be handicapped. They’ll put him in the eight hole or seven hole or six hole. He’s a big horse—he can leave, but not like some of the others, so to make it to the top, he often has to go to the back and come from behind.” Karrel says he still loves going behind the gate, but one day will retire to her farm when he can no longer race in Truro’s top or back-up class. There are no claiming races in his future. But what about carriage events someday?
“I would like to do that, but he’s quite high-strung,” admits Susan. “It’s hard to know, once he’s away from the track, if he would settle down enough to be a carriage horse.” She had jogged Reason To Cheer during her racing days, but calls the mare’s son “a whole different kettle of fish.” Once, sharing a two-seater jog cart with Danny Romo, the combined driving competitor was awestruck by the tangible strength of Dreams Matter. “I don’t think I’d have any trouble with him, but I just could not believe the power. I think Danny jogged him a mile and a half, and then he turned and trained him,” says Susan. “It was unbelievable! I had never been behind such a powerful horse, ever. That’s when I realized people who drive and train standardbreds everyday, like Danny and Clare, they’re really strong!”
Powerful as he is, Dreams Matter has a soft spot. “I laugh, because he knows after the race, he’s had his bath, he’s in his stall, he’s waiting for his hay, and when we come in, he’s just waiting to get brushed and cleaned up and right out to his ‘chariot,’” says a smiling Susan. “We say ‘his chariot awaits’ and his girlfriend’s at home waiting for him.” The “girlfriend” happens to be her first harness horse, Pepper Allen. “It sounds corny, but we do it every week: we’ll take her up to his stall, because they’re across the aisle from each other and his stall has a screen, and they’ll just nicker in that soft little nicker. They’ll stand nose-to-nose and both do it. Great big ‘Matt,’ that great big horse, doing this soft little nicker!”
Susan hopes to continue racing Dreams Matter at Truro Raceway through 2015. She’s also looking forward to a good season of combined driving events with “Odie,” including a major one at Bromont, Quebec. And, as always, she will be spreading the word about retired standardbreds as ideal carriage horses.
As Karrel explains, there’s really no contradiction in appreciating both driving-based equestrian sports. “Some people don’t like harness racing and they say it’s cruel to race horses, and they really don’t want to do it,” she chuckles. “Let me tell you about Pepper Allen: we had her in the pasture and we were fencing. We were at the bottom of the pasture with a half-ton truck, and you know a starting gate here is a half-ton truck. She’d been years without being expected to pace and we were speeding up. Pepper’s head went up — she saw the truck—she turned around, started on the pace, came right up to the truck, put her nose on the tailgate and followed us all the way up! Don’t tell me that horse didn’t enjoy racing!”