Long before Jan Vandebos knew a thing about horses, or helped head up RanJan Racing, she received some prophetic advice from onetime top racehorse owner Marshall Naify.
Calling her attention to the Thoroughbred racehorses who were a passion to both Marshall Naify and his brother Robert, Vanderbos’ future husband, the woman who had only ever taken a trail ride a time or two in her life was told to get ready.
“Marshall told me to pay attention to everything to do with horses, because it was going to be the most important thing in my life,” says Vandebos, noting that after Marshall Naify’s death in 2000, she and her future husband purchased a stunning bay yearling who’d been sired by prized stallion Bertrando.
And shortly thereafter, she was off to the races!
Mackelwane was the first racehorse she’d ever had an interest in, and she chose him entirely on a gut feeling. “He had a beautiful head and eye, and I just loved his presence,” she says.
He was sent to legendary trainer John A. Shirreffs to grow up and learn to become a racehorse. Only, he never did become a racehorse. Instead, he changed Vandebos’ life.
Dam: Specific Gravity, by Afleet
Foal date: Feb. 13, 1999“We got him as a yearling and retired him at six. He never did break his maiden,” she says. “And while we were talking about what to do, John Shirreffs told me he’d make a great riding horse, and I said, ‘John, I don’t know how to ride.’ ”
The pair decided in 2005 to retire him, and at age 46, Vandebos decided to take her first riding lesson so that she could tool around on her Thoroughbred stallion. And in doing so, Vandebos would embark on a mission to do the right thing for horses in her own life, while setting an example for others.
“My goal was to give this horse a life off the track. I remember seeing a lot of horses on the track who didn’t look good, they looked like sad horses,” she says. “And I didn’t want my horse to be a sad horse. I got this horse and I just felt responsible for him.”
Fearlessly, she embarked on an intensive course of riding lessons at an Olympic level barn outside of San Francisco. The once competitive tennis player, who grew up in a family of athletes, never had a moment of doubt about making a stallion her riding horse.
Although Vandebos felt ready after only three months, her barn manager still could not sign off on the idea, insisting she needed more lessons first. Undaunted, the intrepid rider moved her horse to racetrack barn Magali Farms in Santa Ynez, and shortly thereafter experienced the “very best day of my life,” she says.
“The farm manager put a western saddle on him with draw reins and rode him around first,” she says. “Then I got on and I trotted and cantered him, we did everything!”
For the next year, she rode Mackelwane several days a week, enjoying meandering trail rides together, and bonding with a horse who was never a problem.
Progressing beautifully, agreeably adapting to each other, it seemed that nothing could go wrong. Mackelwane was moved back to his old barn, and jumping lessons were begun, and then the undesirable stallion behavior —rearing, kicking and acting out—began.
“We didn’t want him to be dangerous for myself or anyone, so we made the decision to get him gelded, but it was late. He was already 8 years old,” she says. “After that, he became very unhappy, and I spent the next two years dealing with a horse who was being a monster.”
He reared. He bucked. He tested her. But she refused to yield. “I was taught that no matter what, never jump off. So I stayed on, and I went through two years of really tough times with him, Vandebos says. “People said I was going to get killed.”
What she got was an education.
After two years spent trying everything under the sun, Mackelwane’s good nature returned when she moved him to a barn that offered plenty of pasture and green grass.
“He’s been great every since,” she says. “He’s almost 15 years old now, and we still ride together. I do a little hunter stuff with him, and he’s great.”
Now the manager of the horses at RanJan Racing, she has parlayed her years of experience with her favorite OTTB into best practices for a race business that, above all else, keeps the horses sound and happy.
At RanJan, horses are not raced until they’re 3 ½ years old, giving them more time to grow stronger bodies, resistant to tendon problems and hairline fractures. Should a small injury occur, it is dealt with immediately, rather than allowing it to become a big problem later on, she says. And horses are given ample time away from their stalls, where they are allowed to simply “be a horse.”
And since RanJan Racing implemented these best practices four years ago, the horses have been more successful on the track! They have won more often, and no horse in their stable has broken down or been vanned off, she says.
Thinking back to those prophetic words spoken so long ago, Vandebos’ life has been inalterably changed by the horse. And she is making it her mission to be a standard bearer for best practices for racehorses, on and off the track.
“For me, raising horses and sending them to the track, is a huge responsibility,” she says. “I check each horse myself before they race … and when we retire them, we retire them sound so they can go on to have great lives.”