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A ‘Charmed’ Ownership Life

Published: September 24, 2018 11:42 am ET

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Shelly MacMillan doesn’t consider herself a horse whisperer. Not in the least. But on the morning of September 17, 2016, as she often does, she leaned in close to a young filly and offered up a few encouraging words.

It was two years ago, on the day of the $436,000 Elegantimage Stakes final, a race for three-year-old trotters at Woodbine Mohawk Park, when MacMillan came to spend time with Royal Charm, a bay daughter of Majestic Son that she co-owns.

“I was there Saturday morning and I walked her in from the paddock,” MacMillan recalled. “I remember saying to her, ‘Charmy, this is the biggest night of your life and you don’t even know it.’”

Eight days earlier, Royal Charm had finished third, at 9-2, in one of two Elegantimage eliminations, timed in 1:54.1.

In the final, she was 32-1.

After having started from Post 6 with veteran driver Paul MacDonell in the sulky, Royal Charm began her journey in eighth, 10-plus lengths behind the leader. By the half-mile mark, the duo had moved up to sixth, and just four lengths off the pacesetter.

She had improved to third by the time track announcer Ken Middleton delivered his stretch call. The Kentucky-bred bay would go on to surge to the front and cross the finish line three quarters of a length in front of her closest rival.

“It was surreal,” MacMillan recalled. “Her caretaker, Jamie Litt, always believed in her ability and we were all overcome with emotion. She raced her heart out. When you own a horse, you dream of a time like this. When you’re standing in the winner’s circle… you could never have imagined her being there.”

MacMillan would say the same of herself.

Standardbred horse racing became a staple early on in MacMillan’s life growing up in southwestern Ontario.

“My connection with racing comes from as far back as being a kid, going to the races with my dad,” said MacMillan, who now calls Waterloo, Ont. home. “We used to go to Elmira Raceway, which was closest to where we were when I was growing up. I remember a lot of times – my parents had their own business – on the weekends, we wouldn’t have to work there, so my dad and I would go to the races.”

When she began dating the man who would become her husband, the couple discovered they had a shared passion.

“Bob was the same as me,” she said with a laugh. “As a kid, he’d go to the races all the time. So we both had a common interest in the sport.”

They also periodically talked about making the leap from fans to owners.

The only caveat was in the timing.

“I just always loved horse racing and we would go there as much as we could,” MacMillan noted. “As you get older, and you get married and have a family – we would always still go to the races – the whole idea of horse ownership was pretty much out of reach with a young family.

“As the kids grew up and they moved out of the house, Bob and I thought it would be a good time to look into something that we both truly enjoyed. Since we both have high-stress jobs, we thought horse ownership would be a great stress-reliever for us.”

Shelly MacMillan pictured hugging Mark Steacy at Mohawk in 2016 after Royal Charm’s victory in the $436,000 Elegantimage Stakes (New Image Media)

After several hours spent seeking the right fit for their foray into the world of horse ownership, the couple settled on LandMark Racing Stable.

A fractional ownership group, LandMark, which began in 2006, offers shares in yearlings that are trained and raced by Ontario trainer Mark Steacy.

“We didn’t want to go out and jump in with both feet, so we ended up joining LandMark,” said MacMillan. “We joined just when LandMark 7 was forming, so that was the fall of 2013.

“Both of us just loved it. It was a great atmosphere, lots of really nice people. Everybody would come together at the racetrack and we’d watch our horse race. Mark had located a satellite barn in Milton and it was only 45 minutes for us to get there. They were very welcoming.”

MacMillan was quick to take up any offers of hospitality.

“The first thing Mark’s wife, Kathy, said to us when we joined was, ‘You’re welcome to visit any time.’ To which my husband said, ‘Be careful… you might regret saying that.’ So, I started going every Saturday. And I still do to this day.”

Still invested in LandMark, the MacMillans made the decision four years ago to also co-own horses outside of the ownership group.

One of those horses, Hip No. 224 at the 2014 Lexington Select Sale, was Royal Charm.

“In the fall of 2014, Bob and I decided we had found the right trainer, that being Mark Steacy,” MacMillan remembered. “We felt really comfortable with him. He was very honest and up-front, which was important to us. So we went to the Lexington Yearling Sale and bought Royal Charm, who was our first Grand Circuit purchase.

“The same year, we also bought an OSS trotter, because we really love the Ontario Sires Stakes program. So we had a pair of two-year-old filly trotters, Royal Charm and The Muscle Touch. We owned The Muscle Touch (an $11,000 purchase) with another couple that was in LandMark, and Mark’s son, Shawn. She competed in the whole OSS series.”

As for Royal Charm, things didn’t get off to a smooth start, literally. In three two-year-old starts in 2015, she was sixth twice and seventh the other time – she finished a combined 66 lengths out of the top spot, and broke stride in a couple of those races.

But it would get better. Much better, in fact.

“She didn’t do much at two, but at three, we had a horse that people work a whole lifetime to end up with,” said MacMillan.

From 41 lifetime starts, Royal Charm won nine times, along with 19 top-three finishes and just shy of $385,000 in earnings.

Royal Charm pictured at the wire in her Elegantimage victory (New Image Media)

Two years ago, she was second, at 44-1, in a division of the Simcoe Stakes at Woodbine Mohawk Park. Her final race came on November 3, 2017 at Woodbine, a sixth-place effort with James MacDonald driving.

“The day we bought her in Lexington, I told Mark that if John Campbell or Catello Manzi could ever sit behind our horses, it would be a dream come true. In the year that John retired, he drove Royal Charm in the Matron Stakes at Dover Downs. She broke at the gate and it didn’t matter to me. I had the photographer from Dover Downs take a million pictures of John driving our filly. We were also fortunate enough to go to the Meadowlands with her, which was on my bucket list.”

Royal Charm’s Elegantimage triumph remains MacMillan’s most cherished racing memory to date, a moment she was able to share with a host of fellow owners.

“The day she won that race, there were about 20 people in the winner’s circle,” she recalled. “They were all friends we had met through LandMark.

The winner’s circle shot after Royal Charm’s Elegantimage victory (New Image Media)

“When I was young, Saturday night at Mohawk was when all the top horses were racing. So when we started realizing that dream with ‘Charm,’ it was just wonderful for us. You just feel like you’ve hit the big time even when they are in those races. The trainer believed in her, the driver believed in her and the owners all believed in her and our friends did, too. And she got that Grand Circuit win. You’ll remember that forever. To win it, was just beyond whatever you could comprehend. It was so unreal.”

MacMillan would love to see other people enjoy that experience.

“Everyone has to find the right fit for them. That’s why I think fractional ownership is a good start. People can get into it as much as they want to. We’ve owned as little as 12-and-a-half per cent of the horses we’ve owned and as much as 50 per cent of the ones we’ve owned. LandMark is a nice fit because you can test the waters to see how much responsibility you want.

“We like to go to the yearling sales to pick out something we like the breeding on. My husband is really into the breeding part of it. It’s a great learning experience. The horses have a lot of personality and I love that.”

It’s something she’s reminded of whenever she’s with her horses.

“My favourite thing to do on a Saturday morning is to go to the barn and walk my horse in from the paddock, to have that one-on-one time with them,” offered MacMillan. “Right now, I have a two-year-old filly and I have a three-year-old colt trotter with Mark at First Line (Training Centre) in Campbellville.”

MacMillan still sees – and talks to – Royal Charm.

“I went Christmas day this past year to do some chores and see Charm, so that Shawn could go home and spend time with his family,” she said. “It was going to be my last Christmas with Royal Charm at the barn because we were going to retire her. Now she’s in foal to Father Patrick. And all of the original owners still own her.”

Royal Charm and Paul MacDonell pictured heading to meet connections after capturing the 2016 Elegantimage Stakes at Mohawk (New Image Media)

Of Royal Charm’s 41 starts, MacMillan saw all of them live, with the exception of one start when her and Bob travelled to Kentucky to check out the Lexington Sale.

Yet they still found a way to watch Royal Charm compete in an OSS race at Flamboro. MacMillan and others gathered around a TV at The Red Mile to see their horse finish second.

“To this day, I still have the most remarkable connection with her,” said MacMillan. “She’s pregnant now and she’s living the best life. I go down to see her once a month. She’s back in Ontario. We bred her in Pennsylvania. She was gone from January to May and that was so tough for me. Now she’s at Old Knoll Farms (in Campbellcroft, Ont.) and she’s due January 30.”

It isn’t uncommon for MacMillan to relive Royal Charm’s biggest victory. In fact, she watched the replay of the race on September 17, on what was the two-year anniversary of the win. She also watched Phaetosive win this year’s thrilling edition of the Elegantimage.

“We have a picture of Charm crossing the line and the winner’s circle photo with all of our LandMark friends, Mark and Kathy, their family and Paul (MacDonell) who drove her,” said MacMillan who sees Royal Charm’s name listed every year in the program on Elegantimage night. “They were all friends we had met through LandMark. It’s just wonderful, the bond that horsepeople have with one another and our horses. You still get goose bumps.”

And if you’re Shelly MacMillan, you still talk the talk with horses.

“My husband thinks I’m crazy, but I always have a conversation with them. Every time I’m with them, I think they know how lucky I feel.”

(Ontario Racing)

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