Breeders’ Cup Presents Connections: Such Sweet Dedication

by | 12.16.2015 | 11:15am
My Sweet Addiction and her groom, Jose "Vinny" Castaneda

The Breeders' Cup at Keeneland was full of exciting moments and unique stories, but some of the best were the ones that never made the headlines.

I was in Lexington for Breeders' Cup week and spent the majority of my waking hours at Keeneland. On Sunday morning after the two-day championships had concluded, an endless stream of vans pulled up to the barns, loaded their precious four-legged cargo, and left for various farms, tracks, sales, and airports. As the barns were emptying of both horses and people, I spent the day with a friend who was looking after a pony that couldn't be shipped back to his home track until later in the week. He happened to be in the “big” barn just around the corner from American Pharoah, so there was a constant buzz of excitement and activity in the background at all times. I can't think of anywhere else I would rather have been that day.

A few stalls down from our pony was a colt who ran in the Juvenile, and in between the two was Pamela Ziebarth's mare, My Sweet Addiction, trained by the third-generation horseman, Marty Jones. They were the only horses left on our row that afternoon, as everyone else had already shipped out.

Most of the connections of these horses had gone home as well: trainers, owners and jockeys had already caught flights or headed to Fasig-Tipton for the sale that evening. Just about the only ones remaining were the grooms and a few other barn personnel who stuck around to see to the horses until it was their turn to load onto the van. These really are some of the most knowledgeable and dedicated people I've ever met in any discipline.

As my friends and I stood talking to some of the remaining guys about the weekend's races, I noticed My Sweet Addiction's groom talking softly to her as he wrapped her legs. He was an older gentleman with a quiet voice, and she stood as still as a statue for him with her eyes half closed. It looked as if they'd gone through this routine a thousand times. When he finished, he began packing up equipment and putting it away neatly into his trunk. My Spanish is terrible, but I'd heard him say a few things in English, so I thought I'd ask him how his mare was doing after the Distaff.

His name was Jose “Vinny” Castaneda, and he absolutely lit up at the chance to talk about My Sweet Addiction. She nuzzled his cheek, and as he patted her neck, he told me she was just as sweet as her name. He also reminded me that she was a Grade 1 winner in California earlier this year and that she had run second to Beholder before heading to Kentucky. He said that this would be his last day with her because she was going off to make babies, though they hadn't picked out a stallion just yet. He looked really sad at the thought, so I took a few pictures of the two of them together and tried to get him to smile.

We talked for a while about other things, about how excited he was that American Pharoah had gone out on such a high note the night before and how he thought he'd never see another Triple Crown winner in his lifetime. Almost on cue, we had to move out of the aisle as Bob Baffert walked by with the Classic winner himself – probably trying to give the champ a breather from the press and fans on the other side of the shedrow. Later in the afternoon, we both watched as American Pharoah had his final racing plates pulled and was shod for the farm. I'll never forget that experience, and I'm glad that Vinny got to see it too. Maybe it helped take a little of the sting out of his final few hours with My Sweet Addiction.

Castaneda, left, with My Sweet Addiction, has been a mainstay in the Jones family stable through three generations

Castaneda, left, with My Sweet Addiction, has been a mainstay in the Jones family stable through three generations

I found out later that Vinny has been with Marty Jones since he started training in 1996 and has worked for the Jones family since the 1960s: first for Marty's grandfather, Farrell Jones, then for his father, Hall of Famer Gary Jones. Vinny's son, Martel, also used to work for Gary and now works for Marty. It's hard to imagine the horses they've seen pass through their barn – Quiet American, Turkoman, Lakeway, Kostrama and so many others. Martel himself was Best Pal's groom, so it's quite the family affair.

Owner Pamela Ziebarth and some others have taken a great interest in Vinny, as he really is part of their racing family, and he now only takes care of her horses in the Jones barn. He worked with My Sweet Addiction from the time she was sent to the track at two until she retired at age five, so it's no wonder that he clearly loves this mare. Ziebarth told me, “I can't wait for Vinny to have her babies to care for.”

After meeting him and seeing the care and tenderness he had for her, I can't wait, either.

Vinny is just one of the many who make the racing world go ‘round, just one of the many behind-the-scenes people you'll rarely hear about in the headlines but who dedicate their lives to these horses. You won't see their names in the charts or past performances, but they're incredibly important to the well-being of these animals and to the sport as a whole. I feel lucky to have stumbled upon such a great example of this, which was just the icing on an already delicious Breeders' Cup week at Keeneland.

  • KenH

    What a wonderful story. :)

  • Michael Castellano

    Very nice article!

  • whirlaway

    Thank you for such a nice article. So many folks that care for these
    wonderful horses go unnoticed and they have so many great stories to
    tell, I am sure if they were interviewed they would be able to give so much insight about the horses they care for. It would be a treat to hear
    those stories.

  • Pimlico_Bred

    Very nice read Karl. Thank you.

  • Marlaine Meeker

    These kind of stories should be a regular feature. Thank you for this one.

  • OopsyDaisy3

    Tender thoughts and special daily doings in the lives of the grooms and caregivers on the back side that are so much a part of what makes good horses feel great and perform well.

    This article by Karl Myers is a testament through thoughtful Vinny to the awesome attachment that goes on between horse and man that many never see nor realize is a huge part of the success of the trainers.

    My Sweet Addiction no doubt comprendes espanol and she understands special little sweet nothings whispered in her ears from Vinny. I love it. I never forget the important duties of so many who go unnoticed but never should be forgotten. Thank you Karl Myers for a nice story about the most important people who know their horses better than anyone. And i look forward to My Sweet Addictions babies ! Linda in Texas

  • nicehorsey

    Thank you for a terrific backside story

  • Ronracefan

    During the 60’s I had aspirations of becoming a jockey. Too much weight and too little talent ended the dream. During that time I was blessed to be mentored by many grooms like Vinny. I fondly remember them as elder statesmen of the backside. They are invaluable to the success of the stable. Kari’s story was very touching and brought back memories of a special time in my life. Thanks for the story. What a beautiful day it must have been for Kari.
    Ron

    • OopsyDaisy3

      Enjoyed your comments Ronracefan. Lucky you to be so close to the backside and everything you said is special. Linda

      • Ronracefan

        Linda,
        Thank you.
        Ron

  • They really were the sweetest pair!

  • Rachel

    Very very sweet, no pun intended. I hope she gets to be loved by someone in her baby production job.

    • pcziebarth

      Rachel,
      My Sweet Addiction has returned to Columbiana Farms in Paris, KY, the farm where she was born and raised. She is surrounded by her close family members; her mother, sisters, brothers and cousins. They have a wonderful team at Columbiana and I assure you she is much loved.
      There is no doubt that Vinny and My Sweet Addiction miss each other…they had developed such a close bond being together every day over several years. We consider ourselves extremely lucky to have someone like Vinny to care for our horses during their time at the track. Vinny continues to care for several of My Sweet Addiction close relatives here in California at the Jones barn.
      Her trainer, Marty Jones is looking forward to visiting her and bring her bunches of carrots, when he attends the January Keeneland Sale.
      My Sweet Addiction has a date this spring with Midnight Lute…Vinny is looking forward to the day he will have her progeny in his care. As Vinny says, “More Champions like their momma”.

  • Marie Caron Jost

    Great piece ! Happened to be at Keeneland that Sunday, also. The only horse on the track that morning was the lead pony that brought America Pharaoh back to the winners circle, the day before. He and his outrider were in soft canter for three laps around the oval. You could tell they were both enjoying the solitude of the day after.

  • That was an absolutely beautiful piece. It shows so much about the sport, and the very special – and important – people who make up the backstretch and take care of these wonderful horses.

  • LindaVA

    Great piece, Kari! Your writing is as good as your photos :)

  • Renuncia Cupelluni

    Very touching story and photo–the photo says it all. With all the scandals and breakdowns in the sport these days, this story reminds me why I was attracted to it in the first place.

  • HideousZippleback

    This is the kind of story I love. Wish we had more stories like this.

  • David Worley

    Loved this piece, good work.

  • Noelle

    I enjoyed reading this so much – thanks, Kari!

  • Always Curious

    Amen!

  • serralinda

    Kari Myers, I love your writing! I’ve been hoping someone would do a story on the bedrock of the industry, the grooms/caretakers of these horses. I actually felt like I was there. Thank you.

  • utbevo24

    Kari did an outstanding job in pointing out the “most knowledgeable and dedicated people” who are so “important to the well being of these animals”.

  • JerseyGirl

    How lovely a read! God bless Vinny and My Sweet Addiction and thanks for covering those who truly care for the horses we love??

  • northerndancer

    Kari, you have captured what I miss most; mornings talking with the most genuine people who deeply care for their horses. It was moving. My wife has tears in her eyes as she reads your story. Thank you.

    • After My Sweet Addiction left for the farm that day, Vinny was cleaning out her stall and making sure all of their equipment was packed up and ready to go. He had a leftover bag of carrots, so he took them all out and laid them out side-by-side at the front of our pony’s stall so he’d have a treat when he got up from his nap. That pretty much says it all about him, doesn’t it? :)

  • Kathy Young

    The Vinnys of this world are the real stars of racing. Wonderful story.

  • Loved this. It captures the devotion so many grooms have for their horses. Grooms are invaluable and way too often overlooked.

  • Susanne Conway

    Now here’s a candidate for Sportsman of the Year

  • Delrene

    Thank you so much for this lovely back story. The photograph says it all. Devotion to each other and real love and affection. Really nice to read at this special time of year

  • Leslie Ackel

    It’s those quiet times around the barn that I choose to remember about racing. Thanks for a fine spotlight article!

  • Patricia Diers

    Fabulous, Kari !!

  • Larry Sterne

    Vinny’s story gave me lump in my throat. Thank you Vinny for being Vinny and thank you Paulick for allowing us to share his story.

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