The sacrifices are many, but for Carmen and Raffaela Di Paola, the rewards are far greater.
It’s a sight they’ve taken in for dozens of years, a bird’s-eye view of dozens of retired Thoroughbreds strolling peacefully about their 73-acre farm in Schomberg, Ontario.
“Horses, in a way, have become a major part of our lives,” said Carmen Di Paola, who races the family horses under the nom du course York Tech Racing Stable. “We bred a lot of the horses ourselves. It takes consistency and hard work to maintain the daily routine that the horses require. We all work hard to keep our horses healthy and content every day. For us, it’s a way of life. There’s just something about the animals that keeps us getting up every morning knowing it all starts again. There’s something about the small moments; of foaling a new baby horse together, watching our kids, riding our retired horses, and truly enjoying the energy they bring to our lives. It takes sacrifice, as anything worth doing does. But to us it’s always worth it.”
There’s never been a moment where it hasn’t been for the Di Paolas, who have been married 37 years and together for 47.
When they speak of their successes in horse racing, the couple can point to a number of their stars over the years.
One for Jack, an Ontario-bred son of Mutakddim, made 50 starts and earned $172,542 (U.S.). Others, like D’s Perfect Soul, D’s Ben and D Magician, have all produced wins for the Di Paolas. D’s Wando, a horse they co-owned with D’s Stable and Riviera Racing Stable, contested the 2010 Queen’s Plate.
D Magician, a bay son of Magician, holds special meaning for the Di Paolas.
The bay, bred by Raffaela, won a grand total of one race in 15 appearances, the victory coming in his second start in October 2018.
Despite the lack of success on the racetrack, the gelding became a favourite of the Di Paolas early on in his life.
His racing career over, D Magician, now five, is enjoying his life on the farm.
He beat the odds to get there.
“All of the horses that we retired after racing are special to us.” said Raffaela. “If we had to choose one in particular, we would say D Magician. He was a sweetheart right from the day he was born and showed a lot of promise as a 2-year old. After winning a race as a 2-year-old we were offered a great deal of money for him and decided not to sell. D Magician has undergone a few surgeries, one of which was colic surgery… we weren’t sure he would recover from it. Surgeries take a toll on you emotionally. We only want the best for our horses. The night of the colic surgery was an emotional one.
“He made it out of the surgery, but the road to recovery was a long one, where we had to be a major part of his healing process. He will always have a place on our farm and in our hearts. We’ve been through a lot together and we love him.”
It’s a perfect example of why any recollections of Di Paola runners racing across the line first are matched by the images of those very same equine athletes walking around an open field on their property.
“When one of your horses wins a race, it’s extremely satisfying,” said Carmen. “Any time it happens, it’s a great feeling. But your connection with them doesn’t end once their racing career does. They become part of the family. Each of them has their own unique personality, which the family gets attached to. Being able to give a racehorse that has given its all on the track a relaxing life with lots of company is fulfilling. These animals love to run.
“It’s amazing to see the transitions from first learning how to walk, to competing in races, to finally being able to run free in a herd of their friends. They always remember who comes to feed them, who cleans their stalls, the ones who appreciate them. In a small way, they each represent a period of our lives. We can always remember when they were born, when they raced and when they retired – we can appreciate those times in our lives as we watch them enjoy their retirement.”
From the moment they are foaled, to the day they head home to the farm, the Di Paola horses are never left wanting.
The family sees, first-hand, how much that is appreciated.
“They always greet us when we approach their paddock or stall,” said Joey, who plays an integral role in looking after the horses on the farm. “You can tell they are happy when they start nudging at us to say hello. The horses are actually so appreciative when we fix up a wound or help them in any way to feel better. They understand we care through our actions and they always feel cared for.”
Having so many horses does make for tough decisions at times.
Finding suitable homes for some of the Thoroughbreds is inevitable, but that doesn’t make it any easier on the Di Paolas.
On one occasion, Carmen sold a few of his band to a reputable buyer looking for riding horses.
In a matter of minutes, he went from seller to buyer.
“I remember once there was an auction for riding horses, and there was a maximum of 75 they were selling,” Carmen recalled. “I thought that maybe we could send a few of them out there. So, I shipped the horses to the sale, and when I got home, my wife asked me, ‘What did you do?’ I told her my plan and she said, ‘No, no, no. You bred them, so you have to look after them. It’s your responsibility. You have to go back there at seven tomorrow morning and bring them back home.’ I went with my son Joey and we spoke with the auctioneer. I told him that my wife wanted me to bring the horses back home. He asked me not to, but I told him what my wife had said. So, I brought the two horses home.”
Back to a place where horses and horse racing continues to be a family affair.
One of the Di Paola’s sons, Santino, joined the ranks of trainer in 2017 and has been a staple at Woodbine ever since.
Memories of the sport – some old, others more recent – are plentiful for the young conditioner.
“My dad was probably the biggest influence on me wanting to be a trainer,” said Santino. “He loves this sport and dedicates so much time and energy into it. “In 2008, my family and I purchased D’s Wando. Me and my three siblings owned 12.5 per cent of him and my parents the other 50 per cent. While he was racing in 2009-2010, it was the best time and we made amazing memories. We were on the Queen’s Plate trail and there was nothing like it. One thing I want to share about being an owner, and I think it’s the most important, is that it brings your family together.”
The same way it does in taking care of them after they’ve run their final furlong.
If any member of the Di Paola clan ever needs a reminder of what that means for their family and the horses, all they need to do is look outside their window.
“The most rewarding part after their racing career is over is seeing them get accustomed to just relaxing and enjoying the outdoors,” said Joey. “It’s waking up every day and doing something that matters to a living being.”