Divine precedent

How a Mohawk-winning $2,000 yearling named Settn A Precedent stitched the Panos family back together and soothed their grief — all in the name of their late matriarch Shirley Panos.

by Sandra Snyder

How do you honor the memory of a loved one who has died? How do you pay tribute to the lessons they taught, the wisdom they imparted and the love they shared? On a journey that can be lonely and overwhelming, how do you support family members with their grief and help each other move forward?

Every person will respond differently to those questions, but for Jim Panos and his children Charlene, Matt and Jonathan, part of the answer was pacing filly Settn A Precedent. She came into their life almost two years after the death of family matriarch Shirley Panos and has caused them grief, cost them money, made them doubt and ultimately brought them more joy than they could have imagined when the idea was first raised two years ago.

Charlene suggested it, the idea of buying a yearling and getting back into the game they had left behind almost two decades ago. Jonathan had taken his mother’s death hard and was battling an alcohol addiction. They felt working with a horse could offer him a new path forward and give the whole family a reason to stay connected. They all chipped in some money and Jim, Matt and Jonathan set off for the 2019 London Selected Yearling Sale. With a budget of $4,000 they did not even bother looking at a catalogue or yearling videos, figuring they would just sit in the sales ring until something that caught their eye sold in their price range.

“We were sitting at the sale for a day and half and I was getting frustrated. We didn’t have enough in our budget. I could start them all, and then you get one or two bids and I’m out of money. It’s tough when you’re sitting beside a guy that’s got a budget of $100,000 and you’ve got $4, 000,” said Jonathan. “So I said, ‘I’m going out for a smoke Dad, buy the first thing that comes in the ring that’s under $4,000.’ And I wasn’t out there half a cigarette and he came out, ‘I got a mare, I got a filly.’”

Jim made one bid on the brown daughter of Sunshine Beach and Magic From Brussels and no one raised his $2,000 opener, so Settn A Precedent belonged to the Panos family. It was the first, but certainly not the last, time they felt a higher power — call it God, karma, or a mother’s love — might be looking out for them.

Matt and Jonathan broke Settn A Precedent, soon nicknamed ‘Wendy’, at Hanover Raceway and after a few months Jonathan relocated with the filly to the Tomiko Training Centre outside of Campbellville, ON. Training at the Ontario base of TheStable.ca gave Settn A Precedent dozens of horses to train alongside and Jonathan almost as many experienced trainers to learn from and lean on as he worked with the quirky, and often cranky, filly.

“It’s a love hate relationship, I love her and I think she hates me,” said Jonathan with a chuckle. “She’s definitely a unique horse; she’s one of a kind. I say, ‘If Wendy wants, Wendy will, and if Wendy don’t, Wendy won’t.’”

The first major hurdle in the family horse project came in early 2020 when a fluoroscope examination revealed chips in two of Settn A Precedent’s ankles. The cost to remove the chips was $3,200, a significant expense on a $2,000 yearling. Jonathan lobbied his father to do the surgery and although Jim had significant doubts about the filly’s ability at that point he yielded to his son’s instincts. However, the surgery and the ongoing expenses through the filly’s recovery caused Charlene and Matt to reconsider their investment in the family horse.

“There was so many expenses on this horse at the start. Sometime during her 2-year-old year they bailed and I said maybe we should sell her, because she showed she had some speed but she wasn’t doing it right,” said Jim. “Johnny was the persistent one. He said, ‘No, we’re not selling her, we’re not selling her.’”

Once Settn A Precedent had recovered from her surgery she resumed training and qualified at Woodbine Mohawk Park in September. The second hurdle arrived in the weeks before the filly’s first lifetime start. Upheaval in Jonathan’s life saw him move the filly three times in the 10 days before she lined up behind the starting gate at The Raceway at the Western Fair District on Oct. 16. She finished a distant last and looked like she was going to pull up on driver Natasha Day through much of the mile.

Jonathan pressed the brakes on Wendy’s racing career, started work as a caretaker with trainer Kyle Bossence and asked his dad to revive the family horse project. Matt agreed to reinvest and when Jonathan started to feel like his full-time job was interfering with the filly’s progress, he sent her back to Hanover and into Matt’s care.

“There were times there when everybody was out on her and I was just by myself, the last man standing. And you’re really struggling and then coming off an addiction, it’s hard,” said Jonathan. “I still struggle with addiction, but she’s definitely helped me with that too, she’s been a godsend all around my life.”

As a tribute to his mother, Jonathan had acquired a full set of pink equipment for Settn A Precedent and when he sent her back to Hanover his only instruction to his brother on her rigging was that it had to be pink. Matt complied, making a few changes while keeping the pink harness, and when racing resumed in Ontario in mid-February Settn A Precedent was soon ready to roll. The filly scored her first win in her third lifetime start, circling The Raceway at the Western Fair District on March 19 in 2:00.3 for driver Austin Sorrie. Unfortunately, racing was shut down for a second time two weeks later so the filly would not get her shot at a second win until mid-June.

Although her initial forays around Woodbine Mohawk Park had been less than impressive — she qualified three times there at two, made a break once and could not crack 2:02 — Jonathan lobbied his dad and brother to take Settn A Precedent back to the Campbellville oval.

“I just wanted to race her in Hanover, and so did Matt actually, and Johnny said, ‘No, no we want to try her down there,’” Jim recalled. “So I said, ‘Okay, away we go.’ I said, ‘We’ve finished last before, wouldn’t be the first time,’ but she ended up third.”

After the third-place result on June 15, Matt entered Settn A Precedent back into the fillies and mares maiden class on June 22. From Post 6, the filly went gate-to-wire in 1:53.2, finishing eight and one-quarter lengths in front of the field.

“I went out to have a smoke and it was real quiet out on the track and there seemed to be nobody around and there was a big full moon, it was just this weird eerie feeling, and then she ended up winning by 10 lengths, the announcer called,” said Jonathan, who sported the pink tie he wore to his mother’s funeral in the winner’s circle and then retired it for good. “It was just a very weird feeling, like I can’t explain what it was, but definitely something was there and I think helping Wendy along for me and my brother to get that first win down there.”

The filly returned to Hanover on June 26 for a 10 length romp in a non-winners of two class, missed a week due to sickness and then headed back to Woodbine Mohawk Park on July 20 where she scored her third victory with a 1:53.3 effort.

Ten days later however, Wendy delivered an epic clunker, all but pulling up on driver Bob McClure at the quarter-pole. They had her thoroughly examined after the race, but the brothers suspected the problem was mental rather than physical.

“We did get her scoped, but basically it’s just her, the funny way about her,” said Matt. “She got put on the list for performance, but I kind of knew what was going on so I took her back to Georgian the next day and got her in to qualify and she won her qualifier by 36 lengths and Austin (Sorrie) said, ‘She’s fine, there’s nothing wrong with her.’”

Confident that all systems were go, Matt put the filly back into the same class on Aug. 6 and James MacDonald steered her to a two-and-a-half length win in a personal best 1:51.1.

The next day, the family had an opportunity to celebrate together. Long before she knew Settn A Precedent would pace faster than any horse they had ever owned, Charlene had organised the Shirley Panos Memorial Pace for Saturday, Aug. 7. The presentation was a tribute not just to a beloved wife and mother, but also to a gifted horsewoman.

“She was a very good horsewoman, kind of the rock in the stable and the family as well,” said Matt. “Any lameness in any horse, she would find it, she knew what it was and what we’d have to work on. She loved all her horses. They seemed to respond to her.”

While Settn A Precedent was purchased to stitch the Panos family closer together, she has also reconnected them to the harness racing community in their hometown. Jonathan hopes to complete his trainer’s license this year and fill a few more stalls in the Hanover Raceway barn and Jim recently acquired 3-year-old Hes Watching filly Shes Gold from fellow Hanover resident John Kennedy.
“I wanted something for a hobby because the boys, they kind of don’t let me touch the other one,” said Jim with a chuckle. “And I thought, I like jogging a little bit too, so I said that will be good for me just to goof around with, that’s all I’m doing with her.”

Unlike Settn A Precedent, Shes Gold does not look destined to stray far from her hometown oval, so Jim figures she will fill the role he originally imagined for Wendy, giving the family a regular reason to get together on a Saturday afternoon to watch their horse compete.

Settn A Precedent is back in to go at Woodbine Mohawk Park tonight (Aug. 13), looking to add to her record of five wins, one third and earnings of $33,450 in nine lifetime starts. Conditioned classes are where she will remain. Through the roller coaster ride of their first 18 months of ownership the family could not see the wisdom of making sustaining payments so she is not eligible for any stakes, including the Ontario Sires Stakes program. That decision is also likely to discourage any interested suitors, but Jim is not complaining.

“I know the money thing, everybody looks at that, but it’s more, for me, the family thing,” he said. “All of us work together with her and I think mother would be pretty happy to see that.”