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If you work in thoroughbred horse racing, the call from the Jockey Club of Canada’s Candice
Dixon is probably the one you really want to get. On February 8, 51-year-old Michelle
Gibson picked up the phone. It was Dixon telling her she was the winner of the Sovereign
Award as Canada’s Outstanding Groom for 2020.
“She called me and I was just jumping for joy,” says Gibson, whose conversational voice
seems always to be on the animated side. “I couldn’t believe it because, as grooms, we don’t
get recognition because, well, we’re just grooms. We do this because we love what we do. But
to be recognized this way is such an honour.”
Since 2009, Gibson has been working for trainer Bob Tiller. It was Tiller who wrote the
persuasive letter to The Jockey Club of Canada.
“Yes, he did,” she says. “It’s on his Instagram – his submission of why he felt that I was a
a good candidate for the Outstanding Groom Award.”
Gibson has been in and out of Woodbine for over 30 years.
“I worked previously at Woodbine in the late eighties,” she says. “I used to work on the
turf course for the Ontario Jockey Club. I was the first female working on the turf. I did that
for two years, and then I went off and tried to have a real life. And then I came back to the
racetrack in 2001.”
Since 2009, she’s been in Tiller’s barn and, for the past few years, she’s had the pleasure of
being the one person who spends the most time with the extraordinary sprinter, Pink Lloyd.
Even when Pink Lloyd was in the care of another groom, Gibson was getting close to him.
“I was always attached to ‘Pink’, she says. “I’ve dealt with so many horses with Mr. Tiller
over the years, but Pink has always had a special place in my heart. When the other groom chose
to go work with his family, I took over Pink, who was six years old at the time.”
Just to bring you up to date, Pink Lloyd, now a nine-year-old, won 5 of his 8 races as a six-year-
old in 2018. For the second year in a row, he won the Sovereign as Champion Male Sprinter. The
next year – on a technicality – he was a perfect 6 for 6. He finished fourth in the Bold Venture
Stakes, but it was ruled he had an unfair start. He repeated as Champion Male Sprinter. As an
eight-year-old in 2020, Pink Lloyd went 4 for 5 and it’s safe to say, he will win the fourth Sovereign
in the sprint category. And off the track, according to Gibson, he’s got a very specific personality.
“Oh, he is a character,” she says.
“He has his spot in his stall and there’s nothing you can ever do to get Pink to move. It’s his way all the time.
It doesn’t matter what we do – if it’s a bath if it’s walking out to the track, if it’s a race, it’s always on Pink’s terms.
He will give you everything all the time or he’ll give you nothing. He gets excited over the simplest things, and
the times when you think that he’s going to be over-reactive is when he’s the quietest and the
coolest and the most relaxed. When he is supposed to be good, he’s good, and when you think
that it’s not important, then he’s silly.”
There’s a common theme among grooms, especially the female ones. The horses really
matter to them.
“They’re my kids,” says Gibson frankly. “I have one son that I gave birth to, but I have
seven more that are just as important to me. Pink is definitely one of them.”
You’d be inclined to think that the tough demanding life of a groom is better suited for a
a younger person, not one in her sixth decade.
“I’m proud of it,” she says of her age. “I mean it. It’s hard work and it’s tiring and it’s
exhausting. But I wouldn’t change anything. We all sometimes complain about our
environment or the weather or the early hours; I mean, I get up at quarter after two in the
morning so I can get there for 3:30. But your body adjusts to it and you just deal with it. I
never wake up in the morning and go, ‘Gosh, I don’t want to go to work.’”
Aside from the fact that Gibson’s job involves working with animals that she loves, there’s
the extra benefit of having Bob Tiller as a boss.
“He’s a character, that’s for sure,” she says laughing. “He’s very kind and generous to all
of us. I’ve only been there since 2009, but there are five or six people that have been with Mr.
Tiller for longer than 35 years, so it says something about working with him and in his barn
because they’ve been there forever with him. Mr. Tiller has always taken great care of us
personally or professionally or whatever. He sees the hard work that we all put in as a team,
and he appreciates everything that we do. Sometimes you win, and sometimes you don’t, but
Mr. Tiller’s always been great for us, you know like he never blames or holds us responsible.
We joke and we laugh all the time. He’s like a second father to most of us there.”
Being the groom for Pink Lloyd means pretty well expecting him to win each time he goes
out, and during Gibson’s three seasons as his groom, ‘Pink’ is 15 for 20. Apparently winning
never gets dull.
“I’m a mess each race,” she giggles. “I’m a mess every time Pink races. I’m a basket case.
My stomachs just churning, flipping and I can’t even watch. Everybody makes fun of me.
I have my eyes closed and my fingers over my ears so I can’t hear, and I just hum to myself,
especially when they’re loading. I am still nervous every single race.”
She’ll get to be nervous again when they call her name during the Sovereign Awards in April.
They’re a special bunch, these grooms, and people like Michelle Gibson are among the best.
Sovereign Award-winning groom with Pink Lloyd Michelle Gibson – 2020 Groom of the Year
It behooves us to know…It was 83 years ago that the legendary Seabiscuit upset Triple Crown
winner War Admiral in a match race. There has always existed the question of what made that
horse so special? We may find out. There’s a thing called the Seabiscuit Heritage Foundation.
A woman from that organization named Jacqueline Cooper wanted to genetically analyze a horse
named Bronze Sea, a fifth-generation descendent of Seabiscuit. But in order to determine
how much ‘Seabiscuit’ was in the genes of the Bronze Sea, Cooper needed DNA from the great horse himself.
That seemed an impossible task — Seabiscuit died in 1947 — and even if it made sense to dig him up, his
burial site at the Ridgewood Ranch in California is unidentified. However, in her pursuit of information,
Cooper talked with Michael Howard, the great-grandson of Seabiscuit’s owner, Charles Howard, and in that
conversation, Cooper learned that Seabiscuit’s hooves had been removed before he was buried. Apparently,
it used to be normal practice to save the hooves of a racehorse as a keepsake. In a lab, scientists drilled into the hooves to extract a
powder from the coffin bone. Seabiscuit’s DNA was in there and it was determined that Seabiscuit had gene variants
that are often found in horses that are good distance runners. There was also evidence of genetic material
associated with horses that are very good sprinters. That’s a rare combination — a horse that has great
stamina but can also run fast early in a race — precisely the qualities that made Seabiscuit such a hero in his
day. The study continues as scientists try and determine the differences in racehorses from 80 years ago and
racehorses today.
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