– Story by Lauren Kramer Photography by Don Denton
When Sidney’s Sandown horse racing track closed down in 1992, Nicky Wylie felt the loss acutely. The British-born breeder of thoroughbred horses in North Saanich was one of many who enjoyed the magic and excitement of racing horses, and the closure of the track signalled the sharp decline of the sport she loved.
Determined to revive horse racing on Vancouver Island, Nicky and her spouse, Norman, recently created the Sandown Racing Club, which allows members to own part of a racehorse. The club has three horses which will race between May and October at the Hastings Racing Track, located at the PNE grounds in Vancouver. The club has 85 members so far.
Membership comes at $250 per year and for that, says Nicky, “you get to say you own part of a horse, you get an owner’s license, you get to go in the back stretch of the race track and into the winner’s circle if your horse wins!”
Not all members are knowledgeable about horses and racing, so Nicky is taking it upon herself to educate them about the terminology in weekly emails, where she introduces them to the horses, the art of racing and the many resources on the internet.
“Racing is the most exciting thing I’ve ever done,” she admits. “It gives the people involved the chance to dream, and there aren’t a lot of dreams in life that are like that.”
Nicky trained and raced horses in Britain before moving to Vancouver Island at the age of 22 with Norman. She promised herself she’d take a six-month break from horses when she arrived, but within three days of stepping off the plane she was riding again, exercising horses for clients, and later, training them.
The trouble with horses, she says, smiling, is that they get under your skin. “When that happens, you can’t let them go — it’s a passion and an addiction.”
The couple rented an historic old house on 10 acres in North Saanich and began training, stabling and racing thoroughbred horses at White House Stables. When they started a family, she stopped racing and focussed on breeding instead.
“To breed a horse of value you need a good pedigree, a great, athletic physical appearance and good athletic confirmation, such as a family history of being a stakes winner,” she explains.
Her first mare, Mascaretta, is now retired but birthed 11 foals since moving to White House Stables. Those foals have sold for anywhere from $4,000 up to $102,000.
“For the folks who bought those foals and raced them, their total earnings are close to $1 million,” she says. “We’ve bred over 100 foals here at White Stables, and 50 thoroughbreds in more recent years.”
The foals are sold at 18 months and Nicky’s are in particular demand.
“Ninety-five per cent of our foals have won a race; it’s a great statistic and one I’m really proud of,” she says. “We have a reputation that when you buy one of our horses, there’s a pretty good chance it will win a race.”
It sounds easy, but breeding horses is hard work, and Nicky and Norman do most of the heavy lifting. They have an alarm to notify them when a horse is in labour, and when that happens the couple is up for as long as it takes to ensure the delivery goes smoothly.
“Watching a foal being born is just magical,” she says. “There’s nothing like seeing it come out, stand up and take its first drink.”
The couple has trained around 200 horses at the stables over the years. One of their favourites was Blackberry Ben, a horse who loved eating blackberries, but also loved the Wylies.
“He was intelligent and competitive,” Nicky recalls. “And he ran so well for us! When he was claimed, he didn’t run well for his new owners. But when we claimed him back a year later he ran well for us again!”
Now sold, Blackberry Ben is living a happy life and enjoying a successful career. That’s the ultimate reward for a horse breeder, Nicky says.
“It can be heartbreaking to sell a horse and find out it’s not in a good home, or that it’s starving. There are lots of versions of hell for horses.”
As membership at the Sandown Racing Club gradually increases, the Wylies are looking forward to recouping some of the magic of racing.
“We wanted to re-energize something that had been lost when the race track closed,” she said. “Before then, a big community was involved and we want to get that back.”
For information visit sandownracingclub.com.