Hockey, Horses and a Caring Rider Lead to a New Career for a Retired Thoroughbred

Fan Base, a 16-hand high bay gelding with a fondness for the turf, was recently retired after making 75 career starts. The son of Hat Trick (JPN) found the winner’s circle 18 times and placed second nine times, all of which were on the turf.  Of his 10 third-place finishes, all but one were also over a turf course.

There may not have been anyone more familiar with Fan Base than his assistant trainer and exercise rider, Jennifer Young, who worked with him during 36 of his starts, including the last 27.  The two were first acquainted after trainer Marcus Vitali claimed the gelding as a five-year-old.

“He could be difficult to gallop; he was very strong,” said Young. “Sometimes when my back needed a break, I’d put the boys on him.”

Fan Base won four times while in the Vitali barn — once at Monmouth Park and, then, three consecutive times at Gulfstream Park and Gulfstream Park West — with Orlando Bocachica in the irons for each victory.

He was claimed out of the race in which he scored his third consecutive victory for Vitali by trainer Patricia Farro.

“He went up to Monmouth with us that season, traveled around here and there; sadly he got claimed away,” said Young. “I always missed the little guy and followed him from afar, watching him any chance I could when he was racing and kept him in my Equibase Virtual Stable.”

Fan Base would be claimed several more times after being claimed from Vitali, passing through the barns of Efren Loza Jr., Aubrey Maragh, Jorge Navarro, Ramon Moya and Marcial Navarro, before ending up with his final trainer, Joseph Catanese, where he would also reunite with Young.

However, it was through a propitious set of circumstances, with all of the planets being aligned, that the rider and horse would be reunited.

“Ironically, a friend of mine that I knew from hockey, his dad had been a part-time racehorse owner in Chicago,” said Young. “He said, ‘You have to talk to my dad because he enjoys racing and owns horses sometimes, on and off.’  I met his dad, and he decided he wanted to have horses again.

“So, ultimately, the whole thing came together, and he had a stake in Big Bang Racing. The majority owner was Jay Skibinski, who was his friend. So, I met Jay through the hockey. It was ironic because of the hockey connection; Fan Base is by Hat Trick.”

Big Bang Racing gave Catanese and Young a list of two or three horses that they might interested in claiming, and asked if Joe had seen any of them, as he clocks horses in the afternoon for claiming purposes.

One of the horses happened to be Fan Base.

“I was so excited with the prospect of getting an old friend back,” said Young. “So, I put in a good word for Fan Base. I thought he would be an asset to the barn. So, we put a slip in for him, won the shake and got him back.”

The veteran campaigner, who raced into his nine-year-old season, had time off at various stages in his career, but would score wins through his final season, including a record-setting performance on the Gulfstream Park turf at 7 1/2 furlongs on Dec. 16, 2017.

Fan Base’s personality and demeanor have remained a constant throughout his career too, a characteristic that has endeared the horse to those who know him best — the gelding exudes confidence.

“He’s exactly the same, pretty much, as a nine year old as he was as a three year old,” said Young. “He’s always been pretty straight forward as far as being easy to work around; no bad habits, sweet and kind. He’s pretty sensible. Not too tough, but when you turn him around to gallop the right way, he’s strong. He’s really strong. He has a great mind. He’s very professional and has a gas pedal. He wants to go.”

The gelding even developed a following among some of Gulfstream Park’s more renowned personalities.

Gulfstream Park’s track announcer, Pete Aiello, who called Fan Base’s name many times throughout his career, wished him happy retirement. So did Gulfstream Park reporter and analyst, Acacia Courtney.

The track-record-setter’s distinct personality, professionalism and supreme confidence set him apart from other horses. Fan Base was very secure in the knowledge of who he was, according to Young.

“He has his mind on the game,” said Young. “When he first came around and Joe [Catanese] was getting to know him, he named him “The Rooster” because he marched around very proud of himself all the time. He knew his job. No matter what, he always tried hard.”

Fan Base’s equanimity and confidence allows him to adjust to almost any situation. When Hurricane Irma came through Florida in September 2017, the gelding acclimated to the conditions without missing a beat. The impending storm created a chaotic atmosphere, and arrangements were made by a number of horsemen to ship their horses to other facilities that were anticipated to not be as heavily impacted by the storm.

During this time, Catanese calculated his risks and moved into one of the newer concrete barns on the Gulfstream Park backside (Ralph Nicks’ barn).

“We actually moved all of our horses to occupy his [Nicks’] barn,” said Young. “Of course it was a huge undertaking to get all of those traps, horses, people, equipment and stuff, but we did it. We rode out the storm. It was a little chaotic. Everybody survived.”

The second day after the storm, the racing stable decided to get the horses out of the barn. Fan Base was in a playful mood, enjoying the opportunity to stretch his legs while grazing. He even dragged Young over a puddle, splashed and played in it, eventually even rolling in it, getting caked in mud from head to toe.

The following day Young tacked Fan Base up to ride him because of his professionalism and his ability to take things in stride. Their ride brought some humor to a situation that had been extremely tense just days before.

“There are cutout copies of all the jockeys in the grandstand at Gulfstream, and it gives their bio underneath — they’re almost life-size cutouts — all around the walking ring and the grandstand,” said Young. “Well, poor Edgar Prado’s head had been severed from his body and had blown from the grandstand to the three-eighths [pole] gap. His head was sort of lodged in the bushes. There’s a funny picture somewhere of me sitting on Fan Base, riding alongside the bushes, pointing and laughing at Edgar Prado’s cardboard head. I did send it to Edgar just to tell him that he had been decapitated. It’s amazing to think how far it flew and where it ended up.”

Given that Fan Base is an athletic horse with a competitive spirit, Young, a former three-day eventer, recognized the gelding would be suited for another discipline when he retired, having ridden him routinely for a substantial period of time.

“I just thought he would be best as an eventing prospect — or be for somebody who’s just going to hack him, or perhaps fox hunting,” said Young. “I didn’t picture him wanting to do the hunter ring or some of the other disciplines.”

The gelding’s last few performances on the racetrack suggested that Fan Base didn’t have the same zeal that was long a hallmark associated with his character, suggesting it might be time for him to engage in another type of activity.

Young has the horses’ best interest in mind when they’re retired, making sure they find good homes as they transition into their new lives off the track. In the event the horse is unwanted, doesn’t work out in its new home or anything else unforeseen happens, the horse can come back to Young at any time with no questions asked, and she rehomes the horse. She has this agreement (verbal and written) included in the bill of sale with every horse she gives away,

“I never want anybody to feel like they’re stuck with a horse, so I try to assure anyone that they’re not stuck,” said Young. “It’s great if it works out and, if not, there will be a better spot for him. We just have to put our heads together and do the right thing by the horse. I keep tabs on them and make it clear to the new people that he comes back to me if there’s ever a situation where he’s not wanted. I’m lucky to have outlets. I was fortunate to have traveled a bit and know people along the way. There are homes for them out there. It just takes effort to connect people.”

Fan Base is now in Hamilton, Massachusetts, at upper-level eventer Babette Lenna Gonyea’s farm, a place where Young felt the off-track thoroughbred would prosper and successfully make the transition to his new career away from the track.

“In just having spent some time with Babette, I really respect her, and she knows how to take a horse off the track and do the right thing,” said Young. “I know she came up under Phillip Dutton, who’s also known to have a knack for that. If you have an off-track thoroughbred that you really care about, you want it to have great care and have the best shot of making it in a new career — if they can’t do it, nobody can. I’m absolutely delighted.”

Gonyea does a lot of work with off -track thoroughbreds at various stages of their life. She allows them to acclimate to their new environment by providing them with the opportunity to settle and understand that they will be transitioning into a different routine. That process takes about a month. Fan Base, who Young referred to as “Fanny”, will keep his barn name, said Gonyea.

“It took him maybe two days to figure out he was in a different location, that he was in a pretty cool place and that all the basics stay the same,” said Gonyea. “He ate. He got to have grain and hay, all those good staples. Then we added turnout to his life, and that took him about three days to figure out that he goes outside now. Each day we increase the amount of time out. We leave him out for as long as he’s happy, and then we bring him in.”

Fan Base is acclimating well and the transition process has been seamless, due, in part, to the attributes he possesses.

“It’s incredible to just to work with him — even on the ground — because he’s so smart, or what I call an ‘Old Soul’,” said Gonyea. “You feel that he’s figured it out before you have to worry about it. He just kind of gets it. That type of personality in a horse, especially in a racehorse, [is why] he was successful on the racetrack, lasted and stayed [sound] as long as he did because he knows how to stay cool about stuff.”

Gonyea has started working Fan Base under saddle and recognizes his athletic ability and his potential to make the necessary adjustments to be a solid eventing horse. Gonyea does a lot of work on the ground with horses, including trotting them over poles and jumps, to see how they respond and pick up their feet.

“He’s just so smart,” said Gonyea. “It’s kind of a cool thing to be a part of. I didn’t know what he would be like when he came here. He’s surpassed all of my expectations. He’s a neat horse to get to know.”

Gonyea is in the process of figuring out the way Fan Base thinks with a rider on him as he approaches and jumps over fences. She’ll take Fan Base to Aiken, South Carolina this winter where he’ll get more of a steady diet of competition. From there, they will close out the eventing season in New England.

“My guess is we’ll start him out going beginner novice, just doing his thing,” said Gonyea. “Nothing is going to overwhelm him. We’re just getting him stronger and getting him to figure out his new job. He has that sense of, ‘I got it’.

“Those types you feel you can move forward as their body gets stronger; you don’t have to worry about their minds as much. My goal is to get him out there, get him going and get him a good season in Aiken, so when he gets back to New England [we] can go [compete] novice at Groton House at the end of June. It would be awesome. I would love for him to be a couple of years younger, because I know he’s had a long life on the track. He also seems to be such a tough dude. I don’t think it’s necessarily going to hold him back. We’ll see what his talents do when he gets stronger.”

Gonyea relishes the opportunity to work with thoroughbreds because they’re like no other breed.

“I love training them, the good ones,” said Gonyea. “I love how they think, how they react and how they cope with stuff. He’s definitely a special horse. There’s no question about it.”

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