Train him and flip him, that was always the plan.
But Jake Chalfin, a former amateur steeplechase jockey and Thoroughbred trainer learned that plans change, for the better and for the worse.
And his did, in ways both tragic, and deeply rewarding.
The bad day dawned with excitement as the amateur jockey readied to ride in a Virginia steeplechase in September 2010.
The seasoned equestrian was participating in one of his favorite horse sports, a hobby that counterbalanced his day job as a salesman for an agricultural company, when the horse he was riding “flipped out” and threw the 32-year-old athlete into a fence post.
The impact broke 13 vertebrae in his neck and back, leaving Chalfin paralyzed from the chest down.
Always the horse lover, Chalfin didn’t blame the horse he rode that day. He loved “catch riding” different horses as he did on what would be his last day in the saddle. “I understood the risk involved,” he says with a Russian Bay
Dam: Christina Czarina
Foal date: March 24, 2002matter-of- fact calm, and without a trace of resentment. “And, I don’t blame the sport.”
As he began the arduous journey to rebuild his life, Chalfin worried not just about himself and his own future, but about a good-natured ex-racehorse named Russian Bay. Chalfin, in a 50-50 partnership with friend Betsy DeMarino, had planned to train the strapping steed, who possessed tremendous promise, with an eye toward selling him as a competitive sport horse. Or “flipping him” to a competitive rider when the time was right.
The animal had been coming along brilliantly before the accident. Training hard in all weather to learn his job, he agreeably spent months carrying Chalfin over outdoor trails, trotting hills to build strength.
“I got Russian in 2008, and he was perfect. Perfect conformation, clean legs, and he was really cute. I figured it’d be easy to train him and flip him for cash,” Chalfin says. “I trained him for a full year, even through one of the roughest winters we’d ever had. It was so cold that year that we’d come back from riding, and he’d have icicles hanging off his whiskers.”
He was so good about everything that it eventually occurred to Chalfin that the powerful horse deserved more.
“Up until this point, I’d trained a lot of horses. And it occurred to me while I was riding through a hay field, that even if I didn’t make a dime on him, it was such an enriching experience to be with him. He was so special.”
After Chalfin’s injury abruptly ended his plan to personally retrain Russian, the onetime jockey and the agreeable ex-racehorse went through an odyssey—bouncing from friend to friend in search of a permanent home for the horse.
In successive efforts to train and sell Russian, two supportive friends stepped forward and volunteered their time, facilities, and all that goes with horse keeping to prepare the big bay for a prospective buyer.
First, he was shipped to a professional hunter/jumper barn for training with Chalfin’s friend Lisa Scott. For a year, Russian was pampered and fattened up on good grain.
His coat grew shiny; his body filled out.
As others in the horse community, including farriers and veterinarians, donated their services to Chalfin’s horse, the animal was schooled for about a year with great care and attention. To no avail.
After Russian failed to attract a buyer, Chalfin was reluctant to have his good friend continue to funnel more money into Russian’s care, so a second friend volunteered to take on the project.
Once again loaded onto a trailer, the gorgeous animal was shipped to Chalfin’s friend Gillian King, a talented and experienced event rider.
For six months, King worked with the beautifully muscled 17-hand Thoroughbred, who during that time demonstrated his natural flair for jumping. Twice, he came close to selling, but in the end, as with the first trainer, there were no takers.
By this point, Chalfin worried that Russian Bay needed a needle-in-a-haystack rider, an amateur with the ability to relax on an animal who appeared strong and forward. “I started to worry that he could only be ridden by professional riders, but that they wouldn’t be interested because they’d want to do the training themselves,” Chalfin explains.
“The less skilled riders (the amateurs) would take a look at him and maybe be a bit intimidated. They’d see a big, tall fast-looking Thoroughbred. And when they rode him, they’d compensate by clamping down on him thinking he was going to be a strong, forward horse,” Chalfin says. “And as soon as this happened, he’d tense up, and his stride would shorten up, get bouncier, and he’d even rush the fences.”
With all this worrying him, Chalfin decided to give Russian Bay one more shot. He contacted a third trainer.
Priscilla Godsoe of Pennsylvania agreed this past November to take him, and that’s when the magic happened.
“She got on him and inside of 10 minutes she had him jumping four-foot verticals!” Chalfin says.
And she saw what he saw.
“I knew it from the first jump,” she says. “It was like he was trying to say, ‘Please give me a shot.’ At this point, he had passed through enough people, and I know it’s weird to say, but I felt like he waited for the right person.”
Godsoe figured she was that person and planned on making him her personal “it” show horse, knowing that with her dedication to training and as an equally talented rider, this horse could become a top competitor.
And he is well on his way.
But not as Godsoe’s horse!
Like magically finding the right marriage partner once a suitor stops looking, Russian’s perfect rider turned up as if out of thin air.
Victoria Latham, 15, and her parents were looking to purchase their first horse when they approached Godsoe. The young rider had tested a couple of other horses in Godsoe’s barn, but none clicked.
“Then one day I thought about Russian Bay for Victoria, but I really wasn’t sure. So I told her that I would give her five minutes on him, and if it worked, great. If it didn’t, I was pulling her straight off him,” Godsoe says.
And in those five minutes, all the worry, and the work of two previous trainers, the veterinarians and the farriers came full circle when Russian Bay met his match.
“I saw it immediately. He went better for her than he did for me,” Godsoe says. “I could tell he instantly picked her.”
As the two went around the ring, Godsoe started building the jumps higher and higher. Pretty soon, Latham and Russian Bay were brilliantly clearing four feet.
“What I didn’t find out until after was that up until that point, the highest Latham had jumped was maybe 2-foot-six,” Godsoe says.
But, Latham was unafraid on her 17-hand new friend.
Latham explains, “I hadn’t been jumping that high, but he made me really confident. I knew he had jumped high already, and I trusted that he knew what to do.”
Now Latham and Russian Bay are making the scene on the A Circuit!
Watching the pair together at a recent show, Chalfin observed a tender moment between the horse and rider he helped bring together.
Russian Bay had been outperforming all the horses at the show, but was consistently pinned last. Finally, the judge came out and explained to the horse and rider that they were wearing the wrong tack. Russian had been outfitted in rubber reins, not the required leather ones.
Godsoe, who had accompanied them to the show, immediately switched the reins, and the plan for Russian Bay changed again: he won his next three classes and the championship of the show.
“As I watched them,” Chalfin says, “Victoria was standing on the ground holding Russian Bay while Priscilla went to get the replacement reins. And I could see her whispering to him that it wasn’t his fault, that he was wearing the wrong tack.
“He had his head low and was cuddling next to her. And I could tell they had some chemistry.”
And after a long and difficult journey, Chalfin had to chuckle. All the changes to plans had worked out very well for a lucky ex-racehorse and his new best friend.