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Nearing The End Of An Era

Published: December 16, 2016 11:19 am ET

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The retirement of Armbro Casino on Friday night marks the twilight of a Canadian breeding operation whose prefix signified a long-standing era of international harness racing excellence.

Not too many Standardbreds are tough enough to make it through their 14th year and still be on the track winning races. Former Open trotter Armbro Casino is one and he will lead the post parade for the Open trot on Friday night (Dec. 16) at Batavia Downs and then circle back to the winner’s circle where he will be officially retired.

While the Armbro name lives on in Standardbred pedigrees, Armbro Casino is one of only four horses with pari-mutuel starts in 2016 bred and raised by the world renowned Armstrong Bros. of Inglewood, Ont., that still carries the Armbro moniker and the only 14-year-old. Three Armbro horses from the 2003 crop -- Armbro David, Armbro Domi and Armbro Dune -- also made starts in 2016, but Armbro David has since been retired from racing.

Whereas some horses make a lot of money in a short period of time winning stake races, it takes a special kind of horse to be competitive night after night, year after year and accumulate over a half-million dollars in the process. Armbro Casino has done just that.

Armbro Casino is by Striking Sahbra out of the Pine Chip mare Chiptease. He was bred by the Armstrong Brothers and as a yearling, sold at Lexington as hip number 189 for $25,000.

He didn’t race as a two-year-old and then his first four years at the races after that were at best, inauspicious. He didn’t even make enough to cover costs. Between dealing with issues that racehorses do, his starts were limited and the quality of those were as well. But he always showed promise and glimpses of what he really was.

Armbro Casino’s first really good year was in 2009 when he competed in upper level condition races at major east coast tracks under the tutelage of Shaun Vallee. Over the next five years, Vallee and Armbro Casino would be household names at those venues as they would go on to accrue 26 wins, a mark of 1:55.4 and $439,845 in purses during that time.

Even at the end of that run, the then 12-year-old gelding was far from done. On September 5, 2014, the venerable trotter set a new lifetime mark at Harrah’s Philadelphia when he went wire to wire in 1:53.3 by a gapped six-lengths while the rest of the field could only watch.

During his career, Armbro Casino raced at 17 different tracks in nine different states. He had 305 starts, 55 wins, 38 second, 41 thirds and made $600,188 in purses. That’s an average of just under $2,000 per start, all in overnight races.

For the last two years, Armbro Casino has raced under the ownership of USHWA president Tim Bojarski and Tony Gruppo. They have arranged for him to go to New Vocations in Laurelville, Ohio to be retrained for life after racing and eventually, re-homed with his new skills.

New Vocations is one of the premier racehorse retraining facilities and has a program that their horses go through which is designed with the best interests of the horse in mind. The Laurelville location is run by Jennifer Daniels.

“The first week he’ll settle in and start acclimating to our barn routine and being turned out. By the end of the week he will likely be paired with one or two paddock mates. If he needs a bit of a rest we'll let him vacation for a while. But if he's ready to go back to work, we'll start with longeing and groundwork in the first part of week two,” said Daniels.

Week two is when their horses are evaluated for temperament, aptitude and soundness. After a couple days of in-hand work and longeing, they put a rider up with a third line. Usually after five or 10 minutes of learning leg and seat aids, they come off the line and are being ridden solo. From there it's just a matter of putting quiet saddle time in.

“We want to give each horse the best possible chance to succeed in their new home -- we want them to be relaxed and happy in their job so we take things slow and instill solid basics. It will be an adopter's job to finish their training. Our job is to prep them for that and figure out who the horse is as an individual, the type of rider they will need and the lifestyle they're best suited for,” said Daniels.

Once they feel they've got a good handle on who the horse is, New Vocations then takes photos and video and posts their profile to their website. Then carefully screened and approved adopters will reach out when they see a horse they're interested in.

“We evaluate their application carefully and set up an interview time -- it's really important to make a good match. We are a service for the horse first and foremost; the successful adopter will be one that's the best fit for that individual horse. Typically every horse will get 20-40 inquiries and our job is to find the best match,” Daniels summarized.

Winnie Morgan Nemeth is the Standardbred Program Director at New Vocations. She was raised in the Standardbred business and is passionate about the breed and promoting them beyond the race track.

“Having a retirement ceremony like this (for Armbro Casino) brings so much awareness to our great horses and lets our audience know how much the racing connections care about their them. I think it is a very fitting tribute for him as well. We are excited to have him come to New Vocations!” said Morgan Nemeth.

(with files from Batavia)

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