Dream It Is, a 2-year-old daughter of Shackleford, announced her presence to the racing world in a big way last Friday, dominating Saratoga's G3 Schuylerville Stakes by nine lengths.
“To win by nine at Saratoga, you just don't expect that,” said trainer Barbara Minshall, 60. “You don't know that going in. We just went there because we knew she was a good filly and she would be competitive, but you have to hope for racing luck and then hope for the best.”
That laid-back, down-to-earth attitude is a hallmark of Minshall's personality. She's straightforward but personable; she's the kind of trainer to tell her clients exactly what she thinks of their horse, but she manages to portray that honest assessment without coming across as demeaning. She also goes out of her way to spoil the horses in her care with affection, and of course, plenty of peppermints.
Horses found their way into Barbara Minshall's heart very early in life, and though the type of horse has changed, the sound of hoofbeats has kept her company ever since.
“I was kind of the usual horse-crazy kid,” explained the Montreal native, detailing her earliest years with the Pony Club and hunter/jumper styles of riding. “I was intrigued with the dressage, however.”
Hooking up with Canadian dressage rider and trainer Christilot Hanson-Boylen, Minshall quickly advanced her training, going on to compete internationally from the late 1960s through the 1976 Olympic Games. Minshall's career highlight was at the 1975 Pan American Games, in which she was a member of the silver medal-winning Canadian dressage team. The same team also finished fifth in the '76 Olympics.
During that period, the only exposure Minshall had to the racetrack was a trip to Woodbine in 1973, during which she witnessed Secretariat close out his career with a win in the Canadian International.
It was not that brush with greatness that first drew her to the Thoroughbred industry, however. A former business associate of her father's, Aubrey Minshall, re-entered her life in 1977 and the couple were soon married. He was just getting into the racing game, and she moved in with him on Minshall Farm northwest of Toronto.
“That kind of led me to the racehorses,” said Minshall, who credits her late husband with teaching her about the Thoroughbred game, from breeding all the way to the track. “As he got bigger in the racehorses, I just got more and more involved.”
Aubrey Minshall was a self-made man born in Trinidad who came to Canada in 1949. Besides racehorses, the businessman was also a big fan of cutting horses and handed down that passion to one of his two sons, Shawn, as well as to Barbara. Today, Shawn Minshall hosts cutting horse events on Minshall Farm and raises a select number of Thoroughbreds for commercial auction.
In 1993, Aubrey Minshall passed away suddenly, suffering an aneurism during a hunting trip in Russia. It was the middle of the heyday for his breeding operation, and the future Canadian Horse Racing Hall of Fame inductee left behind a legacy of bloodstock that would surpass his wildest dreams.
“I knew how it needed to be run, and how he would have liked it to be kept running,” said Barbara Minshall. She felt compelled to fulfill the legacy he'd left behind.
After acquiring her trainer's license in 1995, she became the first female to take home the Sovereign Award for leading trainer just one year later, in 1996. That year, Mt. Sassafras was also honored as Horse of the Year and top older horse, while Minshall Farms was honored as both leading owner and breeder.
Homebred Mt. Sassafras was “a dream come true” that Aubrey never got to see come to fruition, Minshall explained. In 1996 the Minshall Farm homebred won both the Eclipse and Dominion Day Stakes at Woodbine, then finished fourth to Alphabet Soup, Louis Quatorze and Cigar in the Breeders' Cup Classic held at Woodbine in November. The next year, he captured the Grade 1 Gulfstream Park Handicap by 2 ¼ lengths over Skip Away to give Minshall her first top-level triumph.
Other top homebreds from the Minshall program included Prince of Wales Stakes winners Kiridashi and Stephanotis, and top turf mare Bold Ruritana.
Shawn and Patrick Minshall, Barbara's stepsons, were the main partners in Minshall Farms after their father's passing. After their early successes, the two decided to make their way out of the business in 2006. Farms in both Toronto and Ocala were sold, as well as the majority of the horses as the brothers dissolved their partnership. The several horses that weren't sold, Shawn Minshall kept in training with his stepmother.
Barbara Minshall still had a few horses in her own name and claimed several more to fill her stalls as she opened her training business to the public for the first time. On the side, she also kept several broodmares for her own small program.
“In some ways it was very difficult because nobody ever thought of me as a public trainer,” she said. “Scary wouldn't be the right word… I mean, I didn't want to lose my shirt, but it wasn't about making money, I just wanted to break even.
“You just kind of do it and see if you can make it work. Eventually I got a little bit luckier and a little bit better horses, and just got pretty fortunate.”
Minshall's primary passion these days is working with young horses. She loves to ride onto the track on her stable pony and watch the 2-year-olds train, developing them from babies into real racehorses.
“Claiming horses is not my thing,” she said. “My ambition is I like to get yearlings, develop them as 2-year-olds and see where they all lead… I like seeing them come along. That's the fun part for me, and the rewarding part.”
Dream It Is, for example, is definitely one of the “fun” ones in Minshall's stable. Selected for Andrew Hudson at the Keeneland September yearling sale by Travis Durr, the $50,000 filly went to Webb Carroll Training Center in South Carolina for her early training. Returned to Minshall at Woodbine in April, she immediately displayed her talent with a maiden victory, then followed it up with a 4 ¾-length listed stakes win in just her second career start.
“She was a nice little filly right from the get-go,” Minshall said. “She's not a big filly, but she's grown a lot and she's still growing. After a couple breezes, we knew she'd be pretty precocious.”
Dream It Is had never raced over the dirt going into the Schuylerville, winning her first two starts over Woodbine's Tapeta surface. Minshall had breezed her consistently over the dirt training course, where she tends to train the majority of her babies, so she was unafraid of the surface change.
The nine-length route, while unexpected, certainly proved that Dream It Is didn't have any issue with the dirt. Initially, Minshall wondered if she would be able to stretch out down the road, since the filly had led all the way in her first two starts. But after watching her relax just off the pace in the Schuylerville, Minshall is looking forward to finding out what else Dream It Is could be capable of.
“She is still growing, and she was pretty tired after that race, so we'll give her a little break before we come back,” said Minshall. “She's a horse that, if you take hold of her, she'll wait for you. But only time will tell if she'll go two turns.”
At 1 1/16 miles, the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies could be a far-off goal for the peppermint-loving filly. Minshall wasn't willing to speculate, but after coming so close to the Breeders' Cup Classic win in 1996, she'd be hard-pressed to not have the “Dream” of making it back for another chance to don the royal purple.
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