A True Magician

Boodini2012The most famous magician and escape artist in the world at the turn of the century was one Harry Handcuff Houdini, who escaped from straitjackets, handcuffs, and storage chests chained shut and then dropped into the bay.

He was so widely known that even novices capable of no more than beginning legerdemain were sometimes referred to as “Houdinis,” throughout the world.

Now meet Harry’s (near) equine namesake and modern-day counterpart, a five-year-old called Boudini, who escapes halters, lead ropes, you name it. Just leave him unattended next to the trailer some time, with available grass nearby, and Boudini will free himself from any restrictive device in the way of an awaiting snack.

Boudini once thought about becoming a racehorse and instead wound up in the barn of Cathy DeGonda, a member of the Twin Cities Polo Club.

Like many former racetrack horses, Boudini found his new vocation fun and interesting. “Thoroughbreds are wonderful,” said DeGonda. “They love playing polo. I haven’t had one that doesn’t enjoy it. They actually love to chase a ball, to move within a crowd of horses, which I’m sure they got from the races. They are used to having contact with other horses.”

Boudini is no different and fits the description well.

He, like other racehorses, doesn’t take to all aspects of the game naturally. “In polo they have to learn how to stop and turn. They don’t do that naturally,” DeGonda added. That, too, is partly muscle memory acquired while training to run in one direction.

Boudini is one of five horses DeGonda has acquired, from Canterbury Park trainers or owners through track veterinarian Lynn Hovda, for retraining to the maneuvers required for polo.

This former racehorse, perhaps not well suited to the racing profession, has demonstrated a true willingness to chase a ball through a chukker or two.

A polo player needs at least two and sometimes three or four horses to play a game, dependent on the number of chukkers being played.

“Some games are six chukkers, some are four,” said DeGonda. “I usually play four chukkers so I get by with two horses, switching off so one doesn’t have to play back-to-back chukkers.”

Boudini is DeGonda’s most recent acquisition from Canterbury, 2 ½ years ago. “He only raced twice and failed so miserably that his people probably just wanted him out of there,” DeGonda continued.

Wasn’t it Ulysses S. Grant who failed miserably in every business venture or endeavor undertaken until the Civil War presented him with the perfect opportunity to excel.

It is often no different with horses, as is certainly true with the magician of Maple Plain, Boudini.

“He’s an absolute sweetheart,” said DeGonda, who began working with Houdini the autumn after acquiring him.

DeGonda also has a horse named Mary from Canterbury that raced under the name It’s All About Mary. “She’s really a very pretty chestnut,” DeGonda added.

“She’s a nice, steady horse, a little taller than Boudini at about 15.2 hands.”

She also has a horse named Susie that has acquired the barn name “Susie Q,” another “sweetheart” according to her owner.

DeGonda started playing polo 11 years ago after taking up an invitation to watch a chukker of two from a friend who played the game.

“I went on a trail ride with some girlfriends and one of them said she had just started playing polo. I decided I needed a hobby so I came out and took a couple of lessons. After watching it, I thought ‘oh, my God, I have to do this.'”

She was hooked.

And she has discovered that retrained thoroughbreds are actually good polo ponies. “All of them have been pretty easy to train. She (Lynn Hovda) has a great eye for horses and has pointed me in the direction of some pretty nice ones.”

There are exceptions, of course. “A lot of them are a little nuts coming off the track,” she said. “But I’ve found that if you keep on riding them right away, instead of turning them out the way some people do, they get to know you and trust you.”

Nevertheless, some habits die hard or are never changed. Escaping the bonds of a halter, for instance, with a tasty grass snack nearby.

This blog was written by Canterbury Staff Writer Jim Wells. Wells was a longtime sportswriter at the Pioneer Press and is a member of the Canterbury Park Hall of Fame.

It Takes Three to Tango

TangoWhy would a man leave the land of the gauchos, the pampas and the tango for someplace miserably cold and snowbound during the winter and – it is now clear – the spring as well, a place devoid of the romance and history associated with his homeland.

The answer is lengthy and includes a couple of switchbacks and roundabouts, although three thoroughbreds that formerly occupied stalls at Canterbury Park have become the beneficiaries of that decision.

It is a long way from the outskirts of Tres Arroyos, Argentina, to Maple Plain, Minnesota, but Ramero Martinez seems quite content today with having made the change. There are three pleased thoroughbreds too, the beneficiaries today of that relocation made 15 years ago, and it appears at least one of them is destined to become a polo player.

Argentines play polo nearly the way Americans play baseball, in pickup games from the time they are strong enough to handle a horse, in youth leagues on up to the professional ranks. Polo is a game of the people in Argentina, much as baseball occupies the attention of people in the United States.

“I didn’t play competitively,” said Martinez. “But my dad owned an old Mercedes Benz that looked like a WW II truck. We’d load up two or three horses and head out to play polo, like a pickup game here at the ice rink”

You can see that Senor Martinez has acclimated well to Minnesota, substituting ice hockey for baseball without a moment’s hesitation. He has indeed made the change, from pampas to frozen tundra.

About those horses:

They are ex-Canterbury horses that wound up in Bowman, N.D., at Dr. Dick Bowman’s ranch, the orphanage for many retired or overmatched steeds awaiting a second lease on life as a hunter-jumper, dressage protege, barrel or pleasure horse or, in this case, a place on the grounds of the Twin Cities Polo Club in Maple Plain.

Jodi Martinez, Ramero’s wife, picks up the story from there:

She, Ramero and daughter, Jackie, made the trip in late September to North Dakota for a couple of days last autumn and narrowed their choices from the vast herd that occupies the Bowman ranch.

Seven horses were set aside for them to consider, and the Martinez family returned to the Twin Cities. “We started researching the horses’ histories, their trainers, what they had done on the racetrack,” Jodi said.

Long story short. The Martinez family returned to the ranch armed with what they had learned and chose a horse named Yasureubetcha, now known as Betcha, and another named Dallas, that now answers to Bowman.

The third horse, Janelle Kae, is now simply Nellie.

There is an early verdict on the three as possible polo ponies.

“They all have fantastic dispositions,” said Jodi, who allows that only Betcha has indicated a proclivity for polo at this point. “I think Nellie might be a fantastic barrel horse because she turns so nicely,” Jodi said.

Dallas is another matter. “He seems to want nothing more than to graze in the pasture. He has the attitude ‘hey, I put in my time. Let me do this and we’ll be good.'”

Jodi says the horses might still be transitioning, but Betcha already shows an inclination for the game.

“He’s the best so far,” she said. “He has a big heart. My son, Kenny, 12, will kick a soccer ball with my husband and Betcha wants to get in on it.”

Time will tell just which horse acclimates to what, but one thing is certain. “All three of these horses are so much a part of our lives,” Jodi said. “If they can’t play polo, we’ll find something for them.”

Ramero came to the U.S. at the urging of his parents and intended to study veterinary medicine at the University of Minnesota. School didn’t occupy his heart the way horses do, however, and he eventually landed a job at the Twin Cities Polo Club, where he met Jodi. A few years later, he took a hiatus as a welder and also studied to become a farrier. “I had to support my family,” he explained. But the horses continued to beckon and he returned to the club, knowing he will have to supplement that decision during the winter months in some fashion.

Under any circumstances, it seems that Ramero is here to stay. “A bad year in the States is better than a good year in Argentina,” he said, although he and his family do enjoy trips home on occasion. Time has mellowed his resistance to boyhood aversions he has discovered on those trips.

“It’s funny,” he said. “I grew up listening to tango. My grandma played it all the time. I hated it as a kid. Then I come here and I kinda missed it.”

So now, on those trips home? “When we go to Buenos Aires we want to go to the tango clubs,” he said. “It’s pretty cool.”

This blog was written by Canterbury Staff Writer Jim Wells. Wells was a longtime sportswriter at the Pioneer Press and is a member of the Canterbury Park Hall of Fame.