Colonial Downs’ Resurgence Good News For Barrel Racers?

by | 09.06.2019 | 11:48am
Follett (L) and Alexander (R) at Jettin Bye Farm near Colonial Downs

The Thoroughbred farms and breeding businesses in Middleburg and Charlottesville, Va., weren't the only equine operations hoping for an economic boost from the new season at Colonial Downs. The return of flat racing to the Virginia track has also fueled economic development elsewhere in New Kent County. 

For Holly Alexander and business partner Stella Follett, the track's reopening couldn't have come at a better time. The pair recently launched a new business out of Jettin Bye Farm in Quinton, Va., about 20 minutes from Colonial. Both Alexander and Follett are lifelong barrel racers and right now, the stalls in their airy new barn are filled with Quarter Horses. But Alexander's experience at last year's Retired Racehorse Project opened her eyes to the magic of off-track Thoroughbreds (OTTBs). 

Alexander took The Love Monkey, a 5-year-old son of The Green Monkey, to last year's Thoroughbred Makeover, where they finished in the top ten in the barrel racing division. 

“I didn't know anything about Thoroughbreds when I got him,” she said. “People were telling me, 'Oh you got an off-the-tracker? Be prepared.' But he was a trooper—in the first 24 hours I put him in a Western saddle, rode him around. He was the best horse ever.”

Monkey has since moved on to a new home, where Alexander has ensured he's as spoiled as ever, and she's got her eyes peeled for her next OTTB barrels prospect. She's been at Colonial Downs each week since the track opened, keeping an eye out for the right body type. Barrel racing needs short, coupled horses who can negotiate tight turns, so Alexander prefers the small, scrappy types who may get overlooked by someone seeking an eventer or dressage prospect. 

Even though she isn't preparing them for dressage, Alexander said she conditions Monkey and her other training horses with a few exercises that may be familiar to dressage riders. In her program, training a barrel racer has far less to do with conditioning in an increasing amount of speed and more to do with subtle, accurate movements that can improve her horses' efficiency – and lots of suppleness. She keeps an old English saddle in her tack room for occasional use to help her recenter her balance or work on a horse's flexibility. 

“I do a lot of slow work,” she said. “I don't step up speed until I feel like they're there mentally. We do lots of circles, lots of slow work, moving off the leg. We make sure they're soft and supple before we move them up. Their bodies are set up for this sport, if you pick the right horse.” 

Alexander gained national recognition when she was just 15, finishing second in the second division barrel racers at the National Barrel Horse Association World Championships, and coming 15th in the nation there aboard SRS Jettin Bye, for whom her farm is now named.

“When I was four I had this terrible obsession with horses,” Alexander said. “My parents caved and started doing weekly lessons, thinking it was a kid thing and I'd grow out of it. Then I wanted more lessons and they told me I'd have to work it off if I wanted to do that, so I started working at the barn. I leased my first horse, then we bought the first horse, and then the second horse, and then a small farm. 

“My parents are wondering why I couldn't just have played soccer,” she joked.

Alexander made a name for herself as a professional trainer but realized a couple of years ago that wasn't the life she wanted.

“My dream was to be a horse trainer,” she said. “I opened this barn, filled it up. I found myself riding every day, all day. Twelve hours a day, five or six days a week and shows on weekends. I was getting really tired and sick. I felt 50 years old and I'm only 25.”

A Thoroughbred from Colonial Downs enjoys the cold water spa at Jettin Bye. Photo courtesy Stella Follett

That's when Alexander and Follett began exploring the possibility of adding equine therapy to Jettin Bye's operation. During trips out West for horse shows, they witnessed large facilities offering menus of services they hadn't seen at home. 

“There's nothing like that on the East Coast as far as full-fledged rehab facilities,” she said. “Some places will have the [cold water] spa but not anything else. I thought, what if we take a chance and jump into this niche? I started gathering equipment, one piece at a time.

“We moved here three years ago and I had no intention of rehabbing. We got really lucky in the meantime. I'm not exhausted at the end of the day and it's really rewarding to see the horses feel better and do better.”

The barn now has a therapy room which houses a cold water spa, vibration plate, laser therapy, PEMF, therapeutic nebulizer, and a massage blanket. Follett has ties to the Thoroughbred world after growing up with her parents on the Michigan racing circuit, so the pair began advertising their therapy services at Colonial. So far, the response has been hugely positive – Thoroughbreds have shipped in to use the cold water spa or vibration plate, and Alexander and Follett bring their mobile equipment to the track. They say they've had interest from trainers looking for extra comfort for a lay-up as well as for horses in active training. 

A Colonial runner enjoys a 3 in 1 blanket which provides massage, PEMF, and therapeutic heat. Photo courtesy Stella Follett

Alexander and Follett are pleased by the positive response because they're hoping it means those same horsemen will call them when their horses' racing careers are done. As Colonial prepares to wind down its season, Jettin Bye is looking to continue its association with Thoroughbreds. The farm is offering two weeks of free board and therapy services, and another two weeks at 50 percent off, to any horse retiring from racing or on their way to an approved aftercare program. If the horse is a former Colonial runner headed to the RRP Thoroughbred Makeover's barrel racing division, Jettin Bye will offer a month of free training and therapy. Alexander said no one has taken her up on the offer yet, but she has only run the promotion for a few weeks. As she and Follett travel the Colonial backstretch to provide therapy services, they make sure trainers know – if this one's ready to find a new gig, they're ready to help.

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