VACAVILLE — On a recent morning, about the only thing not going like gangbusters at Victory Rose Thoroughbreds in the 20-degree weather was the pipes.
They were frozen.
That meant no horse baths. Check one chore off of a long list that owner and trainer Ellen Jackson, 59, and her crew do each morning.
On this particular morning, Jackson and Monica Jordan-Romero checked the horses that raced over the weekend, ensuring soundness. Lauren Aitken practiced trailer etiquette with some yearlings. At the same time, a few other horses exercised on the six-horse Equi-Ciser. David Martinez, Jackson’s exercise jockey, worked with the young horses – first in the ring and then on the half-mile dirt track on the 63-acre property. Later, Jackson, on her horse nicknamed Pony, paired with Martinez on the track to teach the yearlings that passing head-to-head wasn’t as scary as the big bad wolf.
“That’s a really scary thing for babies,” she said of passing head-to-head. “They’re horrified. In a herd, they never pass head-to-head. I’d rather (they) were horrified here and not at the track.”
It was a hubbub of activity for some horses – while others lazed and relaxed either in barns or pastures separated by stallions, yearlings, weanlings and pregnant mares.
Victory Rose is a working thoroughbred racehorse training and breeding facility tucked off Allendale Road. It’s a piece of Kentucky situated in California, with 170 horses of all ages in various stages of training, racing, retirement and breeding. Jackson owns some of the horses, either fully or in partnership, and others belong to owners spread out through the area. She also has another 22 horses at Golden Gate Fields in Berkeley.
One of those owners is Fairfield resident Kevin Nish – the former part-owner of Mizdirection, a two-time Breeders Cup winner – who happened to be out visiting several of his horses on Jackson’s spread that frigid morning. After becoming interested in racing and ownership, Nish bought his first group of horses from the farm. He said he comes out to Victory Rose once a week to check on his horses.
“It’s stunning to me that we have this . . . a working-level training and breeding facility right here,” he said of Victory Rose’s location.
While this is a business for Jackson, with the horses earning their keep, she said she doesn’t lose sight of the fact that the horses will have a second life after racing. Those that aren’t used for breeding go to private homes, so Jackson makes sure they’re acclimated to people. Aside from a couple of the high-strung stallions used for breeding, most of the horses have an innate curiosity about who is in their barn or pasture. Give a scratch or two in a favorite place and their eyes will follow if left alone – they’re hoping for another scratch or two.
“It’s important they have people skills,” Jackson said. “And (they have to get) used to doing other things besides go.”
She also realizes that not every thoroughbred is cut out for racing – and talent is nothing without the desire.
“It’s not the talent, it’s the heart,” Jackson said. “It doesn’t matter (what) talent they have. They have to have both. The horse has to like the sport.”
Jackson’s origins in the horse business were in Grass Valley. She started rehabilitating horses that came off the track and realized that if she didn’t diversify, she wouldn’t survive. She got a stallion for breeding purposes.
“Once the stallions came, the mares came, then the babies came,” she said. From there she started training.
“That was the natural extension,” she added.
Jackson was introduced to horses when a cousin came to live with her family. The cousin came with a horse. She was given a foal – a leopard Appaloosa named Felina – by a former publisher of Horse & Rider magazine who she befriended as a young teen. Since her parents couldn’t afford the horse’s upkeep, he then gave her a job stuffing envelopes to pay for the horse. She had the horse through college and began to wonder, she said, “What I could do to support my (horse) habit.”
That’s when she started lay ups, or rehabilitating horses from the racetrack.
She has since paid it forward to others who want a chance in the race or horse world. Both Martinez, 22, and Aitken, 24 came to her with very little experience. Martinez came from Guatemala and cleaned stalls for several years just to save money for riding lessons near his Woodland home. He knew he wanted to ride, but had to wait to take the lessons until he could afford it. These days he has his sights set on being a jockey.
“That’s my dream,” he said.
Aitken started as a volunteer and now has a paid position working at halter training.
“I stuck around until she gave me a job,” Aitken said, laughing. Jackson told her, upon her hire, “I know you don’t know anything, but you’ll learn.”
Jackson also opens up her facility University of California, Davis, veterinary students. When the students come up with a project – anything from muscles to reproduction –they come to the farm and use Jackson’s horses.
The pay-it-forward attitude, like she was helped many years ago, is her philosophy, she said.
“I’m a big proponent of paying it forward . . . and not just in business,” she added.
Jackson took a chance – a single mother, with two young children – coming to Vacaville 23 years ago. She took out a loan to by the property, which wasn’t much all those years ago, she said. She then took out a second mortgage for the down payment.
“I owned an old Chevy and a horse trailer – that’s all I had to my name,” she said.
Her goal was to have a birth-to-retirement facility where horse owners didn’t need to take their horses anywhere else. She looked around her 63 acres as her employees departed for their homes. She has everything from pregnant mares to stallions to retirees waiting for a home. The foals will come in mid-January when breeding season starts.
“To think, I get to do this and get paid for it,” she said.
Reach Susan Winlow at 427-6955 or [email protected] Follow her on Twitter at www.twitter.com/swinlowdr.