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In a heavy wooded area of Hillsburgh, Ont., where deer and turkey vultures run wild, Ruth Barbour rides her horse through trails she has cut on her 20-acre property. This may not sound unusual for rural Ontario except that the giant, chocolate-coloured gelding she rides is one of the country’s fastest racehorses.
Country Boy 123, the quarter horse of the year at Ajax Downs in 2016, is undefeated this season and a win in Sunday’s $ 60,000 Bank of American Challenge will earn the horse a berth to the North American final, worth $ 330,000 (U.S.), in Iowa on Oct. 14.
The unique story of the 62-year-old Barbour, who has a veterinarian practice and owns a few thoroughbreds with sister Gail Wood, has captured the attention of the American quarter horse industry. The noted Raceview Network show, based in Oklahoma, is sending a crew to Ajax Downs for the first time to produce live coverage of Sunday’s race.
“Ruth is simply an excellent horseman and she has managed her horse well,” said Chris O’Dell, a champion quarter horse trainer in California and a winner of more than 400 races. “He’s a really big horse and it seems that riding him through trails and fields on her farm is what he needs.”
Barbour took an interest in quarter horse racing in 2011 through neighbours Bryn and Carol Robertson, who have been successful in the sport.
“I wanted to be more hands-on with my horses,” Barbour said. “With the thoroughbreds, you can breed them and raise them but then they go to the track and that’s it. You visit them as a spectator to watch them race.”
The American quarter horse, the world’s oldest horse breed, can go from a standstill in the gate to 50 m.p.h. in seconds. They typically run at distances from 250 to 440 yards (one-quarter of a mile).
Since Ajax Downs does not have enough stabling for all the province’s quarter horses, runners are shipped in on race day only, meaning owners and trainers must exercise their horses on tracks at farms.
Barbour does not have a track, other than a makeshift path her husband Doug Jackson cut out in their front field and the forested trails.
“I ride C.B. everywhere,” Barbour said. “It’s so good for a horse’s mind; he’s happy and loves it. The trails go up and down, it’s scary, there’s always turkeys running out in front of us, so you teach them a lot more.”
Incredibly, Barbour plucked Country Boy out of a horse sale with more than 800 yearlings in Oklahoma in the fall of 2014.
“He just came into the ring and it was like he said, ‘Look at me’,” Barbour said. “He was really big but he was so cool and confident.”
It took a while for Country Boy 123 to put his large frame into perfect racing action but by his fifth race, which came in May of 2016, the gelding became virtually unbeatable. He has won nine of his last 10 at Ajax and, on June 18, obliterated a long-standing track record for 300 yards at Ajax.
“He is a highly intelligent horse,’ said Country Boy’s regular rider, Cory Spataro. “When I get up on him, he knows it’s showtime. He gets cocky and he loves the attention.”
Barbour only owns one other quarter horse — Country Boy’s good buddy Furr Shear is also a winner this season — and understands that a bit of luck, in addition to her horsemanship, has been in play.
“In a way, it’s so weird that he is so fast. He could be a big, fancy dressage horse but he is a monster on the track.”
The Bank of America Challenge will be the seventh race Sunday at Ajax Downs, with an expected post time of 3:37 p.m.