The surname Elder is synonymous with dedicated horsemen and women for four generations. In 1958, Robert Elder, an avid foxhunter, purchased and developed Elderberry Hill Farm in Aurora which was home to many early show jumping and three-day event competitions. His three sons, James, Norman, and Jim all rode and competed internationally with Jim achieving the greatest international success, having won medals at the Olympics, World Championships, and Pan Am Games. Today, the Elder tradition of great horsemanship continues through Jim’s daughter and grandchildren.
Jim’s oldest daughter, Elizabeth, grew up ensconced in horses at the family’s Elderberry Hill Farm. She rode on the hunter/jumper circuit for years, piloting a lot of Thoroughbreds around the ring including Sweet Dreams and Sportable. As an adult she felt the siren song of the racetrack, where a number of her show industry friends including Malcolm Pierce, Gail Casselman and Catherine Day (her dad’s teammate Jim Day’s daughter) had already been lured. She is now a successful trainer at Woodbine Racetrack in Etobicoke with 57 career wins to her name so far, migrating south with her charges to race in Florida in the winter months.
Many of Liz’s horses are owned by Robert Cudney, a man with strong show jumping and foxhunting roots himself whose father, Doug, was coincidentally the chef d’équipe of the Canadian Equestrian Team at the 1968 Olympics. And here’s another cool family tie: Jim Elder is Rob Cudney’s uncle.
The track has also lured Jim’s grandkids. Both boys from Jim’s youngest son, Mark, work for top Woodbine trainer Barbara Minshall, who herself has a history in show jumping and dressage.
Chad, 30, has been Minshall’s assistant trainer for three years. An AT acts as the trainer’s right hand, supervising stable staff, their training and recruitment, setting out the training schedules, liaising with owners and helping with the overall running of the business. ATs are often required to represent the trainers at races – saddling, dealing with owners, passing on jockey instructions, and so on.
Chad was introduced to racing by the Brnjas family of Colebrook Farms in Uxbridge through his cousin James, who was already working for them when an opportunity arose to gallop horses at the farm. “I was in between jobs,” said Chad, adding, “I had tried selling saddles, and that was sort of a disaster!” He took the position at Colebrook and “I immediately fell in love with it. I was at the farm for a couple of months and they said, ‘Hey, you want to go ride at the track?'” Chad and James rode at Woodbine for Ashlee Brnjas (who recently passed away); after a year she prompted Chad to take the Assistant Trainer test. “I owe John and Ashlee a lot for giving me that opportunity.”
Chad recalled that he and his brother started riding “basically from the time we were born, sitting in front of the saddle with dad or or Jimmy. We took lessons with Penny Murray when we were younger at Country Mile,” and he began competing when he was about 12. Along with their cousin James, the boys spent weekends and summers at the farm. “It was wonderful,” he said fondly.
“We started on the B Circuit doing hunters and jumpers. Jimmy would get off-the-track thoroughbreds, three- and four-year-olds, and we would start them out in the hunters just to get them going, and then graduate them up to the jumpers. That was the ultimate goal.”
He laughed, admitting his teenage self preferred the thrill of the jumpers. “We didn’t love the hunter ring, to be totally honest. But we did it and we had a really good time.”
He credits his grandfather with instilling a life-long love for the sport. “There were some times that things got a little heated, because we’re all pretty competitive. But for the most part we really, really loved it.”
Chad’s brother, Jake, 28, is currently pulling double duty at the track, grooming, feeding and taking care of horses in Minshall’s barn, and also working on the starting gate with an eye to becoming a full-time assistant starter in 2022. “They’re giving me a full-time contract on the gate starting next year,” he said. “I’ll become a swing groom, so basically I’ll still work for Barb in the mornings, but in the afternoons I’ll be on the gate.”
This is Jake’s second year working at Woodbine, having previously been employed by a showjumping barn. “I wanted to do something different. So I decided to come and try out the racehorses.” His uncle, Woodbine trainer John Charlambous (who was married to his aunt Liz) helped introduce him to the industry. The learning curve was steep, but Jake said, “I’ve also worked with polo ponies, so I’ve done all three disciplines, and with every discipline you learn something new.”
Grandpa Jim, now 87, is a frequent visitor to the track. “I see him quite a bit,” said Jake. “He comes to the racetrack to watch our horses run; he’s very supportive that way. He just enjoys seeing us all.”
Jake says Minshall and Jim are very like-minded in their approach to horses. “You know what I like about Barb? She’s old school, and that’s how Jim taught me about horses, the old school mentality of working hard, the dedicated-to-horses aspect of it. And she doesn’t sugarcoat anything, she’s straight to the point. That’s what I like.”
Toughness and a strong work ethic obviously run deep in the Elder family, as working at the track is no walk in the park. “I’m waking up at 3:00 am to get to the racetrack up by 4:00 just to get the haynets done, water buckets scrubbed, and start picking out some stalls before 5:30 training starts,” explained Jake. Afternoons on the gate can be hectic and even dangerous. For Chad, there is a lot of travelling with the racing string involved. “I travel so much – I go to Florida for five months and then Kentucky in the spring for the Keeneland meet, then back to Woodbine. I’m constantly moving around. So home is where the barn is!”