An Equine Love Story


Talented equine artist Michelle Hogan first met iron-tough pacer Conrad Seelster when she was in her early 20s and he was a grizzled racetrack veteran with eight years of racing under his harness. Eighteen years later, they are still together, and Ontario Standardbred Adoption Society graduate 'Conrad' is a beloved member of Michelle’s family.

“He moved in with us when we bought our first home," said Michelle. "He was there on our wedding day, and now he’s here while my twins grow up. My daughter, Autumn, in particular, loves him dearly."

(Left) It was important to Michelle that Conrad Seelster be part of her wedding day. (Right) Michelle’s daughter, Autumn, shares her mother’s deep affection for 'Conrad.'

Michelle, whose twins, Owen and Autumn, will be four this August, stays connected to horse racing now through her art. She is a juried member of the American Academy of Equine Art (AAEA) and her first award from AAEA was for 'Shady Daisy Shadow Roll.'

“It is most unusual to see Standardbred art hanging in an AAEA show, so to see my racing art not only be accepted, but awarded, is something I am thrilled with. I have worked so hard to get here,” Michelle said at the time.

More recently, Michelle’s beautiful ink drawing of the great trotter San Pail was selected by Owen Sound’s juried art show to be on a banner that is hung on the town’s harbour for a year.

Like San Pail, Conrad Seelster is enjoying retirement surrounded by people who love him. And for both, it is a well-earned retirement. Conrad Seelster may not have been horse of the year in Canada twice, but he was an absolute iron horse throughout his 12-year racing career that saw him face the gate an incredible 445 times. His lifetime summary was 54 wins, 62 seconds and 61 thirds for $310,285 in earnings.

Michelle and the Houghtons pose with Conrad Seelster following one of his many victories.

The son of Threefold bred by Seelster Farms never left Ontario during his racing days, and he competed at 16 different racetracks in the province, including several that are no longer operating (Sudbury, Elmira, Belleville, Barrie and Windsor). He was ultra consistent, as he averaged 37 starts per year from age three through 14.

Conrad was trained at the start of his career by John Yake of Woodstock, Ontario, who campaigned him until the end of his three-year-old season. Fred Maguire would take over the training responsibilities for a handful of starts. In May of Conrad’s four-year-old season, Jeff Houghton claimed Conrad from a race at Elmira for $3,500. It was the only time in Conrad's long career that he was claimed; and from the age of four until 14 he was owned by trainer Jeff and his wife, Catherine, and it was in the Houghton barn that Michelle first met Conrad.

She grew up close to Flamboro Downs and her love for horses led her to become a caretaker. She worked in the Houghton stable looking after Conrad Seelster from 2002 until 2004.

“Conrad was always a gentleman. He was the barn favourite, of course. Jeff’s boys grew up with him. He could be strong on the track to jog and warm up, he liked to do things his way,” Michelle remembers.

Jeff’s son, Eddie, was two when the horse first came into the stable. “For my brother (Will) and I it was our routine for many years, each week watching Conrad race somewhere. He was such a special horse, he knew how to take care of himself and that’s why I think he raced as long as he did,” Eddie recalled recently.

Conrad’s most successful season was at age eight when he banked just over $70,000 from 44 starts. Jeff Houghton wasn’t afraid to race the consistent pacer throughout the province and Conrad spent quite a bit of time that season in northern Ontario competing at Sudbury Downs. In late 2000, he had a four-race win streak at Sudbury, including two in the $20,000 preferred.

“Dad would race him where he thought he could be the most successful and never touched WEG tracks. He excelled on a half-mile track. I remember racing at Sudbury and we’d eat at a restaurant that would give kids stuffed animals with their breakfast. I choose a horse and named him Conrad and took him everywhere with me for a long time,” said Eddie, with a laugh.

The win photo following Conrad Seelster’s lifetime record performance at Clinton Raceway at age 10. The Houghton family and Michelle Hogan are pictured along with winning driver Trevor Henry and his son.

The horse would earn his life record of 1:56.3 as a 10-year-old, and Eddie remembers the amusing story behind that race at Clinton on July 14, 2002. Trevor Henry was steering Conrad with the plan to leave with him. Just before the race was about to start, the horse beside Conrad fell to the track (he was fine, but taken off the track and scratched).

“Conrad just took off, he ended up winning by five lengths. My dad always said he just wanted to get off the track as fast as he could after he saw that horse fall,” Eddie recalled.

Conrad made headlines at the end of his racing career. On New Year’s Eve, 2006, Rideau Carleton Raceway hosted a ‘Clash of the Iron Horses’ race that pitted Conrad against Kendal Python, who was two years younger at 12. At the time, Conrad had more lifetime starts than any horse in North America, while Kendal Python had the second most. 'Python' would surpass him in that category though, as he retired with 494 lifetime trips behind the gate two years later.

In that Rideau match-up, Conrad set the pace, and down the lane his rival swept up the inside. The pair battled down the stretch, and it was Conrad that prevailed by a slight margin. It was Conrad’s last racetrack appearance, and, fittingly, Houghton drove him for the first and final time. Many of the extended Houghton family were on hand for his final performance. That race may be watched here.

At the end of the race, following the winner’s circle presentation, one of the commentators noted that a horse of his calibre deserved a decent retirement home, and Michelle has certainly provided that for him.

After his racing career concluded at the mandatory age of 14, Conrad was part of the OHHA Youth Camps, which saw children spending the week learning the basics of harness racing, and working with four retired Standardbred horses. At the end of the week they put their skills to the ultimate test, as they competed in a pair of four-horse exhibition races while accompanied by professional drivers.

“Conrad hadn’t been off the track for too long and I think they found he was too competitive for those races, he still wanted to compete,” said Eddie.

Conrad Seelster winning a Youth Camp race at age 15 following his mandatory retirement from racing. He was driven by a 12-year-old (at the time) Brianna Dolderman of Elora, Ontario, accompanied by a professional driver.

“I believe he was with the camp for two years before being given to OSAS. I was working as a vet assistant at the time and came across an advertisement in 'Horse Trader' magazine for him. I immediately sent an email saying I would bring him home. He has been with me now since July of 2010,” noted Michelle.

Conrad was part of Michelle’s wedding to her husband, Tim Casson, and her photographer on that special day, Carrie Clarke Scott, was thrilled to see Conrad. “Carrie was his caretaker while he was with OSAS and she was my wedding photographer and was so happy to see him again.”

Conrad also has other regular visitors. “Jeff and his family come up and stay every so often to have a good visit with him,” explained Michelle.

“I remember the last time I went to visit him with Dad,” said Eddie. “We walked up to the paddock and couldn’t see the horses. Dad called out ‘hey Conrad’ and we hear this nickering and then see the horse come running. I’m sure he remembered Dad’s voice. My dad often says what a relief it is that he’s found a home with Michelle. She is awesome.”

Conrad spends most of his days hanging out with Michelle’s other horse, a paint. He’s been lightly ridden and she’s hoping to let Autumn sit on him this summer.

“He really is a special horse. He has been so lucky to have so many good people in his life,” said Michelle. Judging by the beautiful photo Michelle recently posted of now 28-year-old Conrad Seelster looking fantastic, the feeling is mutual.

Every year Michelle posts a photo of Conrad on OSAS’s website to let us know how he’s doing. Here’s this year’s gorgeous photo of the now 28 year-old.

(Heather MacKay / OSAS)


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