Today is race day for Jo's Magic. Her first attempt to run for a purse. Her opportunity to do what she was bred to do: compete against other fast horses to determine which runner has the most talent, the best fitness, the biggest heart.

Jo’s Magic

Proud owner Scot with his mare, Jo’s Magic, at River Downs in Cincinnati, Ohio.

In fact, this is also my first race as an owner and breeder.  And, frankly, I never would have guessed this is how it would come about.

When my friends and I bred our broodmare Exotic Blue back in 2006, we planned to sell the resulting foal as a weanling or yearling. The Thoroughbred sales market was still hot then, and we were confident of at least a small profit. Jo's Magic was born in February 2007 and our expectations shifted quickly: the newborn not only had an unusually difficult time making it to her feet, but her dam didn't want anything to do with her. An unlikely nurse mare followed initial bottle-feeding, and Jo's Magic settled into a fairly normal life, but we were concerned that racing was not going to be a viable option, and the market for racing stock had started to tank. I held on to the big bay filly with the idea of developing her into a pleasure mount, which is where I concluded this story back in 2009.

This new career path meant that I wasn't in any hurry to put Jo's Magic in training. Her ground manners were impeccable, and she accepted the saddle and bridle without a second thought. That's as far as I took her until halfway through her third year, when I decided she was physically and mentally ready to start being ridden. I sent her to a trusted trainer and asked him to go slow with her and give her a solid foundation of the fundamentals every riding horse should possess. I also asked him to let me know if he saw any indication that she had the inclination to be a racehorse--after all, Thoroughbreds have it in their blood to run and compete.

For the next five months, I visited Jo's Magic every three or four weeks to check on her progress. About two months in it struck me that she looked like a racehorse: tucked up, on the muscle, eagle-eyed. The trainer told me the filly was a pleasure to work with but that she had explosive energy. The new challenge became how to develop her into a reliable, easygoing riding horse without breaking her wonderful spirit.

As training months continued to pass, Jo's Magic looked and acted more and more like a runner bound for the track. I brought her home in November 2010 still intending to use her as my trail horse, but I had started to do a bit of research on race trainers. She was a bit old to send out as a maiden runner--she was approaching 4 and most Thoroughbreds are at the track at 2 or early at 3--but I thought, hey, why not at least see what the options are.

I rode Jo's Magic several times after bringing her home. I have no shame in saying she was way too much horse for me, and I never ventured outside of a round pen with her. From the ground I could trust her completely; on her back was a different story. She wasn't mean-spirited or anything like that, just a bundle of energy waiting to explode. I knew repetition and time--lots of repetition and time--would be needed before she could be a reliable hacking horse. It wasn't lost on me that training at the track would mean she would be ridden daily and would benefit from exposure to myriad new experiences. I started thinking more seriously about making her into a racehorse.

In mid-December I lost the lead rope while bringing Jo's Magic back to her pasture following her evening feed in the barn. Several horses were at the gate and jostling each other, and somehow Jo's Magic was pushed into a strand of electric rope on the fenceline. She bolted. Normally she would have stopped a few paces away, but the lead rope attached to her halter slapped her when she swung her head and she took off. For the next 30 minutes Jo's Magic ran flat-out, the rope smacking her on the belly every stride and spurring her panicked flight. I was aghast and worried, but also thunderstruck at her speed. She was flying and never let up. If she could do that on a racetrack, she'd be a star.

Jo’s Magic

Jo’s Magic in her stall at River Downs. Her yellow blinkers are hanging ready for the big race today.

The first week of January I drove Jo's Magic up to her new trainer. Jim Benton is a former president of the Ohio HBPA and is a 35-year training veteran. She would be in good hands.

Jo's Magic took some time to settle in to the new routine. She's a deadhead in the stall and wants to be petted by everyone in the shedrow--but for her daily gallops and weekly works she's fired up. Once she figured out that running fast is the biggest thrill imaginable, she wanted to run fast all the time. Exercise riders need steel arms to contain her. Jo's Magic put in weekly works (including four public "published" works) and was schooled in the gates. She seems to run best in company, reassured by the other horses being nearby. We've trained her in the mud and have made sure she's experienced dirt thrown back up in her face, since those are likely scenarios in real races.

Two weeks ago we decided she's ready for a first attempt under silks. Jo's Magic has the pedigree, conformation, and proven preference for longer distances and turf courses, but her first go will be in a five and a half-furlong sprint "maiden special weight" over River Downs' main (dirt) course.  (Entry chart for the race)

How she'll develop during the coming months and years remains to be seen. For now it's just a thrill that this formerly rejected filly has developed into a useful and contented horse with a real purpose in life.