Just getting Crystal to the races a win for the stable

Oct 01, 2014

Often lost amongst racing is the journey it takes to get a horse to the races. In September, one of Tony Noonan Racing’s longest journeys finally delivered relief to some very patient owners.

Known as “Crystal” within the stable and raced as Raven’s Fire, the 5-year-old mare made her racetrack debut at Sale on September 18, 2014 with minimal publicised fanfare.

She wasn’t a million dollar purchase, her breeding wasn’t sexy and punters can be excused for overlooking her in the market because when a horse make their debut as a 5-year-old, there is often something wrong with them.

But in Crystal’s case – she was just misunderstood.

Tossed aside by various other trainers and pre-trainers, Crystal eventually found her way to Mornington-based trainer Tony Noonan in March of 2013 as a rising 3-year-old.

A noted handler of fillies and mares, Noonan was adamant he could tame the chestnut filly if given enough time but wasn’t game enough to back himself into a timeframe. Raced by owner-breeder Joanne Spears, Crystal was given one last chance at being a racehorse but at the time, Noonan had no idea how long the journey of getting her to the track would take.

When Crystal arrived at Noonan’s property, her identification card said she was a 3-year-old but she behaved nothing like one.

“She had been broken in but she’d completely forgotten everything she’d learned,” Noonan said.

“She was just a menace around the stables when she first arrived. It was not safe having her around the staff so I got in touch with Nathan Dunn about doing some work with her.”

Former jumps jockey Nathan Dunn is one of Noonan’s pre-trainers who breaks in horses and conducts barrier training for the stable. Upon accepting the assignment of Crystal, Dunn was in for a surprise when she arrived.

“She was a nervous wreck when I first met her. She was reactive to the smallest movements around her and her mouth was cut to bits from being broken in,” Dunn said.

“Her first response when we led her up was to with either to rear, flip over or run away.

“Just tying her up in the stalls was an issue for her.”

Working in the safety of his bullring, Dunn successfully saddled up Crystal but when the time came to pop a rider on her, she began spinning frantically in circles. It was a sight dizzying for anyone watching, let alone the rider who eventually slipped off in a daze, unable to mount the saddle.

The coming weeks would be all about re-education but with the mentality of a yearling, the intensive work was taking its toll on Crystal who became increasingly frustrated and needed a break from work.

A three month spell was expected to allow her to mature and come back as a better-mannered 4-year-old. But once again in her time off, she had forgotten everything she had learned previously.

Noonan had known of horses with poor memory skills and short attention spans but had never trained a horse like Crystal before. Physically, she was strong, tough and very healthy but mentally, she was one of the most fragile horses Noonan had come across.

Perhaps it was fitting that she was named “Crystal”.

Coming back from her spell, it became clear to Noonan and Dunn that she had been scared from past experiences. Where she would behave badly, she had come to fear the sight of her rider.

Repressed memories of whips, spurs, bridles and riders were triggered upon sight and she would be overcome with fear. Tempering her behavior with physicality was no way to treat Crystal who had been devoid of compassion at times in her life.

They had to stop and get her mentally right before even contemplating a saddle or rider again. To see her go through another traumatising education process would have been too much for Crystal and neither Noonan nor Dunn could bear watch those demons pass through her mind again.

And so, Noonan sought the expertise of a trusted horse whisperer in Nagambie to ply their trade with Crystal. A change of scenery and time with “Australia’s best” as described by Noonan was expected to re-educate her in a manner tailored exclusively to Crystal.

Basking in the fresh Victorian air through the summer of 2013/14 home to Victoria’s leading studs, Crystal familiarised herself with the new surroundings. Alleviated of the pressures found in an elite racing stable, Crystal was educated not with whips or spurs but rather with sympathy and compassion.

Taking the time to teach Crystal to be a horse was the missing block of her psyche and it was at Nagambie that Tony believes she filled the missing link.

Upon returning to Noonan’s Mornington stables in the autumn of 2014, Crystal finally behaved like a horse but that was only half the journey. She had the untapped ability to be an excellent racehorse but it was only then that Crystal started to believe it herself.

Now safe to be around for Noonan’s staff, Crystal’s relationship with strapper Jen Duffy blossomed. Few employees had the patience to persist with the mare but Duffy's soft-hearted nature made her the perfect friend for Crystal. 

She still wasn’t at the stage where she could be ridden comfortably, but the visible improvement in her behavior convinced Duffy that Crystal was as beautiful on the inside as the out.

Crystal quickly became one of Duffy’s favourites despite being “a pain to saddle up” at times. 

It was now time for Crystal to return to Nathan Dunn, twelve months after the two first met.

“The second time round was all about building her confidence,” Dunn said.

“I needed to be able to work with a blank canvas because she had been at the point where she was beyond repair and I understood why no one else wanted to work with her.

“Mentally, she needed to fully repair and she got that chance over the summer.

“Tony and the owners were fantastic. I was able to paint a picture from a blank canvas.”

Schedules were tossed aside when Noonan allowed Dunn “as much time as he needed” to get Crystal ready for stablelife. The slow process was finally starting to click.

Spending tireless hours with Crystal to get her comfortable with racehorse gear, Dunn and Crystal developed a connection and worked out all the things she liked and didn’t. She was a bit of a princess in that everything needed to go her way to get the intended response but Dunn and Noonan were very accommodating with their time for her.

“I bought her right back to basics. We went through the mouthing process all over again.

“When I was riding her, I didn’t do a great deal of fast work. We did lots of slow walking, trotting and cantering. There was a lot of stop-starting.

“I regularly worked her in both the morning and the afternoon. In the mornings, she would be a bundle of nerves but she would become really good in the afternoon once she knew you had time for her and she wasn’t just another random horse in the stable.”

Within six weeks of working closely one-on-one with Crystal, Dunn had switched her on as a racehorse and she was finally ready to trial for the first time despite now being a 5-year-old mare.

The frustrations that Crystal’s owners had been through was about to pay off but upon arrival at Mornington for her jumpout, shockwaves rippled through the Noonan camp.

Away from the sanctuary of Noonan or Dunn’s stables where Crystal was showered with affection, an all too familiar sight appeared – the return of old-Crystal.

Playing up behind the barriers and refusing to load, apprentice jockey Dylan Caboche had no choice but to dismount Crystal. Four barrier attendants rallied behind her to load her in without tempering her repressed memories but she didn’t take kindly to their ways.

With the physical assistance of Mornington’s barrier attendants, Crystal eventually loaded but due to the amount of help required, there was no chance of stewards approving her barrier certificate. It was back to the drawing board for Noonan and Dunn.

Despite this, Noonan walked away from the track with a cheeky grin. Secretly, he was over the moon with the jumpout. Run over 600m, Crystal missed the start by seven lengths and rocketed home over the final 200m to show she had the turn of foot to be a serious racehorse. And she wasn’t even extended.

But for a horse to enter a race, it must obtain a barrier certificate first. With Crystal approaching race fitness, time was of the essence.

Fortunately for Noonan, Nathan Dunn had renewed his jumps riding license for the 2014/15 season despite not having ridden in a race for 15 months. He was also verging on the 72kg mark but was the person best placed to ease Crystal into the barriers at her next attempt.

He did it.

Without a whimper, Crystal loaded into the barriers with Dunn in the saddle. From there, she was just guided around under a soft ride to avoid putting any unnecessary pressure on her back.

The job was done but Noonan wanted to give her one last test before going to the races. She needed to jump well, settle nicely and hit the line well in what would be her third jumpout.

What happened next, only Noonan saw coming.

Crystal embarrassed the jumpout field which included a Flemington winner.

Dunn, who happened to be at Mornington in the grandstands that morning, could only look on in amazement as Crystal jumped well, strode to the front and just kept on running for a comfortable win.

She was finally ready to race.

On September 18, 2014, Raven’s Fire made her racetrack debut at Sale in a 1000m maiden. She missed the jump and was blocked for a run at the top of the straight but rattled home late to finish third.