Winner's circle celebrations are one of the best parts of the sport for the grooms and exercise riders who work so hard for their equine charges. Sometimes, however, the emotions run even higher hundreds of miles away from the racetrack.
For Maria Kabel, watching the races on her phone, rather than in person, has become a regular occurrence. She celebrates the victories with a quiet smile, possibly a congratulatory text to an owner, but quickly turns back to one of the many chores life on the farm has to offer.
Kabel has worked for trainer Buff Bradley for nearly 20 years, first as an exercise rider, then an assistant trainer. These days, she can be found in one of the three main barns on Bradley's farm in Frankfort, Ky., tending to any number of Thoroughbreds, children, and even the local goat and pig population.
“I've had some physical issues after galloping for so long, especially with my feet,” Kabel explained. “It was really hard to step away from the racetrack, but I was tired of traveling all the time. Transferring to the farm has been good for me, both mentally and physically. I still keep track of all our racehorses, though!”
The Cincinnati native grew up riding and roller skating, once a member of the nation-leading Golden Skates speed roller skating team. Eventually Kabel was forced to choose between her two passions, and the horses won out. She discovered she could get paid to ride horses on the racetrack and never looked back.
Landing the job with Bradley has been a major blessing in Kabel's life. She's a part of the family, living on Indian Ridge Farm alongside Bradley's wife, Kim, and their three children. When Kabel stepped back from the racetrack life two winters ago, Bradley supported her decision without a second thought; he quickly created a position for her on the farm.
At first, Kabel maintained the same kinds of tasks she had become responsible for as his assistant. She does all the bookkeeping, sends out payroll, coordinates shipping, and spends hours on the phone each week discussing every one of the stable's Thoroughbreds at the racetrack.
It is what Kabel started doing in her free time, however, that really defined her new role at Indian Ridge.
“I started giving Buff's daughter, Jett, riding lessons in one of the fields at the farm,” Kabel said. “Before I knew it, one of her friends got involved, and then another… I've never advertised, but now I have about 15 riding students who all take lessons on off-track Thoroughbreds.”
Bradley, a long-time 4-H leader in Frankfort, soon built a riding arena on the property. Kabel's passion for teaching drew in not just students but also some of the stable's retiring Thoroughbreds from the track. Once again, Bradley put his full support behind Kabel when she suggested they start a “re-training” program for their retirees.
She started her program with eight stalls and has built it up to 19. Every lesson horse is a retired Thoroughbred, as are the group's show horses.
One of Kabel's first equine students was multi-millionaire and Grade 1 winner Brass Hat, whom she had groomed and galloped during his star-studded career. The gelding, who will be honored as an official Breyer model horse at the Kentucky Horse Park later this year, did some small local shows with both Chelsey Coady and the now 14-year-old Jett Bradley.
“He jumps very well, but he just doesn't really enjoy it,” Kabel said. “Now, Buff or I will occasionally throw a stock saddle on him to trail ride around the property, but for the most part he just hangs out with his best friend in his paddock.”
The less successful racehorses Kabel re-started have been showing promise, and while that section of the farm doesn't make money, she has started to sell a few of the fancier ones. Each has at least five months of schooling under its belt before leaving Indian Ridge.
Those retired Thoroughbreds that aren't sound enough to be ridden regularly are re-homed through Second Stride, to which Bradley donates a significant amount every year. Every so often, Kabel is contacted about a horse that ended up in the kill pen, and she continues to be humbled by Bradley's willingness to dip into his own pockets to rescue those Thoroughbreds, though he often never even trained the animal.
“Buff is very heavily involved in the re-starting program, and we all want to be responsible breeders,” said Kabel. “We try to be responsible for every horse we bring into the game, and part of my job is to keep track of all of our horses that are still racing and ensure their connections know to contact us if they need a home. I bug people about it a lot!”
Kabel and the Indian Ridge crew do some smaller shows in the area, and are regular participants in the Thoroughbred shows and the Thoroughbred Makeover put on by the Retired Racehorse Project.
This year, she has gotten permission from Bradley to work toward putting on a benefit horse show for retired Thoroughbreds at Masterston Station Park in Lexington. Kabel said she has already had a number of offers from big-name jockeys to help out with silent auction items, and 100 percent of the proceeds will go to programs like Second Stride.
Kabel's other jobs around the farm include helping to oversee the layup barn and the broodmare barn, the latter foaling out an average of five mares per year. Though she doesn't have a lot of experience with breeding, Kabel has been a member of the Bradley team long enough to see the births of several of its biggest stars, including dual Eclipse Award-winner Groupie Doll.
One of those Indian Ridge-bred foals made racing headlines two weeks ago at the Fair Grounds. The Player, piloted by Hall of Famer Calvin Borel, turned in an impressive 4 ¼-length victory in the Grade 3 Mineshaft Handicap. The 5-year-old is one of the last horses Bradley bred with his late father, Fred Bradley, and co-owner Carl Hurst.
“Kim (Bradley's wife) actually delivered The Player, along with his daughter Jett,” Kabel recalled. “He has been sitting like a dog on his haunches for his whole life – we even sent him to the clinic a few times because of that!”
The Player has developed a fan following due to his unusual antics off the racetrack, including the habit of sitting down on his haunches. He even has a Facebook page, operated by Bradley himself, which has a number of entertaining videos showcasing those antics. One of The Player's favorite tricks is to lie down with his head hanging out underneath the stall guard into the shed row, then stretch his lips to beg for peppermints whenever anyone walks by.
“He's actually kind of ornery in the stall when you're grooming him,” Kabel laughed. “He thinks he's playing a game with us, but doesn't realize he is big enough to hurt us when he gets too rough.
“One time when he was younger, Buff was bush-hogging the field on the farm and he had to call us in to help get The Player out of the field. The silly horse kept trying to jump on the back of the tractor while it was moving!
“In the round pen at Tampa last year, I remember watching him sit up the way he does, then, because he's too lazy to stand all the way up, scooting around with his front legs to get turned around the other way. People still call us all the time to tell us he's colicing, but he's just being himself.”
Watching The Player's winning race on her phone was a little bit harder than she expected it to be, Kabel admitted. Despite the physical toll it has taken on her body, life on the racetrack is a thrill like no other. After a moment of thought, though, Kabel acknowledges that, despite the nostalgia, she is exactly where she's supposed to be.
“To be totally honest, I probably wouldn't have lasted so long in the racing game if I hadn't been working for Buff,” she said. “I really, really care about the horses, and if he didn't care as much as I do, I'd have gotten burned out a long time ago.
“I can't imagine doing anything else.”
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