Mary Ratchford, 19, records first training win

by Chris Lomon

It is a win Mary Ratchford will gladly take, even though it was most unexpected.

In search of her first training win and just three starts into her career, the 19-year-old Ontario horsewoman knew it was simply a matter of time before she recorded her milestone victory.

That it would come with Shay Seelster had never crossed her mind.

“She has been a project from day one,” Ratchford said. “My brother [driver, trainer and owner, Todd] bought her from the sale in 2021 and she was good training down – just awesome. Then she got a little sore on us, so we gave her some [time off] and turned her out. We brought her back and she got a little sore again, so we gave her some more time.

“We qualified her, and she kept making breaks. There were no lameness issues, but it was all in her head.”

Yet there she was, with Todd in the race bike, powering away from her rivals in the stretch drive at Flamboro Downs on the night of Jan. 27.

A 4-year-old daughter of Sunshine Beach—She Butterfly, Shay Seelster crafted a ١ ¾-length score in 2:03 over a track listed as good.

The bay mare, 0-for-28 heading into the race, was now a first-time winner, just like her trainer.

“This is one horse that I don’t think anyone would have expected to win a race,” Mary said. “But she finally figured it out.”

As for who was more excited at the victory, her or Todd [he owns and once trained Shay Seelster], Mary would label it a dead heat.

“We were both thrilled,” she said. “I didn’t know if she was going to be the first one to get me that first win, but with all the work that went into her, it made the moment even sweeter.”

As did the deluge of texts and phone calls that came in seconds after the race was over.

“I appreciate it all,” Mary said. “Everybody works so hard in this sport, so when you see someone do well, it’s important to acknowledge that. I felt very lucky to have so many people reach out. It’s so hard to get to the winner’s circle, so when you do, there is no better feeling.”

With her career in the opening-quarter phase, so to speak, Mary has a lot to look forward to.

But she took a quick moment to reflect on the journey that has brought her to the training ranks.

“I would always come to the barn during my high school days, but when COVID hit and all the classes went online, I was really able to go to the barn more often,” she said. “I got into it more then — I was very hands-on — and last March, I trained my first one. I was hooked right at that moment.

“I had jogged horses but training them was a whole different ballgame. I thought, ‘You know what? I want to have some more say in the barn.’ So, I applied for my trainer’s license. Todd would drive and I would be the trainer. And that’s how it all came to be.”

Mary currently has nine horses in her barn, a number she sees as ideal, at least for the foreseeable future.

Several of them are getting ready to launch their 2024 campaigns, including Buttinski, a son of Lookslikeachpndale—Dance Hall Wendy whom she co-owns.

“Nine horses are a pretty good number for us,” she said. “We had 10, but one horse makes a lot of difference. You might not think one would, but it really does. Nine is good for now. The days are long, but that’s okay; it keeps us busy.

“Buttinski, the first horse I trained, who was 2, now 3, is the one I have the most expectations for. He is one of my favorites. I am pretty high on him, and I think he could be something special. He’s pretty solid. He has a good attitude and a good gait. He’s got it all and now he just needs to put it together.”

Whether it’s horses like Budinski or her career, Mary isn’t interested in rushing the process.

Forbearance has proved to be a winning approach.

“I’m new, so I am trying to soak up everything from everyone I meet,” she said. “I think patience is the one thing I have learned about myself, that I have more than I thought. You have to chill out and just take a step back sometimes. You have to listen to the horses. They are going to tell you how they feel.”

Perhaps the biggest challenge to date for Mary is turning her thoughts away from the horses when she isn’t at the barn.

For now, it can be termed a work in progress.

“My whole life revolves around horses,” she said with a laugh. “The best thing and the worst thing about this sport is that you are always thinking about it, 24/7. It gets bad when you are overthinking — you wake up in the middle of the night and your mind is on that one horse you can’t seem to get right — but you learn to trust yourself and do what you feel is best.”

Hanging out with her friends has been a welcome tonic for relaxation and recharging.

Finding a time that works for everyone, however, does present its challenges.

“I am always looking for something to do,” Mary said. “All my friends who are my age are in school, so their schedules don’t align very well with my 24/7 schedule. But I try to get out as much as I can to keep my sanity.”

Even in the most stressful of moments, the sights and sounds of the barn, especially in the early morning hours, are always treasured ones for Mary.

As to who is happiest once the greetings commence, Mary or her flock of nine, the young conditioner hasn’t figured out the answer yet.

And that suits her just fine.

“I walk in and they are all hollering,” she said. “I don’t know if they are excited for me or food. I would say we are both happy; call it a dead heat.”