Hugo Ramirez is working on a horse-care dynasty.
He grew up watching his father Pedro Ramirez groom show jumpers, first for Susie Hutchison and then for Jenny Williams along the California coast. Now, his eldest son, Pedro Ramirez (named for Hugo’s father), is learning from Hugo as he manages operations for American-Israeli rider Ashlee Bond as she prepares for her first Olympic Games.
“I started him with the basics,” Hugo, 50, said of his son, Pedro, 21. “He’s actually a really good learner. He’s shown a lot of progress, and so I’m starting to trust him doing a lot more with the horses right now.
“I always tell him, ‘In this business, you never stop learning,’ ” Hugo continued. “You can learn something from everyone.”
Hugo started grooming at age 15, as his father neared retirement. Hugo got his first big break on the racetrack with Pam Ziebarth, whose family co-owned and bred two-time Breeders’ Cup winner, Tiznow. Ziebarth eventually hired Hugo to manage a stable for her son, Tyson Ziebarth, who rode in the junior jumpers.
“They trusted me with their whole barn, sent me to truck driving school to get my CDL, just really gave me every opportunity,” Hugo said. “I’m very grateful for that. I worked for them for 12 years. We still keep in touch.”
During his time with Tyson, Hugo met Bond and her father, Steve Bond, at competitions. When Tyson went to college, Hugo started freelancing on the jumper circuit.
“One day I got a call from Steve, and he asked if I wanted to come help them out while they were doing a show in L.A.,” Hugo said. “I came out for the show, and the second week Steve asked me if I wanted to come to Florida for the season in January. I said, ‘Yeah, for sure!’ Ashlee has always been one of the top riders, and I thought it was a very good opportunity.”
For three years, Hugo worked for Ashlee on the East Coast circuit. He loved the work but missed his wife Veronica and kids, Pedro and Valeria (16), who had stayed in California to be close to family. In 2009, he left the Bonds on good terms and moved back to the West Coast.
He took a job with Keri Potter, and he and his wife had another son, Alonzo (10). Then in 2017, Hugo got another call from the Bonds, who had moved their business to Hidden Hills, California, and wanted to know if he’d come back.
“I didn’t think twice,” said Hugo. ”I moved my family to the L.A. area from San Diego, and I’ve been working for them ever since.”
A Family Affair
Just as his family brought him back to California, part of what brought Hugo back to the Bonds was the close-knit nature of their farm.
“The respect we have for each other is just so, so big,” Hugo said. “All the decisions about the barn and the horses, they come to me to see what I think. They really make me feel like I’m a part of their family, and I love it.”
For Ashlee, the feeling is mutual.
“[Hugo] is family,” Ashlee said. “I trust him implicitly. He’s really attentive. He’s all about the quality of care and making sure that [the horses] feel at peace all the time. We’ve had horses that come in that are scared or have attitude, and he just takes his time and works with them and makes them feel safe and confident. He can tell personality traits, and that’ll help me and Dad with training. We rely on him a lot for ground stuff, with longeing and knowing how the horse is on that day and what they need for the class that night or that afternoon or the next day.”
Hugo carries so many responsibilities that Ashlee shies away from the term “groom,” which seems to denote a single task.
“He is the manager, and I don’t like to say groom,” Ashlee said. “I feel like there’s a better word for ‘groom.’ They literally take care of our horses and make sure that they’re ready to do their thing in the ring, and it’s so much more than just cleaning.”
Hugo admits balancing the demands of his work family with his family at home has never been easy. On days off, he prioritizes salt-water fishing with Alonzo, and last year, he and his family went all out celebrating his daughter’s quinceanera.
Now that Pedro travels too, Hugo says the balancing act is more difficult.
“I don’t know how my wife puts up with it,” Hugo admitted. “I honestly have no idea. We’re always on the road, and it’s always hard on them when you’re away for so long. You manage to figure it out, but it must be tough for them.”
The Winning Part
One of Hugo’s top priorities is caring for Donatello 141, Ashlee’s Tokyo Olympic mount. Hugo describes “Donnie” (Diarado—Luna, Lamoureux I) as “the easiest horse you could ever work with.” Besides liking big meals and long morning naps after breakfast, the 10-year-old Westphalian gelding isn’t particular about much.
Hugo takes pride in being one of the gelding’s first cheerleaders when Donnie arrived in 2016. Ashlee’s top horse Chela was starting to slow down, so she and Steve were on the hunt for another top horse.
“I always told them, don’t look for another top horse—Donnie is right here,” said Hugo. “They said, ‘Oh, I don’t know, I think he’s going to be OK.’ But I said, ‘I think he’s it. I really think he’s going to be that top horse.’ They would just laugh.”
Any doubt about Donnie’s potential disappeared after Donnie won the $100,000 Longines FEI Del Mar World Cup qualifier (California) at 8 years old. Ashlee gave Hugo the watch she and Donnie won that day, which nearly brought him to tears.
For Hugo, the victory itself was the real prize.
“My favorite part of the job is the winning part,” Hugo said. “I’m very competitive, just like Ashlee and Steve. We all have the same mentality. We all want the same thing.”
More Than A Job
Hugo is excited to travel to Tokyo this summer. He won’t get to do much site-seeing—COVID restrictions will keep the participants and their teams restricted to the equestrian facility. He doesn’t expect Donnie to raise any trouble, either—he’ll probably still catch his mid-morning nap.
Still, presenting a horse at the Olympic Games marks a significant achievement for any groom or barn manager. With his son following in his footsteps, it might even seem like a final crescendo to a career well spent.
But Hugo swears he’s not thinking about retirement just yet.
“I have a pact with Steve—I can’t retire until he does, and I don’t think he’s retiring anytime soon,” Hugo said with a laugh. “But honestly, you don’t really call it a job when you get up in the morning, and you’re already motivated to go do what you do—you’re already looking forward to it. That’s what I love about this job—if you can call it a job.”