Back at the barn, they call him “Pinkie.”
But make no mistake, Pinkie rules. He’s the boss of the place. And this 6-year-old gelding knows it.
After a slow start to his racing career, Pink Lloyd (remind you of any rock band, if you rumple up the Floyd part?), got his act together, his guitar strumming, his rock status growing. He raced only five times at age four. He didn’t even make his first start until August that year. But over the past year, he has made himself Woodbine’s version of Seabiscuit, or Australia’s Winx: those that refuse to be defeated.
Pinkie, with all of his quirks and undeniable determination, has won 12 of his 14 starts, all at Woodbine, and with eight consecutive stakes wins last year, was an easy choice for Canada’s Horse of the Year for 2017. On opening day at Woodbine last month, he added to the streak with a ninth consecutive stakes score, when he won the Jacques Cartier Stakes for a second time.
If he were to be defeated, it could have been then. Mother Nature brought a lingering ice/snow/wind/rain storm that halted training, just the week before opening. He had only three works going into the race: one at three furlongs, two at four, and one at five-eighths, same as last year. But he didn’t flex his muscles on the track for two days during the storm. And he hadn’t raced in four months.
To top up trainer Bob Tiller’s stress levels, Pink Lloyd drew the rail in the Jacques Cartier. He had never started from the rail. “I hate the one-hole, because it’s six furlongs,” Tiller said. “I just didn’t want him buried and checked out of the race.” A poor ride in the 2016 Overskate Stakes, when race favourite Pink Lloyd was pinned in along the rail in mid-pack, and constantly tugged back and stopped, then faced a wall of horses in the stretch, delivered the horse’s only off-the-board finish, a fifth.
Pink Lloyd has lost only one other race, but that was at the end of his first racing season two years ago, when he encountered the magnificent Stacked Deck, a powerhouse of a horse that won that race, the $200,000 Kennedy Road. Pink Lloyd finished second to him that day in his first real contest with that level of horse. Last year, he defeated Stacked Deck in his first start of the season, the Jacques Cartier.
Also another wrinkle in his first start of the season: regular rider Eurico Rosa da Silva was grounded from a riding infraction at the end of last season. Rafael Hernandez, a hotshot newcomer, stepped into the irons and guess what? He and Pink Lloyd broke the track record, finishing in 1:08.06, taking out the previous mark set by speedball Essence Hit Man (1:08.16) seven years ago. Both carried 124 pounds. Pink Lloyd gave away weight to all of his competitors.
“Once he got off the rail, I was confident,” Tiller said. He doesn’t tell riders how to ride. He told Hernandez only one thing: watch all of the chestnut’s races on video. “You’ll see that he can come from anywhere,” he said.
When The Pink One finished, he was hardly drawing a breath in the winner’s shot with his exultant owners surrounding him.
Pink Lloyd earned a 106 Beyer for that effort, the highest of his life.
“He’s a monster,” some said.
The next morning, Hernandez visited Tiller’s barn to say hello-thank you, bringing Pink Lloyd two big shiny Delicious apples. Good choice. Pink Lloyd is allowed to munch on only apples or carrots as a treat. No candy. “I think sugar is bad for horses and people,” Tiller said. Even so, Pinkie gets “spoiled to death.” The Hall of Fame trainer said.
Pink Lloyd’s quirky personality
Pinkie has an effect on people who are compelled to watch him. He’s a confident dude with a gentle side. He’s not the sort that wants a human to throw their arms around him. But he’ll nuzzle you with his soft nose. If there is a bit of a rumble on the shedrow, for whatever reason, Pink Lloyd will kick up his heels like a rocker smashing his guitar. Now, thanks to Woodbine, his stall is lined in rubber six feet high. Rubber that has a few obvious knocks. On the track, he loves to watch other horses and will stand quietly by the sidelines, taking in the view. But when it’s his turn, he’s a little different. He feels he is in a contest with every horse he sees.
Every morning, Pink Lloyd goes out onto the track at 10:25 a.m., five minutes before the track closes for training. That way, he doesn’t have to train around a lot of horses. “He gets too tough,” Tiller said. “Sometimes I pray that nobody gets in behind him. Sometimes we have to pull him up because – the rider [Rafael Sanchez] knows him well – and he just pulls him up. He just kind of hacks around there. That’s all we do with him.”
One morning, Pink Lloyd broke away from his pony a bit too early. The rider couldn’t hold him, because he saw another horse in front of him. He was only supposed to work a half mile, but he ended up going five-eighths.
Another day, His Nibs was supposed to work with another of Tiller’s horses that was to be only three lengths ahead of him at the start of the work. But with some interference in front of him, Pink Lloyd got left behind. He ended up 12 lengths behind his workmate. And he caught him, finished alongside him, by work’s end.
Pink Lloyd is a little bit like Seabiscuit that way. (Read Laura Hillenbrand’s account of his 1938 Santa Anita Handicap and you’ll know what I mean.) Push him, flank him, draw up alongside, get ahead of him, try to eyeball him, all of these things fire up Pink Lloyd’s engine like a steam locomotive. He won’t back down from a tussle.
Still, he does just what he has to do to win. He preserves himself. “I don’t think he’s ever been pushed to his limit,” said groom Michelle Gibson.
A real find at the yearling sale
He handles himself like an old pro. Always has, even in his darkest days. Tiller’s long-time owner Frank DiGuilio signed the sales ticket for $30,000 when he bought an unnamed chestnut colt by Old Forester – a horse Tiller loves – at the 2013 September yearling sale at Woodbine.
Tiller liked the colt because he “looked like a racehorse to me,” he said. “He wasn’t the most beautiful horse in the world. I’ve seen prettier. But he had what I liked. He had a good shoulder, a good hind end, which I believe is where the motor is. I was a little concerned about his feet, but he was fairly correct. He was the kind of horse I like to buy. He wasn’t too big and he wasn’t too small. He had some good substance to him, some good bone. He caught my eye right away, no doubt.”
Now Pink Lloyd is owned by the Entourage Stable, which has magnanimously and patiently waited, and waited and waited for Pink Lloyd to overcome a cascading and endless waterfall of soundness issues.
The dark days of injury
“It started right as a yearling with an unidentified left-sided injury that we thought might be his knee bothering him,” Tiller said. “It turned out to be a shoulder injury. He just wasn’t travelling right off the bat as a 2-year-old. When he was broke at the farm, I remember them saying the horse just wasn’t right.”
So give him a month off.
Pink Lloyd didn’t come back to Tiller’s barn until late in his 2-year-old season. “As I remember, he was crotchety at best,” Tiller said. He turned him out again.
As a 3-year-old, the ailments seemed to subside until the stable started working him. He popped two curbs behind. He went through foot problems. Tiller thinks Pink Lloyd might have suffered a quarter crack in front. It’s all a blur, trying to keep up with the horse’s oops inventory. Every time he worked him, he favoured a right shin. Vets thought for sure he had a fracture. X-rays didn’t show any. Back to the farm he went for another vacation.
Tiller said he respected the horse too much to ever rush him. He already knew that Pink Lloyd was a runner and would win races. “I didn’t know he was going to win nine stakes in a row,” he said. “Lord, did I not know that.”
Back he came as a 4-year-old but the shin bugged him enough that he didn’t make his first start until Aug. 28, 2016. Things seemed to finally settle. He worked gangbusters. “He walked to the track like an old man and walked home like an old man, with his head down,” Tiller said. “He’d walk around the shed row with his head down. And he’d just stand on the rail. He could stand out and look at other horses work and everything. Nothing bothered him. But don’t turn him around. He wants to chase them all. He wants to chase everything.”
“He likes being tackled”
In his very first start, Pink Lloyd went to the lead and was tackled by another horse. “He likes being tackled,” Tiller said. Pinkie won his first start by a length. He grabbed the lead in his second start, and when a horse loomed alongside, Pink Lloyd was in his element. “He just loves a challenge,” Tiller said. He was a 1 to 2 shot already and won by three lengths.
In his third start, he started way back, threaded his way through the field, worked his way to second place on the final turn with an easy stride and won by three lengths again. His first two starts were at six furlongs. His third at seven furlongs. “I honestly believe seven-eighths is better for this horse,” Tiller said.
If he had a tough race last year, it was on Millions night, in the Kenora Stakes, a yearling sales stake. Under the lights, he blew a shoe and returned to unsaddle with his foot bleeding. Still, he dug in and won. “Lord knows what happened that night, but he still managed to win,” Tiller said. “He’s a champ.”
Born to race
“He knows who he is,” said Gibson, who shadowed Pink Lloyd last year when he was being groomed by Kris Pion. Now, with Pion gone to work with his racing family, Gibson is Pink Lloyd’s mainstay. She’s been around the horse since he was a 2-year-old.
“There’s Pinkie and there’s the rest of us,” she said. “He rules. He lets you know when he’s unhappy. “
When she led him over to the frontside for his most recent race, Pink Lloyd walked through the tunnels cool and calm. Unperturbed. But once he got up onto the track, he puffed himself up, bowed his neck, began to bounce along.
“Not aggressive,” Gibson said. “But he knows. He loves the attention.”
Two days before he is to race, he knows it. He can tell when a jockey, like Da Silva, comes to work him that it’s almost time to party. He knows it’s a work. “He loves this game,” Gibson said. “It’s what he does. He has a blast when he does it.”
They all have the feeling they are riding a big train. Stress comes with it. Responsibility, too. “You always hope that they come out of it okay,” Tiller said. “There’s always anxiety. I don’t think anybody understands until you have to do it. I do understand it because I’ve been doing it for 45 years. I can handle it very well. “
Pink Lloyd, the folk hero
People have begun to love the horse with the quirky name and his winning ways. Gibson has become amazed at how many fans he has, even among their backstretch peers. “I’m amazed at how many people will say: ‘Good luck. Hope he wins.’”
They are all a closeknit family, she says, even when they stand shoulder to shoulder in the starting gate. Before the Jacques Cartier last month, Pink Lloyd ended up walking over from the backstretch alongside the horse that eventually finished second to him. The grooms joked with each other: “Oh, you’re Pink Lloyd. Do you want to go first? Whatever you want.”
Coming back, the congratulations came in waves. “Everybody was really happy for us, even if they came second,” Gibson said. “It’s nice that when people lose against him, they are still on his side.”
Tiller is mapping out his schedule. He and Entourage don’t think too far ahead. They assume nothing. “I’ve got a horse that’s won nine stakes in a row and I’ve got to try to win 10,” Tiller said. “And if I can win 10, then I’m going to try to win 11. If he gets beat, he gets beat. Life goes on. We will wake up the next morning.
“And if he gets beat, and he comes out of the race good, then I’ll be happy, because that means he’ll run again. And he’ll win again.”
His next start, the Lord willing, will be the New Providence Stakes on May 13 at Woodbine.