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A Girl & Her Horse

Trot Feature - Musical Rhythm

In the spring of 2018, trainer Ben Baillargeon had to send his star-trotter, Musical Rhythm, to the Ontario Vet College at the University of Guelph with an infected hind ankle joint.

For the better part of the next two months, Ben’s daughter Sara visited her beloved ‘Marty’ almost every day, and just when things looked to be at their worst, it was a combination of Sara’s love and Marty’s will that just couldn’t keep the talented trotter down. By Chris Lomon

Sara Baillargeon bid 'Marty' a reluctant, tearful goodbye, comforted in knowing her family had done all they could to save the horse. Then she reached for her phone and whispered, 'Let's give this a try.'

Every day for five straight weeks, she faithfully made the half-hour trek to the Ontario Veterinary College (on the campus of the University of Guelph) to be by the side of the bay standardbred Musical Rhythm, a top-tier trotter who had battled major competition in both Canada and the United States.

And now, surrounded by her family, the caretaker of the horse with the larger-than-life personality, the one she bonded with the moment they met in 2015, leaned in and bid farewell to the six-year-old Brittany Farms-bred horse.

But before she did, Baillargeon reached into her pocket, found the video replay of his biggest win, turned up the volume and played it for Marty.

"Whether we raced that night or not, I was there every day," started Sara. "The people at OVC were so accommodating. If we raced, I would show up at midnight to go see him, just to give him a kiss. If we didn't race, I'd show up there with a coffee and a magazine and I would spend four or five hours with him. I hoped and I believed that going to see him every day would help bring him home.

"But there was that day I'll never forget, where I called my dad and said, 'I think it's time for us to say goodbye. You have to put the horse first and we didn't want to see him suffer at all. My dad, my mom and my brother came out to Guelph and we all sat there with Marty and everyone said their goodbyes. Everybody was crying. I had videos of his races on my phone and I showed him his win in the Graduate (two years ago, in New Jersey). His ears went up and he was watching it on my phone. He got up onto his feet, and he never looked back after that. It felt like a miracle. This horse, the connection we have is something that's hard to put into words."

Musical Rhythm came into Baillargeon's life and her father Benoit's barn just over three years ago, when the longtime trainer and owner purchased the son of Cantab Hall for $33,000 at the 2015 Harrisburg Mixed Sale, near the end of his three-year-old year.

He made an impeccable first impression on his new connections, winning his first two races by open lengths, with Benoit's brother, Mario, in the sulky.

The horse, originally a $35,000 purchase at the Lexington Selected Sale in October 2013, also had the same effect on the young woman given the task of taking care of him.

"We knew right away that he was special," offered Sara. "He just has this wonderful personality. He's always happy and he loves to make people laugh. He has to be noticed all the time. He wants you to know that he's in the barn. He'll do whatever it takes to grab your attention. Whether he's nickering or talking at you, or he's ripping off his blanket, cooler or wraps - he loves to do all of that - it's all about getting your attention."

It didn't go unnoticed by her father.

"He does love attention," said Benoit. "He's a very funny horse."

A funny horse with some serious talent.

While he got off to a rocky start - he broke stride in his first lifetime start, at Pocono Downs on July 11, 2014 - he had also trotted some fast quarters during those first two seasons on the track for trainer Tony Alagna - something that caught the eye of Benoit.

Soon after moving to his new home in Canada, Musical Rhythm would begin to hit all the right notes. From November 2015 to May 2016, he won 13 of 14 starts for Team Baillargeon, including a streak of 11 straight.

The ownership group, comprised of Santo and Nunzio Vena, Claude Hamel and Benoit, watched their trotting titan sweep both the Don Mills and General Brock Series during that run.

Then, in July of that year, he would experience his biggest win, purse-wise, at The Meadowlands. With Hall of Fame legend John Campbell in the bike, Musical Rhythm overcame a tough post and nine accomplished rivals to take the $250,000 Graduate Series final in 1:51.2, his fastest mile to date.

"To this day, I say to everyone that my favourite win was the Graduate, from the 10-hole," offered Sara of the win that yielded a $118,750 payday. "That was a gritty effort."

Musical Rhythm would endure an up-and-down five-year-old season in 2017. From 20 starts, he won six races, accompanied by three seconds and pair of thirds. In his final race of the year, in a Preferred race at Woodbine, he broke stride at the start and finished sixth, beaten 29 lengths.

"We couldn't really figure out what was wrong with him," recalled Benoit. "We did x-rays and we still couldn't understand what was wrong."

Things would soon take a turn that no one in the Baillargeon family had anticipated.

"It was very scary," remembered Sara. "He's a warrior and he's a fighter and I thought for sure he was going to come out of it when we first took him to the OVC. We had frozen it with carbocaine to find out if his left hind issues originated from his ankle… I believe that was on March 1 of this year. Some time afterwards, he was ready to qualify but his ankle got infected from an injection.

"It should have been a simple joint flush, he would come home and everything would be fine. But it didn't happen that way. There were a bunch of complications. He had to go back to Guelph, came home and then went back a third time. The third time he went in, the infection had traveled into the bone itself. So, treating it as a bacteria didn't work and treating it as a fungus didn't work. Every time he came off the painkillers, he was lame. In the last of his four surgeries, they scraped the infected bone right off. So, he has a hole in his bone, which over time will calcify. But the last time he went to Guelph, he stayed there until April 22."

Sara made sure she was there throughout his stay. Over two-plus months at the OVC, Musical Rhythm was home for just five days.

"When I would sit with him I would tell him what was going on in the barn and that his buddies were racing. This might sound silly, but he owns the barn. He really does. I think he was listening to every word I would say. If I was having a bad day and was struggling… I can tell him anything.

"What I focused on was positive thought. I brought him his toys. He would take my shoelaces off or he'd grab my Crocs. He would play with my hair. I would read a book or watch a video and he'd rest his head on my shoulder and watch over me."

Dr. Nathalie Cote, an equine surgeon at the OVC, and the team that worked on Musical Rhythm, marveled at the bond between the Baillargeons and their horse.

"I can understand why the Baillargeon family love this horse so much," said Cote. "This horse, he is something else. He's lovable, he's tough and he's all personality. He just didn't give up, even in bad times. It was the same for Sara and her family. It's good combination between them and the horse."

Throughout the ordeal, there was never any thought of Musical Rhythm resuming his racing career. A dignified and deserving retirement was all that mattered to the Baillargeon clan.

"It was all about bringing him home to be sound enough to have the retirement he deserved," said Sara. "If he were sound enough, I would have broken him to ride. My dad also entertained the idea of standing him for stud because people really like him, and in Ontario, we're lacking that Cantab Hall line. But all dad ever wanted was for him to be healthy and happy."

"The last time he was there, I can't tell you how close we came to having to euthanize him," said Benoit. "I didn't want him to suffer. The doctor told me, 'Ben, we could try one more treatment.' He was doing really badly and there was that point where we had to make a decision. So, we gave it one more shot. And it worked. I didn't care if he ever raced again. That's not what it was about."

But the horse that beat the odds had a plan of his own.

Healthy enough to return to the farm life, Musical Rhythm came back to the barn he rules over.

"When we brought him home, he was on limited hand-walking and turn-out," said Sara. "But he loves his job so much and he was so jealous watching the other horses out of his window, as they would go out and jog. There was still no real plan to race him again, but one day, dad said, 'Throw the harness on him.' I was sort of against it, but he had the idea of throwing on the harness and just walking him around the track. At the very least, it would get him out there. Next thing you know, he's jogging and is as sound as can be."

After two qualifying races in September, Musical Rhythm was on-track for his first start in 11 months.

On October 2, 2018, with Mario Baillargeon in the bike, he finished third at 22/1 in a Preferred race at Woodbine Mohawk Park, in his first start since November 11, 2017. That was followed by two fifths and a seventh at the Milton oval.

"The third start back - he had the 10-hole - dad said, 'He's going to win tonight,'" recalled Sara. "It didn't work out. His fourth start, dad said, 'Tonight's the night.' Well, we tried an open bridle and that didn't work."

The first part of the Hollywood-type ending would come on November 3 at Woodbine Mohawk Park.

"Of course, his fifth start back, I'm the only one that's there with him, and he goes out and wins," said Sara with a laugh. "Just him and I… I was crying the whole way to the winner's circle. I remember I asked Uncle Mario to get a headshot with me because I had to get it framed. Had he quit after that, I would have been thrilled. But he just wanted to keep going."

His new fan club at OVC received a text from Sara after the win.

"We all felt fantastic when he had finally recovered from his ordeal," offered Cote. "You never want to lose a horse. Never. You have no idea how great we all felt that he came through, especially at the beginning when the odds were not in his favour.

"I get texts from Sara all the time. Dr. Dubois, the three surgeons and the tech staff here, everybody is a fan of him now."

Musical Rhythm provided the Baillargeons and his backers with another memorable moment on a rainy, late-November night in Milton. The win on November 3 had come when Marty had been allowed to move down a few classes. That had been followed by back-to-back second-place finishes in higher conditioned events. Now, once again, the trotter with the big heart, the personality, and the growing fan club, found himself back in the top class - the Preferred Trot.

Sent off at odds of 9/1 and with his regular driver holding the reins, the duo teamed for a 2 ½-length score, in 1.57.1 over a sloppy strip. It was the ninth career Preferred victory for the trotter and first since last October.

"Honestly, the chances that he'd race again were slim and none," said Benoit. "I had no intentions of racing him again, but he showed that he wanted to. If he didn't, I have some broodmares and so do my partners, so we would have seen him become a stallion. He's out of a royal family. His mother (Musical Victory) won a Breeders Crown race for two-year-old trotting fillies in 1998."

Life as a stud, however, will have to be put on hold for the time being.

"He's just been such a great a horse for us," said Benoit of the 29-time winner from 73 starts with nearly $700,000 in earnings. "We love him. And he really just loves having your attention. You throw him a ball and he's going to play with that thing forever. He plays soccer with a ball like a human being. He kicks it and he chases after it."

Just like he does with his competition.

"He was so happy to be back out there," offered Benoit. "You can see it in his eyes. You can see the happiness."

It's what the horseman also sees in his daughter.

"He's part of our family and he always will be. He's quite the horse. I talk about him, what he went through, and I get shivers. The bond Sara has with this horse, I just know it will always be there like it will for all of us."

5 Comments

January 28, 2019 - 8:29 amThis is the type of story

bob tutton SAID...

This is the type of story that shows the love and passion of the people in horse racing. The never give up attitude. The highs and the lows that come with this sport. But the determination of the horse and the people around him are second to none.
Excellent and well done article.
You put a tear in my eye and a smile on my face.
To Musical Rhythm and your connections - two thumbs up. Keep it going!

January 28, 2019 - 8:05 amThank you for the nice

Dan Fisher SAID...

Thank you for the nice comments - this is a feature that we're very proud of. It did appear in print... in the January, 2019 issue of TROT Magazine.
For information on how to subscribe to TROT, click here: https://standardbredcanada.ca/form/subscribe-to-trot.html

January 28, 2019 - 12:57 amAwesome! Just when I thought

Joseph Baron SAID...

Awesome! Just when I thought they were gonna put him down, he makes a Awesome recovery and returns to the racetrack and wins in the Prefered Trot so Awesome!
I agree with the other person who wrote a comment this feel good story should be printed elsewhere or in the daily program too. So Cool!

January 27, 2019 - 8:45 pmGreat story!

Great story!

January 27, 2019 - 8:08 pmEXCELLENT Article!! Stories

Dave Aziz SAID...

EXCELLENT Article!! Stories like this should be printed in the daily program as a connection for the general racing fan to appreciate.


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