It’s race day at Century Downs, and you know what that means. Kicking back on the apron with family and friends. Enjoying an ice-cold beer and a burger fresh off the grill. Cheering as the horses tear past the finish line, churning up waves of dust that skitter across the racetrack.
For Janice Lea, race day means going out there and doing her job as Century Downs’ outrider. Along with her horse—a majestic white Standardbred named Phantom—Lea is responsible for making sure everyone, both humans and horses alike, is safe. Before every race, she parades the horses to the starting gate. If they’re anxious or distressed, she calms them down. If they try to break away from the line, she reels them in. During the races, she keeps an eye out for anything that might go wrong. And if it does, she springs into action.
Sitting astride Phantom, Lea points to a section of the racetrack where a horse and driver went down during a race. According to her, something happened that caused the horse to become tangled in its equipment. The horse collapsed, with the rider pinned beneath it. To her, what stood out the most was the way everyone jumped in to make sure they were okay.
“It’s a tight-knit community. Everyone is racing to beat each other, but everyone’s still trying to make sure everyone’s doing it safely,” says Lea.
Since Century Downs opened its doors, Lea hasn’t missed a race. Rain or shine, howling winds or mud-caked fields, if there’s a race, she’s on the track.
“I enjoy it because I enjoy riding,” says Lea. “Any excuse I can to just get on my horse and do something with my horse, I enjoy that.”
Since showing an affinity for them at a young age, Lea has dedicated her life to the field.
In fact, she’s also the owner of Wilderness Village Trail Rides in Crimson Lake, Alberta, where she nurtures retired Standardbred horses back to health and retrains them into new careers.
“Sometimes people think that once Standardbreds are done racing, there’s not a big opportunity or option for them to do anything else,” says Lea. “They’re a gated breed, they’re a little bit dead-sided and a little bit dead-mouthed, and they’ve got some previous racing injuries that people aren’t willing to overlook.”
But as she’s proven, that isn’t the case. Lea says that while not every racehorse will make a good trail-riding horse, there will always be something that they can do and excel in. It’s just a matter of being patient and willing to help them find it. Phantom, who’s just north of fourteen years old, is also a retired racehorse. When he’s not at Century Downs, basking in the attention of the winner’s circle, he works as a trail-riding horse at Wilderness Village Trail Rides.
Lea’s efforts and passion haven’t gone unrecognized. In 2006, Lea was flown to Las Vegas and presented with the Standardbred Retirement Foundation’s Humanity Award. It was created in 2002 to honour the memory of James E. Burke, a trainer who was renowned for his love of Standardbred horses.
Lea exudes that trait in every possible way, not only through her work, but through her ceaseless determination. When funding for the horses became a problem, she started Red Star Emergency Medical Treatment—an ambulance service for injured industrial workers—to fund the business. Currently, her retreat is home to an additional 50 Standardbreds, all of whom she nursed back to health and retrained as trail-riding horses. To date, Lea has retrained at least 100 Standardbreds.
“You give them the time off that they need and you retrain them into a different career, and you can show people that this breed isn’t just a racehorse, it can be a riding horse, it can be a pick-up horse, it can be a parade horse,” says Lea. “And [Phantom] has done all those things and he’s just an inspiration.”