It was only fitting that on this day Jim Phillips was spending his morning marvelling at the exploits of a former racehorse excelling in a much different arena.
On a hot, partly cloudy morning in Ocala, Florida, the man who has had a longstanding association with Thoroughbreds watched intently as Wabbit, known as Molinaro Kissing during his racing days, was taking part in an equestrian event.
“They really are incredible athletes,” praised Phillips, a retired animal health business executive and equestrian, who is still highly involved in the latter as an owner. “They do well in the equestrian disciplines. They have good minds and learn quickly. They are, in my mind, the best equine athlete out there.”
Phillips would certainly know. Thoroughbreds have been a part of his life for decades, including the times he worked at one of the sport’s most iconic operations.
“As a teenager, I worked at Windfields Farm, so I’ve been very familiar with Thoroughbreds. For the most part, we’ve had horses forever. Ninety percent of them have been Thoroughbreds. They are great athletes, have a lot of heart and in my opinion are undervalued in the equestrian world. They used to be the staple and when warm bloods came into popularity, their presence in the Jumping and Eventing world diminished. They’re sound, they’re athletic and they also have a better self-preservation mechanism, in my opinion, so they generally land on their feet.”
His bond with horses – Phillips has also dabbled in Thoroughbred and Standardbred ownership – has continued to grow over time.
Through his friendship with Dr. Mike Colterjohn, one that began during their collegiate days, Phillips became familiar with LongRun Thoroughbred Retirement Society, not only with their dedication to find suitable adopters for the ex-racehorses, but also with the back stories of the horses.
The more he learned, the more Phillips felt compelled to become involved with the organization that was established in 1999, the first industry-funded adoption program in Canada, and one of the most respected horse retirement and adoption organizations in the world.
Six years ago, he found an ideal way to achieve that intention.
A $325,000 sales-topping full brother to multiple stakes winner and champion Pender Harbour, Mike, a son of Philanthropist, won his first time out, but eventually his true calling came in the equestrian ring.
Mike was named after Dr. Mike Colterjohn, one of his breeders (Dr. Moira Gunn, Marv Chantler and Hugh Sutherland were the others) and a Canadian Horse Racing Hall of Fame inductee. Dr. Colterjohn, who delivered Gardiner Farms with its only Sovereign Award for Outstanding Breeder, passed away on March 28, 2012, exactly one year after Mike was born at Paradox Farm, in Caledon East, ON.
In the latter stages of 2017, Mike, who contested the 157th running of the Queen’s Plate (it switches back to the King’s Plate this year), was retired and given the chance to try his hooves in the equestrian world under the watchful eye of Phillips, his new owner.
It was around that time when Phillips contacted LongRun with an offer.
“The owners of Mike gave him to me, so I wanted to give something back. I spoke with Vicki [Pappas] at LongRun and told her about an idea I had for a fundraiser, where I would match the donations up to $15,000. So, it was promoted through her network, hoping to raise funds and awareness for off-track Thoroughbreds. That’s how it all started. She was very enthusiastic and quite helpful at getting the message out. It went very well, and I think everyone was happy with how it all went.”
The campaign, known as “I Like Mike,” was a meaningful endeavour for Phillips, who made the pledge to match all donations up to $15,000. In all, $60,000 was raised for LongRun.
“We are blessed and grateful to have been introduced to Jim, who not only generously hosted our most successful fundraiser ever but, along with his wife Colleen, continues to support us and takes every opportunity to tout the superiority of the Thoroughbred,” said Pappas, a founding member and Chair with LongRun.
“In my opinion, LongRun has all the components you need to help the ex-racehorses,” added Phillips. “They have the facility, the core capabilities of knowing what works and what doesn’t, and how to find the right homes for these horses. They have the expertise and infrastructure to get them to the right places. They have a funding base that is sustainable and affiliations with the right organizations to help these horses. They tick all the boxes. That’s what drew me to them.”
Mike, who posted one win and two thirds from eight career starts, was a fast learner in Eventing and prompted Phillips to enter the gelding into the 2018 Thoroughbred Makeover Competition, for retired Thoroughbreds in training for less than 10 months, held at Kentucky Horse Park.
“It always puts a smile on your face when you see them thriving after their racing career.”
Throughout the summer of 2018, Mike and Phillips took part in shows in Ontario, finishing 18th of 100 entrants in eventing and sixth as top amateur.
Last year, Mike won an Open Intermediate event in Ocala and competed successfully at the three-star level with two-time Olympian and Canadian Team eventer Jessica Phoenix, who nominated him for this year’s Pan American Games in Chile.
Molinaro Kissing, a son of Line of Departure, has also fared well in equestrian.
Winless in five starts – his top finish was a fifth – the Ontario-bred has formed a formidable duo with Phoenix.
After top-10 finishes in Four-star competitions in 2022, the pair tackled the five-star course at the Maryland Five-Star at Fairhill in October where they had a double-clear cross-country and finished 19th.
“He’s been nominated to the National Three-Day Eventing squad,” noted Phillips. “He’s the only five-star horse, the highest in eventing, that’s nominated for Canada at this time. He’s been a great ex-racehorse for sure. He has everything you need to be a top-level event horse. It’s very rewarding in so many ways. We’ve been to a lot of places with both him and Mike.”
Phillips, who along with his wife Dr. Colleen Mitchell, resides on a farm in Mono, Ontario, is hopeful there are still more adventures to come.
“I’ve always been a big fan of Thoroughbreds and had good luck with them. It always puts a smile on your face when you see them thriving after their racing career. Whenever I see Mike or Wabbit out there, it makes me proud. It also reminds me of how amazing they are as athletes. There is something special about that breed.”