From the time she gets out of bed at 3 a.m., Melissa Williams is the very definition of multi-tasking. All morning, the long-time assistant to Woodbine trainer Mike De Paulo is problem-solving, directing stable employees and keeping a hawk's eye on the horses.
Williams, 45, said her story isn't so different from many others on the backstretch: she grew up horse-crazy on Canada's eastern coast, had her own horse as a child and moved to Vancouver in 1993. She got a job grooming at Hastings Park and eventually trained her own small string there from 1999 to 2001. In 2004, she took the assistant job at Woodbine with De Paulo and his wife Josie, who Williams says is the head assistant in the shedrow.
For Williams, the switch from trainer to assistant wasn't a step back – it was a practical way to stay in the barns.
“The security of being someone's assistant is good when you have a mortgage to pay,” she said. “Training horses is a hard gig. You need to have the owners and the money. A steady income is a bird in the hand, two in the bush sort of feeling.”
Williams' role in the barn includes a little bit of everything — she makes sure employees show up and know what to do each day, relays information between veterinarians and farriers to the De Paulos, she checks supplies to ensure the barn doesn't run out of anything, she sets the bridles and equipment for the horses in the afternoon.
Even as morning training winds down, Williams doesn't stop moving. Employees come up to her asking who should hold horses for receiving treatments, looking for pine oil and shampoo, asking for help with a difficult horse, receiving instructions on the final sweeping and raking of the aisle for the day. Part of her job is problem-solving, keeping everyone organized when De Paulo has horses and employees spread across multiple barns, as he has before. She posts brightly-colored notes on stall doors reminding grooms where each horse's feed tub is kept. Fans and stall webbings are labeled with the appropriate horse's names.
“Jack of all trades, master of none, that's basically what I am,” she said. “I would say I'm a micromanager and part-time therapist, part-time witch.”
The human management side of things hasn't always been easy, she admits – Woodbine's backstretch community is made up of many different cultures and in the beginning, she found some grooms and hotwalkers weren't interested in taking orders from a white, female assistant. With time though, that dynamic has eased and most people have decided to put their feelings aside and get on with the work.
The other part of Williams' job, which she does exceptionally well, is knowing the horses in the shedrow inside and out. She gestures toward Street Talkin Guy, a 2-year-old Street Sense who looks more like a 10-year-old European Warmblood. The sweet gelding (gelded early over fears he would continue growing bigger if they didn't) is easily 17 hands already, with enormous feet and joints indicating he could keep expanding. He hasn't started yet, and Williams is hoping he'll get more time to finish maturing, or possibly just to quit growing, before he loads in the starting gates. Given his size, she expects he'd make a good distance runner.
“He'll be able to run, go pick up a sandwich, do delivery, come back and finish the race,” she quipped. “Look at his head! If I ever need to win by a head, I have it. And I'm teaching him to stretch it out, so if he needs it, he has it.”
“He hasn't done anything, really. He likes to eat, go on long walks on the beach, under the romantic sun. He likes to sleep. It used to really upset him if they made him get up before his nap to train. Mike De Paulo used to get mad at him because he said he sleeps too much, and you can't get him up. The only way you can get him is to shake food. They tried everything. They even threw water on him, and he just looked at them.”
Williams doesn't only know her horses' training schedules and equipment needs; she knows their bloodlines, their parents' race records, their preferred treats (most of the De Paulo horses take anything – mints, carrots, apples, bananas – they've been introduced to all of it). To her, their personalities are so clear through a flick of an ear or a toss of the head, it's not hard to describe them in very human terms. She gestures to Cindervella, whose stall is down the row from Street Talkin Guy.
“She has a little bit of Haley [Joel Osmet] in her. She gets to the eighth pole and thinks she sees dead people, but she's ok,” Williams joked. “She is a very strong opinioned woman. There are certain things you don't push with her.”
According to Williams, Cindervella's only real vice is cribbing, which she does gleefully on the bar across the front of her door. De Paulo added a plastic cover and some Vaseline to the bar in hopes it would break the filly's habit.
“They said ‘She won't crib on that,'” Williams chuckled. “She looks at it and says, ‘Hold my beer. Challenge accepted.' It took her about ten minutes.”
All this familiarity is what makes Williams good at what she does, but it can also make her job tougher.
“We lost a horse last week [to a claim]. You'd be amazed how many times your heart can break,” she said. “I've been doing this since I was 19. I'm 45 and I still cry when I lose one which, I've been doing this for twenty-something years so I sound pathetic, but I figure if you don't love them, I don't really see the benefit in being here.”
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