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Horsemanship: From A to Zeron

Rick Zeron

Rick Zeron’s first drive of the day, every day, is to Barn 1 on the Mohawk backstretch.

When many of his fellow reinsmen are at home, resting up from the previous evening’s card, Zeron is in the barn checking up on his considerable stable. “I keep 20 horses here,” grins Zeron on a sunny March morning. “I like getting up in the morning and coming to the barn, doing the work. I enjoy life that way. A lot of people get up and have breakfast and go to the gym. I can go to the gym in the afternoon, but in the morning I like to be at the barn.”

As Zeron reclines in his office chair, the barn is a buzz of activity. “Hey Marty, who’s that?” bellows Zeron as a horse walks by in some discomfort. “Bring him here. Let me look at his back leg.”

The trainer leaps from his chair and is immediately on a bent knee, inspecting a hind leg with a noticeable mark. “Take him over to the pool,” orders Zeron. “I don’t think that’s a suspensory… what’s the number of the pool?”

In seconds, Zeron has placed a call and the groom walks the horse over to the Equine Spa for a bit of treatment. Zeron is back in his chair for mere seconds when Mike Rivet, a newcomer to Zeron’s staff, walks into the office with a fluoroscopy image. Zeron presses his nose against the printout and looks for trouble. “Where’s the spur?” he asks. “The knees aren’t that bad…”

To a layman, the picture is just an angle of bone rendered in black and white. “See this?” He shoves the printout forward while gesturing at the blur of bone. “See how that is? One’s not supposed to be as open as much as the other one. This is in his hock. There’s a little bit of a spur right in there. See here the difference in the spaces? He’s got a chip in the right hock in the margin joint and if you look you’ll see that there’s a colour there that’s not supposed to be there. It’s supposed to be more clear.”

It really couldn’t be any fuzzier to me.

“See right here where it’s not even? That’s a little bit of the spur that is growing down on the bone there. So when he bends his knee, that little bone moves in and jabs all the time.”

This diagnosis is just part of the horsemanship that Zeron picked up through a lifetime of working with horses. “My stepfather brought me into the game,” says Zeron. “He was a trainer, driver, and owner racing in Ottawa. Harry decided that I was finished school in grade eight. He needed me to work on the farm and look after horses. The truant officer came to the farm and he was introduced to Harry. Well, Harry spoke to him and then the truant officer left. He might have had something in his hand when he left -- but I’ll leave it at that. That was it for me and school.”

So his classroom time was over -- but his real life education was just beginning. Like so many horsemen before him, it’s fitting that Zeron learned his trade from the ground up. “When I was twelve, I was fascinated by the blacksmith that used to come to the barn,” he recalls. “John Dunlop was his name. He was a blacksmith for the RCMP. He used to come out and shoe Harry’s horses and I was ­fascinated by that and I picked it up and learned to shoe.”

Zeron Sr. encouraged his son by allowing him to trim the broodmares and older horses on the farm. In time, Zeron picked up many other tools of the trade and soon developed an interest in driving. “My first race was in August of 1975 and it was something special,” grins the horseman. “We weren’t going near as fast then as we are now, but it was a thrill. The judge at the time was Claire Smith.”

“I drove a pacing mare named Oxford Mary and I won with her that day by open lengths,” laughs Zeron. “I went down the half in 1:05.3 and won in 2:07.3; Claire Smith called me up after the race and said ‘congratulations on your first win’ and told me to drop in and see him the next night.”

“I thought it was great -- that they were going to congratulate me on how my career was starting up,” laughs Zeron heartily when he thinks back to his encounter with the Hall of Famer. “I thought I was going to go in to see the judges and they’d all shake my hand -- instead, Smith was nice enough to give me five days suspension for going the first half too slow.”

But the reinsman’s career quickly picked up the pace. “I was leading driver for a couple years in Ottawa,” he says. “I got married to Joyce in 1980 and soon after we had Jennifer - our first daughter. We moved from Ottawa to Montreal and I was leading driver nine years out of thirteen between 1982 and 1995.”

To escape the potential instability of Quebec’s quest for sovereignty in the 1994 referendum, Zeron moved his growing family -- Jennifer long since joined in the Zeron homestead by siblings Jerrica, Scott, and Jade -- to Toronto. Zeron credits the move with making him a better driver. “I’ve developed because of the drivers I’ve raced against here since 1995,” he shrugs. “I’ve developed in that I’m not so much of a front-end driver, a going-down-the-road kinda driver, which I was in Montreal. I’ve developed to be as good as I can be by racing from off the pace, which really helped me out a lot.”

And how he loves racing from off the pace. “I love second over,” grins Zeron. “Sitting in behind and being able to tip out at the head of the stretch and mow them down to win a race, the moving forward and acceleration and getting a horse to pass other horses... I love that coming off the pace and not having to ask them the whole mile.”

The man they call ‘The Whip’ for his habit of handing out his whip to a lucky fan after every win has been a trackside Santa on the Ontario circuit. 2009 marked the eighth consecutive year that Zeron has earned in excess of $5 million in purses as a driver, and earlier this season, with little fanfare, Zeron recorded his seven thousandth win. His numbers are well within Hall of Fame status and the 53-year-old veteran shows no signs of slowing down; he currently sits fourth on the Woodbine leader board for 2010 with 69 wins and a healthy 14.8% winning percentage.

His fellow drivers, too, are quick to acknowledge his talents. “He’s one of the most professional guys to drive against,” says O’Brien winner Paul MacDonell. “He thinks horse first at all times and he’s just an all around great horseman. He’s a patient driver and I think that comes from training horses the way he does. He operates a big stable and learns to take care of the horse and I think that’s his biggest strength.”

MacDonell recalls Zeron giving one of his own horses an edge. “He won for me as an owner with Mach You And Me,” recalls MacDonell. “It was the SBOA Final and I had to be away at The Meadowlands that night; he stepped into what I think was a $250,000 race and he came through for me. He’s A1 in my books!”

And yet despite his success on the track, it’s the conditioning side of the game that Zeron really enjoys. “Training the horses. I like doing that. That’s my thing,” he says.

Unquestionably, his greatest success as a conditioner is Hanko Angus. Zeron acquired the previously unknown trotter in late 1997 and turned the horse from a $20,000 claimer into one of North America’s top Free For All performers before retiring him as a career millionaire. The biggest victory for the colt came in the 1998 Maple Leaf Trot. “Pat Lang sent him to me,” says Zeron. “All he did was make breaks, turn around on the racetrack and go the other way. He was very erratic. So Pat gave him to me and said ‘see what you can do for him.’ I trained him a couple weeks and he was just what Pat told me he was.”

Inspiration for training Hanko Angus would come to Zeron while driving... and not a horse! “I was driving by a farm on my way home to Oakville and I could see broodmares out in the field with fly screens on. “I said to myself, ‘I’ve got to try this.’ I put the fly screen on and changed the shoeing and qualified him.”

Two starts later, Hanko Angus had his first win.

“There were two or three people looking at him the second night that I raced him,” smiles Zeron. “I phoned Pat up after and said ‘I’m not putting this horse back in the claimer I think he’s better than that’. Long story short, he made a million four. He won the Maple Leaf Trot for me. He just went right up the scale and I had a lot of fun with the horse.”

That Zeron loves the training game is good news for his son Scott, an up-and-coming driver in his own right. “Basically we’re owning more and more horses now,” he says. “My son Scott and I are calling ourselves Team Z and that’s appearing more in the program now.”

He reckons a change in the program in driver name from R. Zeron to S. Zeron won’t phase the punters. “A lot of people say when you’re watching the race that you don’t know if it’s Scott or me sitting in the bike,” jokes Zeron, who is impressed with his son’s composure. “Scott’s a lot calmer than I was (as a kid). He handles himself as much more of a gentleman than I did when I was his age. I was a little feistier and he’s so relaxed. My wife brought him up that way.”

The future is looking bright for Team Z and yet for all his success, Zeron has yet to pocket an O’Brien Award. “At the end of the day, it would be nice to win an O’Brien,” admits Zeron. “But if I can make enough money to feed my family, to provide for Joyce and the kids, then I’m happy. If the O’Brien award comes along, I’ll be happy, but if it ­doesn’t, so be it.”

Though nominated for the Horsemanship Award for 2009, Zeron lost out this time around to another hard working trainer and driver -- Per Henriksen -- who pocketed the O’Brien at the January 2010 ceremony. There was, however, a touching moment towards the end of that evening when Greg Peck stood to receive Horse of the Year honours for Muscle Hill.

“One guy we haven’t mentioned enough tonight is Rick Zeron,” said Peck on stage. “I was looking at the O’Brien trophy and Joe O’Brien was a great driver and a great trainer and THAT is Zeron. You don’t see that anymore.”

That little touch of class meant a lot to Zeron. “It was just outstanding for him to mention that,” he smiles. “It made the people at our table a lot more comfortable. He didn’t have to say anything but he did and I take my hat off to him. It was a good feeling for my wife and my children, and especially my son Scott, to have Greg Peck acknowledge me. He let people know that I’ve done a lot in the industry. He’s a standup guy for saying that.”

Standing in the Woodbine paddock some ten hours after a morning spent inspecting hocks and deciphering fluoroscopy, Zeron presents a goal other than year-end recognition. “When we first married, I told Joyce that there were two things I wanted from racing,” says Zeron as he clambers into the sulky. “I wanted to win seven thousand races, and I want to work as hard as I can to get into the Hall of Fame so when I’m gone and people look back, they’ll see Rick Zeron recognized as a trainer and driver.”

And with that, Zeron wheels off into the spotlight -- hoping to come back without his whip.

By Keith McCalmont

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