Amateurs Like Us: Diane DeCastro Spends Her Evenings With An OTTB, Not A TV

Feb 21, 2018 - 8:22 AM

By 7:30 p.m. on a weekday, most people are sitting on the couch, switching on the TV and unwinding after a long day. Diane DeCastro is just getting to the barn to ride. As the sun settles beyond the horizon, she grooms Timber Cat and tacks him up, then flips on the lights in the ring and swings a leg over. She’s usually not home until 9 p.m. or later.

DeCastro’s dedication and willingness to ride at unorthodox hours has paid off with her off-the-track Thoroughbred.

“Diane is a hard worker, and she works every single day with Timber, and she pays attention to every single detail,” said Alvin Melendez, a barn manager at the farm where DeCastro used to train.

Diane DeCastro and Timber Cat. Photo by Susan Kay Campbell

DeCastro, from Ridgewood, New Jersey, is the Senior Group Account Director for Mobile Products at LG Electronics. She is responsible for coordinating a team of people to develop and manage advertising programs for LG’s smartphones. She works on everything from TV and radio spots to the corporate website, print ads and experiential event-driven activities—essentially, everything that is done to promote and sell the LG phones.

It’s a demanding career, and DeCastro enjoys the break of time in the saddle. She rides with Bethie and Libby Dayton of Red Oak Farm in Stirling, New Jersey, and she’s a big fan of the Thoroughbred. DeCastro has qualified, competed and ribboned at major horse shows like Devon (Pennsylvania) and indoor finals like the Pennsylvania National, Capital Challenge (Maryland) and the National Horse Show when it was still held at Madison Square Garden in New York City. She rode a Thoroughbred each time.

“They’ve kind of been my thing and it just kind of happened that way. I could never afford to go import a horse from Europe,” DeCastro said. “When I first started riding is when Thoroughbreds were popular, before the warmbloods took over. I’m shorter and have small legs, so I’m better on horses that are a little hotter, so I can make myself invisible on them. The Thoroughbreds are more conducive to that kind of ride.”

These days, one special off-the-track-Thoroughbred has captured DeCastro’s heart—a small, 11-year-old chestnut gelding with a bump on his nose named Timber Cat (Prime Timber—Risky Kitten, Formal Gold).

Timber Cat winning his maiden at Belmont in 2010. Photo by Adam Coglianese

“Timber” ran 14 times in 2009 and 2010 before retiring from the track. Debbie Norris bought Timber at the Finger Lakes Thoroughbred Sale in 2010 and then turned him out with her broodmares for about a year. In the fall of 2011, Timber Cat found his way to amateur rider Maureen Harding.

“I was blessed with being able to afford to purchase him rather cheap because of the big bump on his head that happened during his year of being out with the mares,” Harding said. “He was my first OTTB and certainly not my last. Due to Timber’s extreme scope, I didn’t always have the easiest time staying on.”

Timber Cat’s early days in the show ring with Maureen Harding were definitely enthusiastic. Photo courtesy of Maureen Harding

Mindy Minetto, a trainer and prominent horse show judge, was judging at the Chemung County horse show in Elmira, New York, in the summer of 2012 when she noticed Timber’s amazing jumping style.

“Mindy said he was jumping so well that he was jumping his rider out of the tack each jump!” said DeCastro, who trained with Minetto as a junior. Minetto bought Timber in partnership with friend and trainer Jimmy Toon, and Timber went to Toon’s farm, JT Farm, in Westchester, New York.

Six months later, DeCastro was at JT Farm trying Timber with then-trainer, Robbie Burroughs.

“I just loved him from the get-go,” DeCastro said. “I watched Jimmy jump him around, and his knees were up to his ears, and he was cracking his back in the air. When I got on, I kind of trotted around and said, ‘OK, that’s enough, we can stop now.’ ”

Her mind was already made up. DeCastro did jump a crossrail just to be sure and said, “The first time I jumped a crossrail, he jumped the top of the 5′ standards and Robbie yelled, ‘Grab his ears!’ ”

Burroughs, Melendez and DeCastro took their time training Timber. “We never rushed,” said DeCastro. “We always took our time and did everything the right way with him.”

“When he first came, he did not trust us and was very skeptical of people,” said Melendez. “I took the time to do everything right and slow and do everything with calm energy. I showed him everything I was going to do before I did it. That way he could see what I was doing.”

Diane DeCastro on Timber Cat. Photo courtesy of Diane DeCastro

Even small things, like standing in the crossties, going into the wash stall, flower boxes, rails on the ground and longing were new experiences for Timber. “The longe line, forget about it,” said Melendez. “Going to the right, he didn’t even know how to canter. It took me two to three months just trotting on the longe line for him to understand. I taught him little by little, step by step. But, it’s basic trust. When he starts to trust you, he gives you a lot.

“The Thoroughbreds are very particular,” Melendez continued. “You have to take your time and know how to work with them with kindness and do things very slowly. Make sure they can see what you’re doing. And once they know you and trust you, then you’ve got them.”

After six months of patience and diligence, the team’s determination paid off when Timber started showing.

“Every time Robbie showed him, he was champion or reserve at every horse show, from baby greens to the 3′ pre-greens,” DeCastro said.

In 2013, Timber started showing in the Take 2 Thoroughbred hunter divisions. Just three years after breaking his maiden as a race horse at Belmont Park, Timber won the $1,000 Take2 Hunter Classic at the Garden State Horse Show (New Jersey). In 2014, Timber was circuit champion in the 2’6” training hunters at HITS Saugerties (New York). Timber had gone from a rejected race horse to a winning show hunter.

Robbie Burroughs showing Timber Cat. Photo by SEL Photography

Now 11, Timber is DeCastro’s forever horse. He had to sit out from the show ring for a year due to a tendon injury, but he’s back under tack and ready to get legged up again.

“I’ll never sell him; I’ll keep him forever,” DeCastro said. She plans to start showing him in the modified adult hunters, then move up to the adult hunters and eventually enter the amateur-owner division. Even when things have been difficult, DeCastro has had faith in Timber and the process. The old-school mentality rings true for DeCastro—“The horse comes first.”

Timber is still very aware of everything that goes on around him.

“He watches everything that happens in the barn, but he has become very laid-back in general,” said DeCastro. “He’s such an agreeable little creature. He loves other horses, he loves people, he loves dogs.”

Timber is a big fan of Stud Muffin horse treats, but his favorite activity is to go outside in turnout and bake in the sun. “Half the time he’s lying down, passed out, sound asleep,” said DeCastro.

Timber in his favorite pose—napping. Photo by Diane DeCastro

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