Toni Modzelewski grew up in the suburbs of Chicago and knew at a young age she wanted to work with horses. She quit Grant Community High School in Fox Lake, Ill., at the end of her junior year to pursue her passion, much to her parents' consternation.
Modzelewski can still hear the voice of her mother, Michelle Carmody: “Horses are a hobby, not a career, Toni.”
As well-intended as her mother was, Modzelewski, 47, proved her wrong by eventually building a career in equine therapeutic massage. She's based at Arlington Park this summer and typically works on six to eight horses per day. She's also built a strong client base in Louisiana and intends to spend the winter there.
There is no shortage of horses that would welcome the help she provides. Modzelewski uses a combination of her hands and a magna wave machine that she said helps her “work muscles quicker, easier and deeper.”
Modzelewski said of the value of massage on racehorses, “Just like any athlete, when you are training and performing, you are going to need body work.”
Her successes are highlighted by Monte Man and Mongolian Saturday. Monte Man, a Louisiana-bred, was claimed for $25,000 on Oct. 7, 2017 at New York's Belmont Park out of a race in which he showed little interest, finishing seventh of eight.
The combination of a move to Louisiana, new trainer Ron Faucheux and Modzelewski's care helped him to rattle off seven consecutive victories, the last five of them stakes races, after that dull Belmont Park effort.
According to Faucheux, Modzelewski has helped many of his horses.
“We've seen many benefits,” he said. “She can point out some of the less obvious things in a horse. She is very good at what she does as far as the diagnostic part and the treatment part.”
Mongolian Saturday made an inauspicious debut in a maiden claiming race at Arlington Park. He steadily improved and Modzelewski tended to him when he was a 5-year-old gelding, one of 12 horses trained by Enebish Ganbat, a native of Mongolia. Mongolian Saturday entered the 2015 Breeders' Cup Turf Sprint as a 16-1 longshot and delivered the biggest upset in those world championships at Keeneland.
Modzelewski started at the bottom in racing as a hotwalker at Arapahoe Park in Colorado. She broke babies in Kansas and Oklahoma before returning home to Chicago and Arlington Park as an exercise rider in the late 1990's.
For a long time, she aspired to become a trainer and served as an assistant to Michael Stidham, among others, in the previous decade.
“I was going to be the first woman to win the Kentucky Derby as a trainer,” she said. “Big dreams.”
Big dreams gave way to an unpleasant reality. It was impossible for her to view horses as a commodity.
“I didn't think I'd be very good at the business end, dealing with owners,” she said. “I didn't feel comfortable taking an animal as an investment and trying to have a return on it.”
So she began her formal education in massage therapy, first as it applies to humans and then to horses. She stopped exercising horses in 2011 to focus all of her effort on helping achy four-legged patients.
Trainer Chris Davis, based at Arlington Park, views Modzelewski as an indispensable part of his operation.
“The jockeys have masseuses in the jocks' room,” he noted. “It's the same for horses. They are athletes. Their muscles are being used. Just getting a little body rub from a therapist is going to help immensely.”
Davis rides many of his horses in the morning. He can feel a difference once Modzelewski has treated them.
“If they are under a lot of stress, their bodies are working in so many different ways, it's easy for one thing to get out of whack,” he said. “I think she's helped basically all of them. If I didn't think she was worth it, I wouldn't use her.”
With the benefit of experience, Modzelewski is often able to spot issues either by watching a horse train or by seeing it jog outside the barn. She also spots issues by palpating, or touching, specific areas. She remains constantly wary, but her considerable experience with horses typically helps her to examine and treat them in a manner that keeps both parties safe.
She has scores of patients that are satisfied in every way but one – they want more.
“Once you work on them and they see you, they will nicker and they will shake their heads,” she said. “They'll be like, 'Is it my turn today? Is it my turn today?' “
It is not uncommon for a horse to turn around in the stall, as if to point to a troublesome area. Once treated, she often observes them checking on the quality of her work while in their stall.
“They will push against a wall and then walk around. They are trying it out to see if it feels better,” she said, adding, “A happy horse is a running horse.”
When Modzelewski was a child, she would rescue stray animals of all kinds. In a sense, she is not far removed from those days as she brings aid and comfort to one shedrow after another.
“Even though it is a business, my intent is for the horses and their well-being,” she said, knowing she has finally found her calling.
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