12/28/2017 3:53PM

Catching up with Coyote Lakes, a.k.a. Charlie

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The sweet chestnut gelding just days from age 24 now.  His eyes are bright, his ears almost always aimed forward, his manner comfortable and contented. His days are filled with love and relaxation.  

He looked different 15 years ago today, however, on December 28, 2002, when he won his third and final Gallant Fox Handicap (G3) with ears pinned and manner powerful.  His third Gallant Fox in two years, that is!  As an added exclamation point, the Gallant Fox, at Aqueduct, was run at the marathon distance of mile-and-five-eighths. (The final running of the Gallant Fox was in 2009 and in 2010, the Coyote Lakes Stakes began, also at 1 5/8-miles.  It ran for several years before being discontinued.)

Coyote Lakes won his first 2001 Gallant Fox on January 1 – a race that had been delayed several days by weather.  And he won his second 2001 Gallant Fox on December 29.

By the time he won his third, in 2002, he was 8 and his long career was winding down.  And what an unusual career it was. 

Above and below: Coyote Lakes wins the 2001 Gallant Fox handicaps at Aqueduct - above on January 1, with Charles Lopez up, and below on December 29, with Mike Luzzi in the irons.

Above: Coyote Lakes wins his third and final Gallant Fox Handicap on December 28, 2002, at Aqueduct.  Mike Luzzi up.

The Arizona-bred son of Society Max was bred by Triple AAA Ranch and started out at tracks like Pleasanton, Santa Rosa and Turf Paradise - but he didn’t stay there.  At 2, he was claimed for $12,500; the next year, $20,000; and by his 4-year-old year it was up to $40,000 and then $50,000. 

By 4 he was racing at Santa Anita and Hollywood Park, where he was claimed by Bob Hess, Jr. for owner Roddy Valente.  Before long, Coyote Lakes left the Golden State for the Empire State, where Valente is based, and Coyote Lakes joined Bruce Levine’s New York barn.

He sometimes ran wonderfully and sometimes, not so wonderfully. But he was honest, and gave his best, over a 63-race career.  Although he was a distance specialist, his winning efforts were at distances from 7 furlongs to 1 5/8 miles.  And he was handsome, moved beautifully, and he ran for 8 years.  Understandably, he picked up quite a fan base along the way.  No fan was more impressed, perhaps, than Bruce Levine.

"He didn’t have a mean bone in his body,” Bruce remembers.  “He was so gentle.

“When he was on the racetrack, he was almost like a show horse.  When he’d jog the wrong way, he would just prance.  The way he would hold himself on the track was incredible.

“And he’s the only horse I ever trained who knew where the wire was,” Bruce continued, his admiration evident.  “It was amazing. He just knew how to put his head down right at the wire if it was close.”

All told, Coyote Lakes won 20 races, with 8 seconds and 3 thirds, and he earned $728,337.  Not long after his third Gallant Fox win, after two subpar efforts, he was retired.

But Roddy Valente, a devoted owner, wanted to ensure Coyote Lakes landed in a safe spot.  His friend, Dr. Jerry Bilinski, recommended the gelding be loaned out to the equine studies program at the State University of New York (SUNY) Cobleskill.  Bilinski had a longtime friendship with an associate professor there named Ray Whelihan.

Roddy checked things out before giving the thumbs-up and, soon, Coyote Lakes became a hunt seat lesson horse at Cobleskill. He was given the nickname of Charlie, and Ray Whelihan became his guardian.

"We transitioned him into being a riding horse," Ray says. "He was very uncomplicated. He’s such a generous horse and a kind horse, it was really just a matter of bringing him along over time.  He certainly had the athleticism and the engine to use for my most advanced riders to learn, and then he also had quite a bit of tolerance. 

“Most horses that are as athletic as he is are just not that tolerant, so I could use him for intermediate riders, which is a little unique for off-track Thoroughbreds.”

Ray’s deep admiration for the chestnut gelding, too, shines through in his voice.  Ray has worked at Cobleskill for 27 years and counts Coyote Lakes as one of his favorites.

“He was always very forward thinking, he goes out there and pricks his ears, and he just comes forward softly.

"He was very easy on himself, and he has a very uphill canter.  It’s so rhythmical, so soft.  I used to do a lot of eventing a long time ago, and if I’d had had access to a horse like Coyote Lakes, I mean, he could have gone anywhere.”

For over a decade, Charlie’s anywhere was Cobleskill, where he often did lessons twice daily, five days a week.

Enter freshman Jillian Smith in 2009, studying animal science with an emphasis on the equine.  A rider since age 4, Jillian decided to try out for the riding team.  She was accepted. 

She saw Charlie early on and immediately quickly smitten by the willing, cheerful horse.

“I remember another girl rode Charlie one time and I said, ‘Who is that horse, because I need to ride him,’” Jillian remembered recently.  "Then Ray told me to try him out, and the rest is history.”

They were like peas-and-carrots or, as Ray says, “She just got along with him as if they’d been born together.”

Through her graduation in 2012, Jillian and Charlie were a team – she leased him by the month when she left the riding team. Jillian was a quiet and excellent rider, and Charlie responded to her with quiet class and willingness.  When she learned along the way that he’d been a well-known racehorse - Aqueduct even ran a stakes named in his honor for a few years - she loved that about him. But, realistically, she loved everything about him.

At the end of each season, Ray and others in the equine department take a look at their riding horses.  They make sure the horses are still healthy and contented and, those who are older are retired.  Coyote Lakes was nearing 20 when they decided he deserved his relaxation time had come.

Ray called Roddy Valente – still Coyote Lakes’ owner – and suggested they give the horse to Jillian.

"Roddy was pretty particular about where that horse was going to go," Ray says.  "It was years after he had really interacted with the horse, but he was very involved.  I talked with him about Jill and he liked the plan.”

When Ray asked Jillian if she’d like to give her Charlie a lifetime home, she says it was the easiest decision of her life.

So, now, Charlie lives a life of leisure at a spacious farm in Southbury, Connecticut.  He’s in a barn with quite the variety pack of horses, from ponies to heavy horses, with everything in between.

When I visited recently, Jillian was brushing Charlie out in the shed row.  His coat is winter woolly - he has Cushing's and receives medication for it - and he'd recently been clipped for winter.  Jillian's beau Marc Shackett was holding Charlie, and Charlie was being kind - as always.  But, no doubt, he seemed politely desperate to get to the cup Marc was holding.  Marc extended the cup and Charlie began licking the coffee frantically, as if it was his longtime favorite drink.  Who knew, Jillian responded with a smile.  She will now offer him coffee on occasion.

Marc admits to not being a horse person but he loves animals, and Charlie clearly enjoyed his company.  Come to think of it, Charlie enjoyed everyone’s company.  Anyone who passed by, Charlie watched with kind and curious eyes.

Jillian’s been busy recently and lacks time to ride, but she’s sure her dear friend doesn’t mind.

“He’s just so happy to live the retired life and be fat and happy,” she says.   “Come spring time, I still plan on getting him back to riding.  We just putz around and go trail riding.  He’s so fun, two months could pass and he’d still be such an angel."

Jillian brought Charlie outdoors and put him in a paddock with a fellow retiree named Beau.  As they jogged around Charlie pestered Beau, good-naturedly nipping at his blanket and daring him to play back.  They moved comfortably, cheerfully, clearly enjoying the blanket of fresh snow.

Inside the comfortable barn, a red stocking hung on Charlie’s stall door that, come Christmas morning, would be filled with treats.

Life is good for Coyote Lakes.

“He’s the horse of a lifetime,” Jillian says, deep love in her voice.  “I know that I will always own horses, but I will never have another horse that I’ll bond with like him.  He was my first horse, and my first love. 

“He’s just such a dream come true and he’s taught me a lot.  Now I can just give him the rest of his life filled with love and care.”

On Christmas eve, Marc gave Jillian quite a Christmas treat in the form of an engagement ring.  Here’s wishing them a long and happy life together, including with Charlie.

Above:  Marc, Charlie and Jillian, December 2017

Thanks to Ray Whelihan for telling me about Coyote Lakes, and to Alyssa Salig and Brian Bohl of NYRA for their assistance regarding Gallant Fox Handicap information.  Thank you also to Adam Coglianese/Coglianese Photos at NYRA for their fine racing photographs.