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An 'Extra Special' Life

Trot Feature - Keith Coulter

When Keith Coulter was a child, growing up in Depression-era Toronto, he was always enamoured by the delivery horses.

His first love was a delivery mare named Diane, and he dreamed of the day he could own a horse of his own. He lived his dream of owning and breeding horses for many years, but following the passing of his wife he backed away for a while. In 2019 however, he bought a ‘Special’ trotting filly, and now, many years since he fell for Diane, this new filly did her best to deliver him an O’Brien Award. By Keith McCalmont.

In December, at the age of 84, longtime owner-breeder Keith Coulter found out that his star two-year-old trotting filly, Imextraspecial, had been nominated for an O’Brien Award, and that he was now in line to win what would be his very first one. The filly is one of just two horses in Coulter’s stable, accompanied by the long-since retired 21-year-old broodmare Independent Woman.

Small world - both fillies have a name that starts with the letter ‘I’. One is the former Canadian Record holder for a two-year-old trotting filly on a half-mile track [2:00.1 at Flamboro in 2002], and the other, a Muscle Mass bay, is the current Canadian Record holder for two-year-old trotting fillies on a half-mile track [1:57.3 at Grand River in 2020].

Imextraspecial signaled Coulter’s return to the racing game, after a brief hiatus, by posting a record of five wins and two seconds from 10 starts, to go along with purse earnings of $223,128.

The O’Brien nomination is the result of decades of perseverance on the part of Coulter, who was raised in Toronto at the tail end of The Great Depression.

The eldest of five children, Coulter was born in 1936, when horse-drawn carriages were the energy efficient Amazon delivery vehicles of the era; gasoline cost 10 cents per gallon; and the City of Toronto, whose beloved Maple Leafs lost three games to one to the Detroit Red Wings in the Stanley Cup finals, boasted a population of 645,000.

He lived in a home on Wallace Avenue, near Lansdowne, that had no running water, and was without many of the luxuries we rely on to-day, such as indoor plumbing. Canada would enter World War II in September 1939 and Coulter grew up fast, as nations banded together to battle for freedom and the ideals of western civilization. It was during this tumultuous period that Coulter fell in love for the first time.

“Growing up during the war, almost everything was delivered by horse and wagon, including milk, bread, and coal. I fell in love with horses,” said Coulter.

His daughter, Cheryl Coulter-Preziuso, with whom he would eventually run Coventry Lane Farm in Mono, Ontario, said that even years later her father would look back fondly on the workhorses of his childhood.

“He always talked about his first love, a delivery mare named Diane,” recalled Coulter-Preziuso with a laugh. “He said he loved to watch them and was innately drawn to them.”

In his youth Coulter got a job helping a baker make his deliveries each Saturday, in what was the first in a long line of jobs towards his dream of one day having a horse farm of his own.

“The neighbourhood I lived in was like a village. It seemed like everyone knew everyone,” said Coulter. “But the delivery horses disap-peared in the early 50’s.”

Coulter also satisfied his need to be near horses by watching morning training on Saturday mornings at the former Dufferin Park Race-track, also known as ‘Little Saratoga’, which offered both Standardbred and Thoroughbred racing on a site where the Dufferin Mall is now located.

Although he grew up in a family with little money, Coulter had a wealth of ideas and a work ethic to match. After taking a job at a car dealership in Etobicoke, Coulter worked his way up the ladder and squirreled away as much money as he could. In time, he married his late wife, Lynn, with whom he had two daughters – Cheryl and Kim.

Eventually he would open the Colony Lincoln Mercury dealership in Brampton, Ontario, which later became Colony Ford Lincoln.

“I had a fascination with cars, and I wanted a business of my own,” explained Coulter.

A leader within the community, Coulter served as the Chairperson of the Brampton Board of Trade in 1983-84 and is recognized as a lifetime member. In 2000, thanks to the success of his dealership, he realized a childhood dream that was six decades in the making when he built Coventry Lane Farm from scratch on a 47-acre plot near Orangeville.

Set at the end of a long driveway which curved up a hill, Coventry Lane Farm included a large home and a brand new barn complete with an indoor area.

“The way my dad grew up, he didn’t have an inheritance to do this with,” said Coulter-Preziuso. “He worked hard to achieve the dream of having a horse farm and it was done very well with long, spectacular views all around from high on a hill.”

Not bad for a Depression Era kid that once had to clean the family outhouse.

“He was the eldest of five children and he told me he swore to himself he would never live that way again,” said Coulter-Preziuso.

* * * *

A lifelong Thoroughbred racing fan, Coulter established Coventry Lane Farm in the early 1980s after being introduced to the joys of Standardbred racing through business associates in the local community.

“We knew Charlie and Lenore Armstrong,” said Coulter, of the family behind the legendary Armbro Farms. “Through them, we got to know Glen and Pat Brown. I told Glen I needed an adviser. He referred me to Earl Lennox, who referred me to Dave Stuart, who became our long term adviser.”

John Burns became the stable’s trainer with Tim Twaddle lined up as reinsman. In the days before Coventry Lane, and with no actual farm in place back at that time, Coulter stabled his burgeoning group of horses with his youngest brother Dave and his wife, Judy.

“One of his first really good horses we had was Pure Yankee, a well-bred daughter of Speedy Crown, from the family of Fresh Yankee,” recalled Coulter-Preziuso, who worked as the farm manager at Coventry Lane. “That was his first big step up, buying that mare as a yearling. He had a lot of fun with her and kept her as a broodmare. She produced Treasure Hunt [a $497,000 earner] but unfortunately we lost her [the dam] early in her breeding career.”

A quick studier of pedigree, Coulter purchased Independent Woman, who was campaigned by Ross and Wayne Henry, at the end of her sophomore season at the Harrisburg Sale. By Royal Strength and out of the Meadow Road mare Witsends Robin, Independent Woman made more than $200,000 of her $248,972 career earnings in a prolific two-year-old campaign.

“She had finished her racing career and I took one look at her and just fell in love,” recalled Coulter-Preziuso. “I’d also learned to enjoy looking at pedigrees and we loved the family. It was strong and well known. She was a good two-year-old and she didn’t have a great three-year-old year, but we looked at her at the sale and she was an outstanding individual.”

On the same day they purchased Independent Woman, Coulter also bought a second mare named Divorcethatman.

“You had to see the humour in that!” quipped Coulter.

While Independent Woman produced some well-regarded yearlings, none of them performed as well as their dam on the track.

“It’s a mystery why it didn’t happen, but she didn’t produce one as good as herself,” said Coulter-Preziuso. “We got some good prices for some of her foals and sold her last foal for over $70,000. We had great hopes for her.”

But along the way there were a number of successes.

“One of the mares we owned was Royal Lindy, who is the grand dam of Chapter Seven,” recalled Coulter. “Another of our mares was Fashionable Liv, who is the grand dam of Fashion Frenzie.”

Coulter credits his success at finding strong family lines to surrounding himself with good horsemen and a natural aptitude for statistics.

“I’ve had good teachers,” said Coulter. “I try to be open minded on family lines, within reason. I am most interested in the maternal side. The sire side becomes somewhat obvious. I have an inclination to read and study statistics, whether it was the car business or standardbred catalogue pages.”

The farm would peak at 23 horses with Coventry Lane doing business at sales in Ontario, Kentucky and Pennsylvania.

In 2012, however, Coulter decided it was time to wind up operations and arranged to sell all of his broodmares, in foal, at the Black Book Sale in Harrisburg.

“Ages and stages, and it is not an easy business,” said Coulter of the difficult decision.

Independent Woman, the family favourite, did not get in-foal that year and stayed behind.

“We later boarded her, and subsequent foals, at John McKnight’s Northfield Farm for a couple of years,” said Coulter. “The last yearling we sold from her at auction in 2015 (a Kadabra filly) was one of the top three in the sale, all consigned by Northfields.”

Very recently, Coventry Lane Farm was also sold, bringing an end to a pipeline of well-bred standardardbred stock, and Coulter has since moved into Coulter-Preziuso’s adjacent farmhouse.

Independent Woman, whose last foal was sold privately as a weanling in 2016, was retired from breeding and now resides on Coulter-Preziuso’s property with her retired warmblood mare for a companion.

* * * *

When you’re born with the work ethic of a man like Coulter, retirement does not come easy.

He continued to work at his dealership up until a year ago when the entire business was sold.

“He would go in three days a week, Tuesday to Thursday,” said Coulter-Preziuso. “He’d leave at 6:30 on the dot each morning and he loved to go out for lunches. If he had it his way he’d still be doing that. He had his office there and a lot of his books. Plus, he’d done it since 1970 so it’s hard to change that. My dad’s work ethic was extraordinary. He’s very smart and good with numbers.”

During his more active years, Coulter enjoyed horseback riding with his late wife, Lynn.

“She did like horses very much and was very supportive of developing the farm and the property,” said Coulter-Preziuso.

After Lynn passed from cancer in 2017 and with Coulter’s involvement in the car business winding down, Coulter-Preziuso said her fa-ther became restless. In early 2019 he informed her he would like to have a trotting filly to race and to reach out to Larry and Raymonde Walker, who had trained quite a few horses for the family through the years.

“It was another reason to get up in the morning, so we had lunch with Larry and Raymonde,” recalled Coulter. “Larry was cutting way back, but was happy to become our agent and help us with the purchase. Larry made the selection and we ended up with Imextraspecial.”

Out of the Angus Hall mare I Am Special, Imextraspecial was hammered down for $95,000 in October 2019 at the London Selected Sale.

“Larry was familiar with the dam,” recalled Coulter. “Hannelore Hanover [$3.3 million] stood out on ‘Special’s’ page, along with others, but Larry was also aware that her full sister, Susies Lady, was starting to bloom. Susie’s Lady had a good 2020, too [earning $139,711 in 15 starts].”

To be back involved in the racing game put a spring in Coulter’s step.

“He plunged right back in. It was a good day,” said Coulter-Preziuso. “We hadn’t been to the sale for a long time and it was when things were still normal in the world. Larry had previewed horses at the farms and he had seen ‘Special’ and really liked her. We went to the sale and we liked her too. We had planned to spend two days in London but she was early in the sale and we didn’t have a backup plan so once it was done, that was it. It was time to go home.”

Larry’s brother, Paul Walker, assumed training duties for Imextraspecial with Trevor Henry doing the bulk of the driving.

The filly had her picture taken in her first lifetime start, in July, at Woodbine Mohawk Park, in an OSS Grassroots event, and then made it two-for-two in her second start, in another Grassroots tilt at Grand River. She was second in a Balanced Image elimination versus the boys at Hanover but opted to skip the final for an OSS Gold event at Grand River, and she showed she might live up to her name in that race when she cruised to an easy victory in the new Canadian Record of 1:57.3.

After fourth-place finishes in the Champlain and the Peaceful Way final (from post 10), sandwiched around a second place finish in her Peaceful Way elimination, Imextraspecial won two more OSS Gold events before finishing her year by making a break as the even-money favourite in the $250,000 OSS Super Final at Mohawk Park.

Although they didn’t get to see her win in person during a year like no other, amid the COVID-19 pandemic, the family enjoyed cheering on their prized filly from home.

“We even enjoyed watching her qualify,” said Coulter-Preziuso with a laugh. “She was good from the get-go. We were optimistic but you never know until you start testing the waters, and she answered the test.

“I think it really made Dad smile and he got a great kick out of it,” she added. “He’s not an effusive person. He’s quite stoic and not the arm waving type. If you see a grin on my Dad’s face that means he’s really happy right now.”

* * * *

So, what will Coulter do for an encore?

“He’s considering buying another one,” said Coulter-Preziuso. “Eventually, he could breed ‘Special’ too. The long game isn’t appealing when you’re 84-years-old but he loves the breeding and he’s got a bit of that, ‘hmmm,’ happening.

“He likes having racehorses but he loves statistics and loves reading and studying pedigrees,” she continued. “To this day, he goes though the catalogue to pick out fillies he would buy. Pedigree is his real passion. He’s a student of pedigree on trotting.”

Through decades in racing as an owner-breeder, Coulter noted he has seen numerous changes – good and bad – that have impacted the sport.

“The rate that speed records have dropped is incredible,” said Coulter. “I do not feel the huge stallion books have been a good thing, and that issue perhaps needs to be addressed. Too much concentration in the gene pool.

“The programs available to Ontario breeders is a good thing, and I hope to see it continue,” he added. “The ability to watch high quality television/internet productions at home from the Ontario tracks is also a good thing, and it was very important this year.”

With a wealth of experience in racing and business, Coulter has a few words of wisdom for those hoping to grow the sport of harness racing.

“Continue the efforts to get the young people involved and continue the efforts to eliminate the cheaters,” said Coulter. “Get the best ad-vice from the best people and also do your own studying and research. Respect the horses.”

A self-made man, Coulter takes a humble approach to his own success and good experiences in racing.

“Good people lead to good horses,” said Coulter. “And there are lots of good people in the standardbred Industry.”

And many years after falling in love with a delivery horse named Diane, how does a good man like Coulter feel about seeing his current ‘Special’ filly named as a finalist for an O’Brien Award?

“Unbelievable,” he exclaimed. “It doesn’t get any better than this!”

This feature originally appeared in the February issue of TROT Magazine. Subscribe to TROT today by clicking the banner below.

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