Trenton, NJ --- Forest Vic A is racing at Yonkers on Saturday night.
Like clockwork, the 14-year-old pacer has answered the bell for more than seven years since he arrived from Australia.
And despite the fact he is performing as well now as he ever has during his career, Forest Vic A’s days are numbered at Yonkers and everywhere else due to the mandatory retirement age of 14.
But as the races dwindle to a precious few, co-owner/driver Steve Smith isn’t exactly feeling nostalgic.
“It’s kind of a disappointing feeling more than anything,” said Smith, who owns the horse with Bruce Kay and Joe DiLeo’s Night Rogue Racing Stable. “Here you have to take a horse that’s good now -- he’s better at 14 than he was at six, seven, eight and nine.
“He has no issues; he’s not a lame horse at the bottom of the class, struggling along. He’s with the best in the country.”
Forest Vic A has “been a steady income for us for seven years” and shows no signs of slowing down. He has won 30 of 205 career races in the U.S., earning $821,933. This year he has two wins and 12 on-the-board finishes in 23 starts, with $79,040 in purses.
On Saturday night, he races in the non-winners of $25,000 in last six starts class at Yonkers. His rivals include former stakes-level performers such as Lawgiver Hanover and Bakin On The Beach.
“He has required very, very little vet work and he’s been that way his whole life,” Smith said. “Every professional athlete in the world, when they can’t do it anymore, then they retire. If they stay healthy and are still athletically fit, they don’t retire. They keep going.”
But as disappointed as the owners are, Smith feels this may not affect anyone as much as the horse himself.
Trained in Colts Neck, N.J., by Karen Garland since he came to the U.S., Forest Vic A has been held to a strict schedule. He races three straight weekends at Yonkers, then takes a week off.
It doesn’t matter if he goes undefeated in those three weeks or finishes last, he is given the week off. And he doesn’t like it.
“He has a routine and he knows what it is, he really does,” Smith said. “He knows what he does every day, every week. He knows when he’s racing. He just knows it. And when he has that week off, he just goes bananas. He turns into a real pain in the butt.”
And that’s just once a month. Smith can’t imagine what Forest Vic A will be like with no racing to do.
“It will bother him,” he said. “He likes his work. He doesn’t mind the routine.”
The question is, how much longer will the routine last? Aside from the next two Saturdays at Yonkers, Smith said he might send Forest Vic A to the Meadowlands in late December if talk of a farewell race for 11- to 14-year-old horses comes true.
“After that, everybody keeps wanting to know if he’s going to the 14-year-old race at Monticello on the 30th, that they have every year,” he said. “I haven’t put him in it yet, because if I do, nobody else will want to go.”
Once his career ends, the owners have no solid plans formulated yet. They just know they are not getting rid of him.
“We’ve gotta find the right place for him,” Smith said. “He’d be a good babysitter for a horse. Beth Cumberland, an outrider at Freehold, has been working for Karen. She might bring a saddle and see how he handles that. Maybe there’s a young girl out there looking for a pleasure horse. He’s fairly sensible, especially for a foreign horse.”
Smith says another option could be amateur races, although most of them are held for trotters. He would need to investigate amateurs for pacers.
Until then, there are a few weeks to still marvel at the equestrian version of Benjamin Button, who seems to get younger as he gets older.
And while Smith admits the owners will miss the money he makes, their relationship with Forest Vic A goes beyond that. They respect him.
“He shows up to compete at a high level every week,” he said. “You’re almost never going to replace that. The other owners like it, because I’m always getting calls from other people in the business, praising them on the horse and how special of a horse he is because they’ve never seen anything like him.”
Smith said when they bought the horse they were hoping for some longevity, but he admits they never dreamed of having him race consistently for seven straight years at Yonkers.
He attributes this longevity to a number of things. First, Forest Vic A is a great physical specimen with tremendous natural ability. Another key has been his relationship with Garland, which Smith describes as “a love-hate thing” but it’s always positive.
The owner laughs when noting that at times, the horse wants to get out of the stable to work or race and “Karen will walk by and stick her tongue out and say ‘You know you’re not going for another hour.’ This has gone on daily for the last seven years.”
Another benefit is that like most foreign horses, Forest Vic A enjoys being outside, which helps with his good health. But the biggest secret to Forest Vic A’s success has been in his head.
“He’s a very sound horse with great physical attributes,” Smith said. “But really, it’s his mental attributes. Mentally he has no worries. Nothing bothers him. Things will spook him on the track and he’ll get stupid, but mentally nothing fazes him.
“He’s always in a good mood. He has no stress. He’s like a big goofy kid. I think the way he is mentally is why he can do what he does. He doesn’t stress. This isn’t work to him. It doesn’t wear on him. We should all be so fortunate.”