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Faces Of Racing: Kate MacNeil

Published: September 3, 2020 10:21 am ET

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Leading up to the 2020 edition of National Caretaker Appreciation Day virtual events taking place on the weekend of September 18 - 20, Standardbred Canada will profile caretakers from across the country in our Faces of Racing series.

The series continues with a profile on Kate MacNeil of Saint John, New Brunswick.

Ask anyone involved in this industry how they got hooked on racing and nine times out of ten it will usually boil down to one special horse they connected with. That’s the power of the horse!

For caretaker Kate MacNeil, of Saint John, New Brunswick, that one horse was Magical Alex. The 15-year-old horsewoman fell in love with the horse, then the sport. There’s now nothing in the world she would rather do than spend time with the horses.

“When I was old enough to walk, I was going to the barn with my dad, (trainer-driver Robert MacNeil)” said Kate, “he’s stabled at Exhibition Park Raceway, only a five-minute drive from home.” She’s inherited the racing gene from both parents as she’s a fifth-generation horseperson on her Mom’s (Bettina) side and second generation on her dad’s side.

“I was into the horses from a very early age...I was always at the barn, helping. The summer that I was 12, I wanted to jog horses and Magical Alex was the first horse that I jogged,” she recalled with enthusiasm. “We still have him and he’s 13. I’ve grown up with him and he’s my favourite.”

Magical Alex and Kate in her grad dress for grade 8 graduation last year.

Kate admits that without Alex, she might not be as excited about horses or harness racing, but it was the special connection she had with him that fuelled her passion.

Magical Alex was purchased by her parents for $1,100 at the Atlantic Yearling Sale in 2008. “He was kind of small and not the nicest looking horse, conformation wise, but he had a good temperament and my mom really liked him,” Kate explained.

For the first two years of Alex’s racing career, it wasn’t certain if he had the proper tools to be a competitive racehorse, but he seemed to find his groove as a four-year-old. Now 13, the veteran has amassed 58 wins, 50 seconds and 36 thirds in 287 races along with just over $76,000 in career earnings. He posted his lifetime mark of 1:56.2 during Old Home Week at Red Shores Racetrack and Casino at CDP in 2014 as a seven-year-old with Dale Spence driving. Though Kate was only nine at the time, that race is as fresh in her mind as if it took place last week. “I was in the ship-in barn, and I couldn’t go to the paddock because I was too young. After he won, I was in the winner’s circle, either holding the horse or the head pole!”

Kate’s first time in the bike with Magical Alex this spring before having surgery.

Aside from her dad educating her on the care and training of Standardbreds, Kate also looks up to some other mentors including her aunt, Janet Davis, as a trainer and on the driving side, Dale Spence along with her uncles Mike Stevenson and Eddie Davis. All have been supportive and inspiring role models.

With school and sports, it can be a challenge for a young teenager to find time for the horses, but Kate manages to squeeze in a few hours at the barn before or after school, and on weekends. In the summer, she’s at the barn for hours every day working alongside her dad, feeding, mucking stalls, harnessing, jogging and training. She’s even had the opportunity to school a horse behind the gate.

This summer, however, has been quite different for Kate, and not just due to COVID. After having ACL surgery in late June, she’s just getting back to a regular schedule at the barn. “I had an injury playing basketball and tore my ACL and had to learn to not do as much around the barn; I had to watch other people work with the horses. I had surgery and was on crutches and it was hard but I had people to help me. For the past several weeks, I’ve been back at the barn...doing the usual and jogging, and I even warmed up a horse and helped race during Old Home Week.”

Along with Magical Alex, the MacNeil stable also includes 11-year-old Union Man Hanover, 12-year-old Chasen Cancun, and 13-year-old Philanthropist, a striking grey that Kate sometimes rides around the grounds of EPR. “He’s an easy going horse and it’s a nice change for him...nothing bothers him!”

Team Philanthropist at Red Shores at CDP after he won in 1:58.3 in the mud; Left to right: Alex MacNeil, (Kate’s brother) driver Dale Spence, Kate MacNeil and Zoe Cormier.

It’s no surprise her favourite part of working as a caretaker is the horses themselves. “Their personalities, their quirks, how hard they try when they race. I get an adrenaline rush...a special feeling you can’t get anywhere else. I love everything about them.”

Kate states that “A strong work ethic, staying in good physical shape and being compassionate and listening to people are important to being a good caretaker...every day you can learn something from someone if you are open to suggestions.”

Despite her young age, there is no hesitation when asked about her future plans in the industry. At the top of the list is writing her trainer’s exam next year when she turns 16. Learning about the breeding side of the business and veterinary medicine is also something she may pursue.

Kate is in a constant learning mode in racing and advises anyone just starting out “to listen to people who have more experience...they can teach you things you may not learn from anyone else; take all the experiences you can, and even volunteer to help someone.”

Treating each horse as an individual, with proper care, exercise, rest and recovery, is something Kate feels is a necessity, and as an athlete herself, fully appreciates.

“You need to listen to your horse and pay attention to their needs; that’s what makes a good horseperson, and the horse will pay you back.” Sound advice from a young caretaker who understands that the horse has to come first!

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