Sydney Weaver, 13, has cerebral palsy and a special bond with a horse. When the horse was bought in a claiming race, the backlash was quick.
Flamboro Downs is a grey place on a winter night. Inside the grandstand, older men pore over the program. A couple clasps hands as standardbred Roberto crosses the finish line.
Lisa Weaver and her 13-year-old daughter Sydney arrive in the lobby, wearing pink toques and mitts. The average age of the venue shifts. It brightens.
A white-haired security man smiles as he spots the pair: “You wouldn’t have a claim today would you?”
You need to make money in harness racing, and no one goes easy on Sydney on account of her wheelchair with the ice cream cone stickers on the wheels. The drivers are known to trash-talk the teen, which she loves.
“Sydney, you’re going down tonight!” a driver in his 30s told her once before a race. “Go easy on us or I’ll tell your mom!” she yelled back.
Sydney and her horse are the darlings of an industry still trying to find its economic footing after the Slots at Racetracks program ended in 2013.
Her horse races in the claimers, where anyone can claim a horse if they pay the set fee. And while this if a business, there are unwritten rules, horses you just don’t claim.
So when Pinky was claimed on a recent Sunday, even though no official rules were broken, the racing community took issue with the girl’s broken heart.
Now, three days later, while her Grade 8 classmates are home in Acton, Sydney is atop the Niagara Escarpment, at a racetrack that lights up the night sky. She is going to claim her horse back.
Claiming races are a way to self-regulate competition. If you enter your horse in a $5,000 claimer, you agree to sell the horse for $5,000 if anyone wants to buy it. (In many cases, that figure is a baseline, depending on the horse’s age and sex.) This discourages people from entering a $100,000 horse in a $5,000 claimer. The horse would effortlessly win the purse, but it would be claimed.
Guy Gagnon was in the market for a horse in early February. His horse Keeping Optimistic had been doing well, but was claimed by a Toronto man. Gagnon, who lives in Gatineau, checked out a few racetracks and liked Pinky’s stats.
In January, she dominated the $5,000 claimer with three wins and a second-place finish. Sydney’s dad, the horse’s trainer Don Weaver, knew people weren’t likely to claim the horse on account of Sydney, but he also knew that wasn’t fair: they had every right — especially given that streak. That’s how horse racing works.
“I have to show integrity as a professional trainer and race her where she belongs,” the 50-year-old says. “If I don’t move her up, I deserve to have her claimed.”
He planned to move the horse to the $7,500 claimer, but Pinky took a couple of weeks off after some vet work in January. On Feb. 9, her first race back, she was eased back in the $5,000 division.
When an owner researches programs to find a horse to claim, there are no categories for special friendships or inspirational stories. Gagnon, ensconced in the Ottawa circuit, isn’t a Facebook guy and didn’t know about Sydney and Pinky’s story. He just saw a horse that could win. That’s what pays the bills.
Flamboro Downs was electric with the rumour. Cesar Kowalski, who owns the horse with Sydney, told her just before the race.
“I cried for those 10 minutes,” she says. “I want to erase them from memory.”
Gagnon is keen to leave the episode behind.
“I just don’t want speak about that no more that’s finis for me,” texts the respected driver and trainer, hockey coach, and father of two.
The social media backlash was incredulous.
“He shoulda known better,” someone tweeted.
“ … what a rat that Guy Gagnon is . . . ,” one man wrote on Facebook.
“How could he not know????” someone posted.
“The way they treated him on Facebook, you can’t believe,” says Eric Billings, who works with Gagnon at the stables and is telling the story on Gagnon’s behalf. “Thank God he didn’t live in Toronto because he would probably be hung right next to Rob, the mayor out there.”
Lisa Weaver thinks people were upset not just for Sydney, but for the industry: “Nobody knew what to do.”
“Just …” she pauses. “Poor Guy.”
When Gagnon came into the stables the next day, his eyes were red. He hadn’t slept.
“He honestly felt like, not the world was ending, but like everybody turned on him for doing something that he didn’t even know about,” Billings says.
Pinky hadn’t left for Ottawa. Gagnon made sure she stayed put. He had some phone calls to make.
“I feel sorry for the fella,” says Cesar Kowalski, his breath illuminated in the cold Hamilton night. “I know he didn’t know. It’s too bad he had to take the flak he did … he doesn’t deserve that.”
The retired pipefitter with the white hair started racing horses 30 years ago on the advice of a friend. He liked the return on investment: You buy a horse, win some money in claimers, someone buys your horse, and hopefully you make a few bucks.
Horses are expensive to keep, he estimates $25,000 to $30,000 a year when it comes to stabling, transport, feed, vet bills and training. Making money is a necessity.
Kowalski met Sydney in 2010, when the 9-year-old was at Mohawk Racetrack for a fundraiser.
In December 2012, he called the Weavers to check on their address for a Christmas card. He made the typical chit-chat: What did Sydney want for Christmas?
She wanted a racehorse.
Kowalski’s mind drifted to a mare he’d seen — Sydney Seelster — a horse that wasn’t making a ton of money, but doing all right. Kowalski was in the market, and this horse had the same name as his new friend. He asked Sydney’s dad about a partnership.
Don Weaver has been a breeder, a trainer and a driver. He left the horse business when Sydney was born.
“I didn’t give up the horses for Sydney, I gave them up for something better,” he says.
Weaver works 12-hour shifts making vinyl siding. He told Kowalski he could train the horse — a commitment of three hours a day.
On Christmas Day, at the Campbellville Training Centre, Sydney met Kowalski under the guise of borrowing some books about horses. Inside, the dark brown mare was waiting, in a stall decorated with wrapping paper.
To avoid the confusion that comes with having two Sydneys in such close proximity, the horse picked up Pinky as a nickname. Kowalski also made sure Sydney understood that Pinky had to race competitively in the claimers to earn her keep: “Someday somebody might think they can do better with this horse. The business is a flip business,” he told her.
Everybody understood. But “she got to develop this love relationship with the horse,” he says. “I’ve never seen that happen before.”
In 2013, Pinky just about covered her expenses, earning $17,000.
An equally exciting stat is the horse’s 957 Facebook friends. Pinky sends cheerful messages, announcing a new pink accessory, wishing people happy holidays, and asking her friends to “Cross your hooves for me!!!” So much for the flip business — Kowalski bought a pink shirt.
“There hasn’t really been a story like this that I can remember,” says industry journalist Garnet Barnsdale, the proud owner of a pink hat.
When the horse was claimed, and people piled on Gagnon online, some wondered why a pet horse was in a claimer.
Sydney was always nervous about that part. There are few safe havens for a beloved horse in harness racing. If your horse does well, you need to bump her into a higher category to avoid losing her to a claim. But when you go higher, the purses are harder to win.
During an earlier streak in 2013, Don Weaver bumped Pinky to the $8,000 claimers at Woodbine. The horse went as fast as she could go, but it wasn’t enough.
“She lost her heart. We didn’t make any money for six months till we dropped her back in a lower claimer, where she was more competitive, and she started getting her heart back,” he says.
They had to follow her heart. There was nowhere else to go.
Sydney Seelster was born in Lucan, just north of London, Ont., in 2008. Every year, the farm names 50 foals, and they’re always running out of first names.
“There was no rhyme or reason why it was Sydney, a beautiful feminine name” says Ann Straatman, a manager at the farm. “It was a really nice suggestion, it fit her — a beautiful brown mare.”
Sydney Weaver was born in 2000. Her mom had always wanted to visit Australia, so she named her daughter Sydney, a strong name that reflected a big dream.
Sydney was a happy baby but Lisa grew worried when she didn’t crawl by age 1. One doctor told her Sydney would never walk, and she’d need to eventually replace the stroller with a wheelchair.
“It was just like someone just heaved me in the gut with a cinder block,” she says. “And there’s Sydney still kicking away, smiling, laughing and giggling.”
Lisa phoned her husband and told him to come home.
“When I got home he said, ‘What is it, is Sydney is going to die?’ and I said no, and he said, ‘Nothing else matters.’ ”
Sydney says it’s “luck of the draw — kind of one of those things, here you go.”
Inspired by her horse, Sydney pushes herself. She uses both a wheelchair and a walker, and in a year has gone from walking one and a half laps in her walker to four laps. She posted about it on Facebook to see what would happen — “Just me walking, no big deal,” she says. “If nobody likes it, it’s fine.”
The post has more than 100 likes.
Sydney is always game to talk about her life on behalf of charities, including those that send kinds with disabilities to camp.
When Acton was looking to build an accessible library, Sydney went to council and asked them to think about moms with strollers and seniors with walkers. She was 9.
She was “unflappable,” Mayor Rick Bonette recalls.
She swims, has her orange belt in ju-jitsu, takes cooking classes, and hangs out at the racetrack. She likes Taylor Swift and loves to write. In 2012, her essay “My Wonderful Life,” won first place in a contest run by the U.S. standardbred industry.
She wrote about how surreal it was when she jogged a horse for the first time, in a seat designed for her, with another person on board for safety.
“It gives me a chance to relax, it makes me feel like I don’t have a disability,” she says. “It’s one of the things that everybody can do. It makes me feel free.”
Sydney has the no-nonsense cadence of a horse owner: “He’s got a good head on his shoulders — he’s smart, mature for his age,” she says, assessing a driver 10 years her senior. She is unfailingly polite — “lovely to speak with you,” her reliable closer to a phone call. She is also eloquent, calling the claiming of Pinky a positive experience, a bit of heartbreak that showed her how much the community cared.
It is easy to forget she is 13.
Shortly after he claimed Pinky, Guy Gagnon called Sydney to say he was sorry — he didn’t know the story. He ensured the horse stayed in the Hamilton area and paid the difference in the claim, since the horse moved up in class. He also found another horse to claim — “Cheryl Surprise.”
People say you can hear the Weaver women from across the track. In the final lap of Pinky’s race, the announcer is barely audible.
“Come on Pinky!” Sydney yells from her spot at the rails. She is only outdone by a man with a beer in hand, screaming at the potential agony of a lost wager.
Bob McClure, sitting in the aluminum sulky behind the horse, hears none of this as he drives her to a third-place finish. He is in the zone.
“Honestly, I think I’d do it at no cost,” says the 23-year-old from Orangeville. “It’s a great rush … It’s a big, fast roller coaster really.”
Before he talks about Pinky, McClure says he is generally skeptical of claims of superior animal intelligence.
When he jogs Pinky for a warm-up, the horse is feisty. She’s “kind of like a crabby old lady,” he jokes.
“As soon as you put Sydney on that jog cart, it’s like you’ve just turned a pit bull into a husky, the horse just goes docile,” he says.
Pinky wears a blanket draped over her back after the race to “cool out.” The blanket is secured by a clamp. Sydney once tried to release it, but couldn’t get a good grip. Her dad, in a hurry to leave, went to grab it.
“Pinky came at me more or less to say, let her do it,” Don Weaver says. “Sydney grabbed on to it, couldn’t open it, couldn’t open it, Pinky started backing up, so she just had to hold it and Pinky did the rest of the work.”
Someone told Don it’s almost as if Pinky thinks Sydney is her foal.
“I said, ‘You’re absolutely right,’ ” he says.
Lisa Weaver pushes Sydney through the ice and snow to the back paddock where Pinky is waiting. The old blue barns where horses used to be stabled in better times are empty.
The harness racing industry dealt with the rise of the casino and the simulcasting that took away the need to come to the track. It is still figuring out existence with a new funding model. For the first time last year Flamboro Downs track was shuttered in the summer. Last fall, Premier Kathleen Wynne announced an $80 million-a-year injectionbeginning this April.
“In the interim, it’s shrinking the business so much,” says Bill O’Donnell, president of Central Ontario Standardbred Association, noting that purses are smaller and race dates are down.
Inside the paddock, the horses are ensconced in plaid, Pinky is neon with pink racing accessories, her ears forward in happiness.
“Look at you! How are you?” Sydney says.
“She stood there all night looking at that door knowing Sydney’s gotta come in through that door. She had a good view of that,” says Bob Coole, a trainer who keeps his horses at the First Line training centre with the Weavers.
The horse leans down to nuzzle Sydney.
A man walks by with a shovel of manure. “Glad you got your horse back Sydney,” he says.
Sydney pulls carrots out of a duffel bag. Pinky isn’t a very careful diner, covering Sydney in a goopy mess of chunky orange saliva. The mare takes a drink from a bucket and the ensuing shower provides a bit of a rinse.
Lisa Weaver is going to need to do a load of laundry. Sydney laughs like she’s gasping for breath. Pinky is happy to be home.