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Happy Grooms, Happy Horses

Published: February 7, 2017 8:36 am ET

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Teesha Symes, honoured with the 2016 Outstanding Groom Award at this year's O'Briens, can boast a lifelong involvement with horses. While many can boast something similar, it's rare to find someone whose first brush came mere hours after being born.

"My dad had me in the barn on our way home from the hospital just a couple of days after I was born," Symes told Trot Insider. "I've been in a barn nearly every day since."

Now 27, Symes has worked for O’Brien Award winner Dr. Ian Moore for the last decade, and full-time since 2012. Symes cared for State Treasurer, Canada’s Horse of the Year in 2015, throughout his racing career. In addition to State Treasurer, Symes went on the road to care for Rockin In Heaven the past two years and also cared for many of the Moore Stables’ two-year-olds.

Making the presentation to Teesha Symes, on behalf of the Ontario Lottery and Gaming Corporation is Rob Cook, Executive Director of Ontario Racing.

"I'm absolutely honoured," said Symes of the award win. "There are thousands of grooms across Canada. To be picked from such a large group has put a huge smile on not only my face, but my family, friends and coworkers!"

Family certainly played a major role in placing Symes within the harness racing industry. A third-generation participant, Teesha followed in the footsteps of her grandfather Cecil and father Chuck, both of whom were or are involved in various facets for decades in Nova Scotia. Teesha's father Chuck continues to ship horses on the East coast, and perhaps that love of travel also rubbed off on his daughter.

"Harness racing has allowed me to travel to many places a girl from Springhill, N.S. might never have the opportunity to see," admitted Symes, who now resides in Cambridge, Ont. "I've met so many people from so many different states and provinces and made lifelong friendships within the harness racing world, human and four-legged. It's like a huge family."

Those ties that bind are not easily broken or severed. Symes recalls multiple horses with whom she's developed a strong bond over the years, from the world champions like 2015 Horse of the Year State Treasurer to lesser-known equine athletes far from the limelight of the Grand Circuit.

"I absolutely love when you rub on a horse with a small problem, you work on that issue all week, or in some cases all summer and that horse rewards you with trying their hearts out," related Symes. "The ones that give it their all. Not necessarily winning a race, but if a horse goes out and improves or has a personal best after having an issue, that's the most rewarding in my eyes.

"Everyone always has their favourites. One that sticks out for me went by the name of Anybunny, a Precious Bunny gelding my Dad and I got off a guy in Delaware in 2001. He had legs on him a dog wouldn't chew...We gave him the winter off and I worked on those legs every time I stepped foot into the barn."

The hard work paid off as Anybunny responded to the attention, and started to reward his connections with on-track success.

"He went on to race some invitational races for us. We shipped him into nearly every track on the East coast. He won something like 20 races for us. He was with us until the age of 17. He was a huge part of our family. He never disappointed, always tried his heart out. He's one of the many reasons I fell in love with the sport. We took this lame horse, gave him some time and he gave us so much more in return."

Fast forward a decade, Symes is connected with a son of Real Desire by the name of State Treasurer in the stable of Dr. Ian Moore. A horse that has shown talent since his early races, Moore was quick to credit Symes for contributing to the outstanding career of Canada's Horse of the Year for 2015.

"Teesha is one of those grooms who really cares and one who I now, as a trainer, can fully trust to have everything done and all in order, no matter what part of the country she may be in with one of our horses,” said Moore. “She can take care of any size, age or style of Standardbred horse, and she has been doing it since a very early age, over 16 years. It doesn’t take her very long to form a bond with horses in her care and they readily respond to her."

Teesha Symes leads State Treasurer to the winner's circle after his 2015 Canadian Pacing Derby win at Mohawk Racetrack.

State Treasurer will stand his first year as a stallion in 2017 after retiring in October, and Symes is still getting used to seeing the stallion's empty stall.

"I miss him, everyday," admitted Symes. "His high-pitched squeal he made when you walked in the barn or walked by his stall with another horse. I miss seeing his head sticking out the window when I parked my car in the mornings beside his stall. I'll miss walking into the paddock on race nights and him putting on his usual show of striking and squealing. He was all talk. He'd never hurt a fly. But man, was he loud!"

After a decade with Dr. Ian Moore's stable, Symes still finds she learns from the veteran horseman, who she considers to be "a great teacher" with endless knowledge. But the benefits of working with Team Moore extend beyond tapping into the intellect of the O'Brien Award-winning horseman. It's clear that Symes values the Team in Team Moore just as much.

"The group we have right now is a great group. Mitch Tierney has been with us for a year and a half. He and I have been best friends since we were kids. Vicki Paulic started with us this past summer and fit right into our gang like a glove. Brad Firlotte has helped us out in the winters at Southern Oaks for the past three years. He's a huge help and just a stand-up guy. His mom Joanne comes in four or five days a week for a couple of hours to fill our ears with hilarious stories from the good ol' days and our bellies with all kinds of food. She's a huge help.

"Gord Irwin, who had Some Gold with us last year is training an Ohio-bred of his own this year but he's still our resident maintenance man. I swear that man can fix anything. Ian's wife, Nancy Moore, is the backbone of the whole operation. She keeps Ian in line. I've sworn for years I would have never lasted this many years with the Moore crew without her. She's the barn mom. She even hid Easter eggs for us one year in the barn so we could have an Easter egg hunt as it was one of the grooms' first Easter away from home."

When Symes talks about the atmosphere, it comes across as more like a family than a team. And that's exactly how she defines it.

"My barn crew is my family. We spend all the holidays and special occasions together. We have a lot of fun, we all give Ian a hard time, and like to joke around a lot. It's important in this business to remember to have fun, working seven days a week and racing most nights can get hectic but when you spend it with a great group like ours it's not work. It's the love of the game. Happy grooms equal happy horses. Happy horses equal fast horses."

In the future, one of those fast horses being lauded in a winner's circle could be trained by Symes herself. Licensed as a trainer, she had a stable of her own based out of Bangor, Maine in the summer of 2013.

"I really enjoyed training on the Maine fair circuit. I'd love to get some horses and go on my own again. It's really hard to start a stable of your own in Ontario as owners have so many great options for trainers. When they could send a horse to the Ian Moores, Rene Allards and Casie Colemans of the industry they sometimes overlook the young and [aspiring] trainers like myself. But if someone was willing to send me some horses, I'd be up for the task."

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