On the verge of retirement, veteran pacer Hewitt A captured the hearts of Ann Bower and her husband, Jerry Nicolas, in a way they never expected -- catapulting them into horse ownership for the first time in their lives.
Story by Brittney Mayotte
As the end of 2009 approached, Hewitt A’s racing career was coming to an end. Owner and trainer Mark Anderson and his girlfriend, trainer Debbie McCarthy, planned to retire the gelded son of Troublemaker-Time And Place, who raced predominantly at Cal-Expo in Sacramento, California, when he turned 15 on January 1, 2010. “Normally they can only race until the end of their 14-year-old year, so when he went up to Canada at Fraser Downs and raced up there we found him a home,” says McCarthy.
One week later, Anderson and McCarthy realized that Hewitt A could actually race until the end of his 15th year in the province of British Columbia, but decided the home offered by Ann Bower and Jerry Nicolas was too good to pass up. “We could have kept on racing him for another year,” she adds, “but this sounded like a really good home and these people have just fallen in love with him.”
Bower and Nicolas purchased seven acres of land a year and a half ago in Lake Errock, B.C., a small rural community about two hours outside Vancouver. Surrounded by horses and cattle, the couple had made plans to build a four-stall barn similar to one of their neighbour’s to increase the value of their property.
While on vacation in Jamaica this past December, the couple received an e-mail from Fraser Downs’ animal technician, who went to nursing school with Bower’s daughter, asking if they would consider coming to see Hewitt A, who was in need of a retirement home.
The timing couldn’t have been more perfect for Bower and her family. “Well, we’ve got barn plans, we thought, and we were wanting to add on to our property. Also,” she grins, “he was leaving his racing career and I’m doing a PhD in Change and Development -- so it was just the right timing for our home and where we’re developing our land here in Lake Errock.”
Bower made arrangements with McCarthy to visit Hewitt A at Fraser Downs. One glance at the horse and Bower felt an instant connection. “We went in to where his stall was… and we saw Hewitt standing there and his head came out the door. I don’t know how to explain it,” says Bower, who was struck by the fact that the aged campaigner was still winning races.
Hewitt A made his final starts at Fraser in the Abbetross A Claiming Series while Bower experienced the racetrack for the first time since her father had taken her to a track in Winnipeg as a little girl. “We had never been to Fraser Downs actually,” Bower admits. “We didn’t really know anything about the life of a racehorse. It just never crossed our mind that we would be so involved with a horse coming from that area.”
“It was the first time I was exposed to it and I was trying to understand the language when I was standing there. It’s like translating a new language!”
Hewitt A finished fifth in the opening round on December 13 and after a week’s delay due to race cancellations, he rallied off second over cover to win his second leg division by nearly five lengths on December 27, capturing Bower’s heart. “My husband had to work and so he ran late, but I was determined to be there on time for Hewitt’s race. I had spent some time visiting him before and watched some of the races. ‘Oh my goodness,’ I thought. ‘They are really thundering by!’
“Debbie went by me when he was getting warmed up for the race, and I was yelling: ‘Hewitt, I don’t care if they are younger than you, you win this!’ And his little head looked at me as if to say ‘calm down, I’ve done this before’,” laughs Bower.
“He was on the other side as they were racing and he was in the middle. He wasn’t winning at all… and you could see the way he picked up, the way his energy went so that by the time he came by he was getting way ahead of them and I started to cry. I was so proud of him and still am,” recalls Bower, teary-eyed.
The following week, on January 3, Hewitt A took to the track for the final start of his career – the $8,000 series final – but luck was not on his side. He got away last and then received a flat tire after another horse hit his wheel at the three-quarters mark, taking him out of contention.
Hewitt A, who retired with 70 wins to his credit and earnings totaling $324,898, is currently stabled at a barn close to the racetrack while his new home is being prepared. Bower says it is the first step in his transition from a high profile life as a racehorse to retirement. “It seemed like the best place to transition him from being in such a busy racing career to the next step where there are race horses -- it’s a very calm environment and we know that he’s getting the best care when I’m at work,” says Bower, adding that she has arranged for a massage therapist to visit him regularly as his body adjusts to a new diet and exercise routine.
With the assistance of McCarthy, Hewitt A is transitioning from the harness to saddle while Bower is undergoing a transition of her own. “I’m learning about horses and I’m going to a course at a college nearby. This is a great transition. I can go to university, which I was already going to, but now I’m taking horse management, and Hewitt’s teaching me horse talk,” she laughs. “And at times I’m not doing that well, but he’s very patient.”
Bower has also learned a great deal about farm design and, based on that, has made revisions to their barn plans to better suit the needs of Hewitt A. “We’re actually getting right into barn designs and looking at getting a geological survey that allows the creek to go through his area and allows for longer outings and also enclosed areas where he can walk around cedar trees.
“Hewitt doesn’t like being in the rain, like real deep mud,” she adds, “because he’s not used to that -- so we’re certainly going to redesign some of our drainage areas so that there’s not a lot of mud that goes towards the creek or through his area.
“So that’s a bit different because we were just going to have certain parts of the property, which just looked great from the house if you looked down, but now our concern isn’t necessarily the overall look of the property as much as if it’s going to give him some space to run and have some different areas of the property where he can be near a creek, see the river that rolls by, and be near the big cedar trees.”
While Bower says she wonders if her new companion would be better off with more experienced horse people, her enthusiasm for learning and her dedication to providing Hewitt A with everything he needs in undeniable. “We’re going to try. We’re going to try to be Hewitt horse people,” she says. “He’s a part of our family now.
“Our plan for Hewitt is to always maintain our contact with Deb, she’s such a skilled horsewoman and she’s loves him.”
“He’s gentle,” smiles McCarthy, “so he’s a good horse for her to learn with. They’re kind of both learning together… she sounds like she’s having a whole lot of fun with him.”
By Brittney Mayotte