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It Was A Very Good Year

Trot Feature - Courtly Choice

When a horse wins both the Little Brown Jug AND the Meadowlands Pace, you know it was definitely his year.

But what many don’t know, is that if it weren’t for a bit of luck, and a surrogate mare by the name of CR Daniella, trainer Blake MacIntosh never would have even had the chance to purchase his horse-of-a-lifetime. By Ric Chapman.

Fame - it's an odd thing really.

Especially in sport, as we: the admirers of greatness; lovers of extraordinary feats; and applauders of toughness above all, tend to fondly remember the gifted by their year.

Perhaps that's just how life goes: when you hit .400, or win the Triple Crown, or score a first-round knock out for the title… but then can't ever replicate it.

Athletes get frozen in time.

So we remember that year.

People say, with softness in their tones, "Yeah, yeah I remember, that was his year. That was Secretariat's year." (1973).

"That was Yastrzemski's year. And wait, wasn't that the Leafs' year too?" (1967).

The same doesn't apply to other walks of life. Nobody ever once said that 1985 was Brian Mulroney's year. It seems just exceptional athletes have years - but only the special few.

Most standardbreds - even the very good ones - never had 'a year'. But 2018 was definitely COURTLY CHOICE's year, and when we are all dead, the lot of us, when our grandkids are online researching projects from harness racing days of old, they will be able to say that Courtly had the one thing very few others had. A year. And I hope you enjoyed it, because it looks like he isn't going to be delivering any more on-the-racetrack joy in 2019 or beyond.

"And he deserves it," said MacIntosh. "He's had struggles, especially at Delaware, and he deserves this year, to be remembered, following his two big stallion-making wins."

They would be the Meadowlands Pace and the Little Brown Jug, the latter deserving of much more praise and press than it has received to this point.

To recap, it was at Delaware, and was the day Blake just mentioned. Courtly, and henceforth we'll refer to him just as Courtly, "I know, it's really original," laughed MacIntosh, "but that's his stable name. Just Courtly."

So we'll honour that.

Courtly's day at Delaware began with him being too keen in the final seconds leading up to the start of his elimination, so he charged the gate, only to go off stride. "He lost, I believe, about 10 lengths, and for about 20 seconds I honestly thought we were out of it. But then by the eighth pole he had caught up a bit, and I said to people near me, 'well he's there, now he can get 4th and make the final.'"

Once he caught the peloton behind the pace set by Stay Hungry, he idled there for a lap, then unleashed a withering, gut-busting, 3-wide, sustained speed assault, aimed at the lead, to wind up 3rd across the line, placed 2nd after the winner was relegated to 4th. He still paced his mile in 1.51, even though he was well behind the others, and offstride, when the teletimer started.

Now, that was something special, an effort of a warrior, but what happened next was insane.

To build context, I went out and did a human version - just to replicate. I took my old bones off to a running track, warmed up, stretched etc., and took off running 400m. I clocked 63 seconds, which, for a near 60-year-old, I'm rather proud of.

I cooled down, waited an hour and warmed up once more. My goal was to run it again, sacrificing self for my art - to get into the feeling of high powered running with minimal recovery.

Only this time everything hurt. My body complained loudly, that mythical bear all athletes of speed hate, jumped on my back with 150m to go, both my achilles began shuddering, and I'm sure strands began to snap.

I tied-up down the stretch and clocked 66.5 seconds. Bent over at run's end, in pain and exhausted, I believe to this day I probably still haven't recovered.

Well Courtly did all that and more, because an hour after his taxing heat, he raced in the final - and won. This time in a sparkling 1:49.4. And not only that, but this time he raced parked, first-over, for most of the mile. Going to the far turn he looked like he was beat - maybe even beat badly. But the gritty son of Art Major just kept digging, and turned in a mile that draws comparisons to those moments in Jug history usually reserved only for Life Sign and Wiggle It Jiggleit.

Phenomenal.

"Yeah when you look at it like that, well it was not an easy thing to do," said Blake admiring the champ he bought as yearling. "You always just hope they can back it up [the effort in the first heat], and he did.

"But that's him. He just never gives up."

There is admiration aplenty in the voice of Blake MacIntosh when he speaks of Courtly, and that admiration extends to not just his racetrack performances. This Courtly Choice story could very, very easily have gone a completely different way. And perhaps it should have. But I think the theatre of life intervened, and his life story was made to be told because this colt was born to be very special. This could really be made into a movie.

Until now, the story of the baby Courtly Choice hasn't fully been told. Maybe there wasn't a need to? But now, he has 'a year' in his hip pocket, so...

In the darkness of a cold Maryland morning, back on April 27 of 2015, an aging 26-year-old, blue hen mare from the Winbak Maryland breeding barn, laid down to have a baby.

Her name was Lady Ashlee Ann, and having foals was nothing to her. This was to be her 15th, and two others she had birthed easily, had raced their way into millionaire status (Betterthanchedder and Ashlees Big Guy). She was considered a queen when it came to foaling and was always afforded the best of care.

But with this baby, who went on to be called Courtly Choice, it was different.

"No one can say for sure what happened in there," said Winbak's General Manager, Garrett Bell. "But for everyone watching on at the time, this was a normal birth.

"The mare looked jaded, more so than before, but we put that down to age. She did her thing with him and for a few hours everything looked fine.

"But then we saw that she hadn't come out of it normally. She wasn't herself, and that upset everyone here because this was a VERY much loved mare. Our owner, Mr (Joe) Thomson, adored her.

"Anyway, she stayed nursing her new son all night but by the next morning she had deteriorated, so both of them were taken to the vet.

"They looked at her, and immediately wanted to operate on her, fearing it was uterine bleeding. But she died on the operating table while prepping for surgery. We were all devastated," Bell remembers.

Postpartum hemorrhage, mostly found in older mares, is when bleeding into the broad ligament of the uterus or directly into the abdominal cavity occurs. This is what happened to Courtly's mom, and as brave and as tough as she was… Mother Nature called her home.

Those at the vet's that morning wept.

And amidst the tears and turmoil for the grand old lady, silently, everyone knew something else was at play - the skinny one-day-old Courtly was in big trouble too.

"So I phoned the farm and told them, and without me even saying anything else, the boys went straight up to the mare paddock looking for a new mom for him."

This, after all, is the period when a newborn foal first adapts to life outside of the womb. These first 48 hours are when his first gasps of breath inflate the alveoli in his lungs. An arterial shunt, which, before birth, channeled life sustaining blood past the pulmonary system, was at that moment closing, so that freshly oxygenated blood could be sent from the lungs to the rest of the body

Courtly was changing importantly and rapidly right there, right then, even at the vet clinic, and he needed a mom.

"Luckily he had his first colostrum from his mother and she fed him for his first day, which was critical," said Bell.

This is so true. When a foal nurses for the first time, his gastrointestinal tract springs into action with a burst of hormones, enzymes and other substances. This is the immediate preparatory stage of life for a horse.

Meanwhile, other vital systems: the renal, thermoregulatory, neurological, all quickly and magically crank up too, ready to meet the demands of this tough new world.

The vast majority of the time, all of this goes off without a hitch… but not this time.

"We do prepare for this type of disaster, and I was just so relieved when they called me back saying another old mare of ours, CR Daniella, had that very morning, while I was at the vet's, given birth to a dead foal.

"We rushed little Courtly home, gave him straight to Daniella, and they took to one another instantly. I don't think she even knew this wasn't her baby and she reared him from that moment on."

A week later he was bouncing around the paddock with the other foals. As happy as Larry.

But ahead of Courtly, as he kicked up his heels none the wiser to the drama that was his family tree, lay thousands of miles of training tracks, talented rivals, a travelling schedule, regime, more fast work, healing time, locking wheels, bad luck, and, beyond all that, a trial even greater… Little Brown Jug day.

From moment one Courtly had been driven to the limits of endurance, but as we've come to know now, he would answer desperation with resolve; suffering with hope and toughness; bad luck with arrogant rebellion.

His fate, whether triumph or tragedy, was, once that surrogate accepted him, going to hang on the fraying threads of his will.

And that's how he raced this year. Perhaps his early struggle gave him the template for his life on the racetrack.

"I started seeing him out at Winbak when he was about 8 months or so of age," remembers MacIntosh. "I first took a shine to him because when I was in a relationship with Casie (Coleman) I was involved with his big brother Chedder, (Betterthanchedder), and he was a tough horse, so I figured Courtly would be too.

"When he was entered in the sale [Lexington] I just loved the way he looked, so when the bidding went to $60,000, I turned to my wife, Leanne, and said, "you know what - let's give it a shot. She had been urging me on the whole way anyway. She somehow knew. So I bought him.

"I didn't know anything about his early days [the death of his dam], I just saw a tough looking horse who reminded me so much of Chedder, and it didn't take long to find enough partners to get into him. Which was a relief because $60,000 was the highest I'd ever gone for a horse. "

Before the Courtly Choice purchase at $60,000, the $30,000 he spent on Clear Idea a year earlier, was the most Blake had ever spent on a yearling. MacIntosh even recently told TROT that he "felt sick" at the time the hammer dropped. But he's not feeling too sick about it today!

Roll forward to present day, and Courtly is a millionaire. He's the best three-year-old pacing colt in all of North America, and has the genetic map and to possibly progress into a great stallion. This 2018 year has been incredible, to say the least, but it may be that we won't actually get the opportunity to celebrate his true greatness beyond it.

Now that he's won the Meadowlands Pace and the Little Brown Jug, life is such that he may well be retired to Winbak before he turns four years of age.

"Which, if I'm being honest, is crushing. He is a once-in-a-lifetime racehorse, and when the day comes for him to leave the barn, it will be sad," shares Blake.

"In my heart I want him to race on. But, the commercial reality is, he might not come back as a four-year-old as good as he is right now, meaning, we all need to send him to stud at his peak. The risk is too big."

Garrett Bell, who does not know which of the Winbak farms Courtly will stand at just yet, agreed.

"You just have to look at Captaintreacherous. He was a superstar at three and just didn't come up as a four-year-old, so while yes, we want to see him race on, and I believe he could develop into an iron horse, the gamble is just too big."

"Right now I own 12.5% of him, and when he retires I will keep 10%," said MacIntosh. "So my pocket is competing with my heart. Going to stud in his prime, with those two stallion-making wins behind him, and the memory in breeders' minds of his Little Brown Jug day, means he should keep me going and happy for at least the next 10 years," smiled Blake, who credits revered and respected trainers such as Donnie Rankin Jr, Richard Carroll, and Dana Lloyd as being his inspiration to succeed.

"They wouldn't know it, but I looked up to them, watched everything they did and I learned a great deal from their horsemanship."

Which he had to do, for here was a guy who went to university to study business, because his Dad wanted him to eventually take over the family's insurance brokerage firm.

When at school as a youngster, there wasn't a plan or road map marked out for standardbred success.

But it's worked out that way, and now he is about to become very well-off, after following his own dreams and instincts. Blake and Leanne MacIntosh are, "more comfortable now than a few years back, when I had to enter horses to race, just hoping to get enough money to survive that month," he tells.

In the harness racing industry, Courtly and Blake have become as important to the fabric of Canada's international exploits as Avril Lavigne, Ryan Gosling, John Tavares (Blake loves that he's with the Leafs now), Donovan Bailey, etc., all of whom, like Blake MacIntosh, grew up in Ontario.

To be fair, Blake and his horse are not the megastar types like 'The Great One' or Justin Bieber, but certainly, what they've done should be recognised on the international stage.

And those great achievements occurred in the year of 2018 - a very good year to be famous it seems.

GIVING SOME CREDIT WHERE CREDIT IS DUE

When recalling the early lessons taught to Courtly Choice, from the time he was broke and trained down at age two, trainer Blake MacIntosh is quick to credit one of his Assistant Trainers, longtime horseman, Mike Pennington, for a lot of Courtly Choice's success.

"When we train them down we always go in groups - usually groups of four," relates MacIntosh. "Penny just seemed to be the one that got along with Courtly the best. Courtly was always a lazy colt at a younger age, and Mike is better at 'coaxing' one than most - so Mike always went with him. He jogged him most days, and he went the training trips with him for the most part too. Mike deserves a lot of the credit for helping this colt get to where he is today."


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