Friday, May. 24, 2024

Behind The Stall Door With: Catoki

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There are two sides to McLain Ward’s speed specialist, Catoki. Both were on display Wednesday when he won the Wellington Equestrian Realty Power & Speed CSI5* to kick off Week 7 of the Winter Equestrian Festival (Florida).

Waiting for his co-owner and rider Ward to get on at the ring, the diminutive gelding stands quietly, docilely even, in the wings. The “adrenaline junkie,” as Ward calls him, comes out in the ring, once his jockey is up, when he turns on the explosive power that helped them top Wednesday’s class of 56 with a time of 24.18 seconds, edging out second-place Tanner Korotkin aboard Quinn 33 (24.23).

“He’s had a nice little rest since showing early in the circuit, so he was fresh,” Ward said after the win. “And it set up well for him. I have to make sure I don’t go too fast with him, and the short speed phase helps a little bit. I like to go early and ride my round and hopefully put a little bit of pressure, but Tanner almost got me. The young ones are nipping at my heels.”

Chasing Catoki’s time is daunting. The 14-year-old 15.2-hand Westphalian (Catoki—Coca Cola, Caretello B), co-owned by Ward, Marilla Van Beuren and Bob Russell, is a speed merchant. “We were saying earlier before the class, do you think he enjoys his round?” Ward said. “And I said I think it happens so fast, I don’t think he knows. He’s just so, so quick.”

Watch their Wednesday round, courtesy of ShowGroundsLive.com:

 

Catoki’s groom Olga Kruglova, a native of Ukraine who has worked for Ward the past five years, sees both sides of the gelding.

“He’s a different horse in the barn—one of the quietest,” she said, but in the show ring he’s like a dragon. “He changes once McLain gets on.”

Because of that, Catoki’s fitness program—which involves maximizing his turnout and minimizing his under-saddle work—has raised eyebrows. When it’s time to show he’s got a brief warm-up routine: a few laps around the ring at a walk, cantering three or four jumps and walking in between.

Kruglova said the horse who is a dragon in the ring has a personality that makes him one of her favorite charges.

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“I love this little guy,” she said. “I always wanted to take care of him. He has personality and he’s cute.”

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A mellow Catoki got in on a conversation between Castle Hill manager Lee McKeever (left) and head groom Virginie Casterman on Wednesday before his turn in the Wellington Equestrian Realty Power & Speed CSI5* in Wellington, Fla. Sarah Eakin Photos

Go behind the stall door to meet fire-breathing Catoki:

• Catoki doesn’t know how small he is.

“He has no clue he’s little—he thinks he’s a superstar,” said Ward’s head groom Virginie Casterman, who also has taken care of Catoki, including during last year’s Washington International Horse Show (Maryland) when he tackled the puissance for the second year in a row.

Given his stature, Catoki has less idea of what is on the other side of a puissance wall than most horses, but he jumps it anyway. He’s had back-to-back wins at the Washington International in 2021 and 2022, clearing 6’4” and 6’10” respectively.

While Kruglova said she wouldn’t want to jump him herself—“It’s too scary! The size of him [versus] the size of the jumps!”—Catoki himself has no such concerns.

“He thinks he can jump tomorrow at the Olympics with no issue,” Casterman said. “He has a lot of self-confidence. He’s not scared of anything. He’s quite special.”

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Catoki and groom Olga Kruglova.

• While Catoki has no problem with his own small stature, he does not care for other small animals, including ponies and dogs.

Standing patiently in the crossties at Ward’s new barn in Wellington, the only thing that triggers a reaction in Catoki is the arrival of something smaller than him.

“He doesn’t like anything small—he doesn’t like the dogs,” said Casterman, as he demonstrated, as if on cue, by pulling faces at a small pack of barn dogs trotting by.

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When he first arrived in the yard, Castle Hill Farm manager Lee McKeever noticed his size and made an incorrect assumption that he quickly fixed.

“I thought we’d got a new pony,” he said, so the logic then followed that they would turn him out with one of his peers. “We thought we’d put him out with a pony—and he hated it.”

• His nickname is “Toki,” but he also gets called “Cookie Monster” because he likes his cookies.

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Catoki posed for the camera with Lee McKeever.

• He has a fangirl in First Lady, another of Ward’s grand prix horses, but he ignores her. The two are in neighboring stalls at night when he’s in the barn.

“She loves him,” Kruglova said. “Every time he leaves, she’s like where is he? She’s so talkative. He’s fine without her, but she thinks she’s his girlfriend. He doesn’t need anyone. You can put him outside by himself, just leave him, forget him, he will be happy.”

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Little horse, big personality.

• He’s an outdoor guy. Catoki loves to be in the paddock. At Ward’s Castle Hill Farm in Brewster, New York, his team takes advantage of the hilly terrain to let Catoki keep himself in shape.

“The best way we find to work with him is to put him in the paddock, and he loves it,” said Kruglova. “First thing in the morning when we get to the barn, Catoki goes out. It’s a routine for him, and he knows he’s going out.”

Because he gets so excitable under saddle but will keep himself moving during turnout, his team has found maximizing pasture time to be the best way to keep him fit and happy.

“He walks back and forth; he kind of gets himself fit,” Kruglova said. “He goes there and as soon as he doesn’t want to be there, he’s not like one of those that starts running. He just goes to the gate and [says] ‘I’m here!’ ”

“He likes his little life and his little routine,” Casterman added.

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“They call me Cookie Monster for a reason,” says Catoki, looking for a treat.

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