The unique connection between people and horses can be seen every day in barns across the country. But every once in a while, a relationship between a horse and a person is something out of the ordinary and remarkably special. This is the story of one such case. By Melissa Keith
When the bidding starts on a well-bred trotting colt this October in Crapaud, PEI, it won’t be entirely motivated by pedigree and conformation. Bank Roll is a Tad The Stud colt destined for the 2017 Atlantic Classic Yearling Sale. He also appears destined for friendship with a North Sydney, NS boy.
Matt Dodington is a father of four, including seven-year-old Jared. He says that his son and the colt connected by pure coincidence, during a Governors Plate weekend, family trip to PEI. The Dodingtons had sent their Brandons Cowboy filly, Victory Cry, to Island conditioner Kenny Arsenault, and attended Summerside Raceway on the occasion of her first - and only - stakes win. Afterward, Matt, wife Shryl, and other family members dropped by Meridian Farms to see a Cape Breton-owned mare who had recently foaled a colt by Westwardho Hanover there.
“We were taking some pictures of Carol Alice [the mare] and checking in on the baby for Sonny Rankin,” explains Matt. “We took our truck, drove right down to where all the babies and the mothers were out in the field. We walked around, found Carol Alice, and got some pictures, but there was this one particular colt who came up to my son and he was stuck to him like glue.”
Unusually for a two or three month old foal, Bank Roll’s dam, Buckling Banbury, was nowhere nearby. The colt was fascinated by Jared, who happens to have autism. “My little fella was there talking to him, pulling on his hair,” marvels Matt. “Any of the other babies, they wouldn’t let you get that close to them.” The friendly foal was so far away from his mother, it wasn’t immediately clear which mare, out of 20 in the field, was his dam.
Although sometimes people with autism have special affinity for animals, such as world-renowned cattle expert Dr. Temple Grandin, this is not the case with Jared, insists his father. The family owns two horses, Victory Cry and C A R, and, “He doesn’t interact with horses like that,” notes Matt.
“We’ve taken him to the racetrack and he really doesn’t take any big attachment or interest in them. But this was amazing—even if he started to move and walk away, [Bank Roll] would follow and let [Jared] do things you’d think a baby like that would be scared of.”
Jared is a grade one student in a mixed classroom, rather than a special class for children with disabilities. He attends school with an aide, because autism is a neurological condition which affects his ability to communicate effectively with others. “He’s very bright. It’s just you don’t see what’s going on in his head,” says his father. “Not to say he can’t talk, but you wouldn’t sit down and have a full-out conversation with him. He’s not too interactive with other kids.”
In a remarkable moment amid the broodmares and foals at Meridian Farm, his parents asked Jared what he would name his new buddy.
“It rolled right off his tongue: ‘Courage. His name is Courage.’”
Suddenly it was the adults around Jared who were at a loss for words.
“We thought it was just a one-time thing, and it wasn’t,” continues Matt. “We went back [to PEI] a few times, to watch different stakes races, and every time we went, we went back to the farm, to the field there.” Going down to the mares’ pasture fence, the Dodingtons would call out the colt’s new, unofficial name. “The whole herd of them start coming down and then they stop. And the one little fella comes right up to us, every time.”
A quick freeze brand search on TrackIT revealed Courage’s registered name. Matt was in for another surprise. “I’ve never ever dealt with a trotter before! We’ve only had pacers, and this guy’s a trotter of course.” The lack of gait-specific races at Northside Downs might deter some from further interest in the colt, but not the Dodingtons. Contacting Meridian Farms owner Bill Andrew, Matt explained that he would like to buy Bank Roll outright; plans were for the colt to be consigned to the Atlantic Classic Sale, however. Meridian is a major supporter and consignor at the annual sale, and the Tad The Stud son deserved his chance in the ring.
So while the friendly conversation didn’t result in a horse for Jared, it is certain to get Matt bidding on his first trotting-bred yearling this fall. “We’ll be there!” he promises. If the bidding goes high, as could be the case after last year’s record-breaking sale prices for Maritime trotters, the Cape Breton-based owner says he will approach the successful bidder about buying a share of the colt.
“To be honest with you, getting this horse isn’t even just about the racing. I wanted to buy him before I even knew what he was, just because I’ve never ever seen my son have that kind of interaction, right?”
Victory Cry is about to be booked to an as-yet unselected stallion herself. Matt says she should be going to Meridian Farms in April. He hopes to deliver the mare to the PEI farm himself, with Jared joining him for the drive and to visit his equine best friend. “I am really hoping that we can afford to buy him at next year’s yearling sale,” notes Matt. “We all agreed that if we bought him, we would re-register his name as ‘Jareds Courage’.”
In harness racing, it’s not always the bankroll that matters most.