Monday, 05 October 2020 10:49

Free Thought strings together a record winning streak

Written by Curtis Stock
Free Thought in the barns at Century Mile Free Thought in the barns at Century Mile

It was incredible. And somehow incredibly overlooked. Race after race after race, Alberta-owned, trained and based Quarter Horse Free Thought kept winning and winning and winning until he put together a streak of 18 straight wins in a row. “We knew it was special but until recently we didn’t realize just how special it was,” said trainer William Leech.

Then Leech’s daughter, Haley Moreno, started to look into just how remarkable it really was. “It was about a year ago last fall well after Free Thought won his 16th race in a row back on August 31 at Calgary’s Century Downs that Haley was telling me it had to be close to a record. I said ‘Don’t be so silly.’”

Haley, however, was right. Not only was the 16 wins by Free Thought, owned by Charles ‘Chuck’ Stojan, a record it was a world record for Quarter Horse Racing easily eclipsing the mark set by Snowbound Superstar of 15 consecutive wins set in 2009. “I was trying to tell my father this for a longtime, but he thought I was crazy,” Haley told CTV Edmonton who did a story on him last week.

“It was something I never dreamt about,” said Leech. We all knew he was doing really well but for it to be a world record record… No we never thought that,” said Leech. “I mean he had won 16 races in a row and set the world record months before Haley, who is married to Free Thought’s jockey, Ricky Moreno, started to look into it. That’s how much attention we were paying to it.”

Free Thought then won again last September at Calgary’s Century Downs for his 17th straight victory and then - after a layoff of 11 months - collected his 18th in a row in Grande Prairie on Aug. 15 this summer. “We all knew he could get beat at anytime,” said Stojan. “Especially in Quarter Horse racing because the distances are so short. If you get off to a bad start or get bumped leaving the starting gate there’s a good chance you’re not going to win.
“Or they could just have an off day.”

But ‘Big Ed,’ which is the name everyone calls Free Thought around the barns or at home on the farm, refused to lose until early last month when he finally lost finishing third to another one of Stojan and Leech’s horses, Gone to Be Bright, at Century Mile - the first time ‘Big Ed’ had run over that surface.

“I think he just finally had a bad day,” Leech said of the tall, powerfully built horse. “He didn’t break like he usually does and around the turn he was sliping and sliding. I don’t think he got a hold of the track that day.”

So, a winning streak which started way back on June 10, 2017, finally came to an end on Sept. 4, 2020. “It took them almost three and a half years to beat him; it took them a long time to figure out how to beat him,” said Stojan. “Three and a half years…That’s pretty remarkable.”

Free Thought won just about every one of those 18 wins in a row wire-to-wire which is common in Quarter Horse racing. But on Sept. 4 Free Thought didn’t break on top. For that matter he broke fourth in a field of five and that was just too much to overcome.

It turns out that was Free Thought’s last race. "We've retired him. He’s nine-years-old and he doesn’t have anything to prove anyway. We’ve taken him home to my son Gerry’s farm in Sexsmith,” Stojan said of the town of 2,400 people a little north of Grande Prairie.

“He’s retiring 100 per cent sound. He’s been quite a remarkable horse. We’ve had a lot of fun with him. But he won’t be doing nothing and just sit in the pasture. That wouldn’t be fair to him. We’re still going to do stuff with him. The plan is to make him into a team roping horse.”

Leech said Free Thought will be able to live out his retirement in a “fancy” paddock in Sexsmith. “He’ll have a good life there,” said Leech. “We’ve noticed that he slowed up a bit from last year and we didn’t want to hurt him.”

“He’s made himself famous and in a way he’s made everybody around him a little famous,” said Stojan. “He built up quite a fan base in Alberta.” A world record will do that. “Speedhorse magazine did a story on him. CTV did a story. Jeff Robillard of Horse Racing Alberta did a video on him and now this,” said Stojan, who claimed Free Thought for $16,000 at the end of his two-year-old season at Los Alamitos, California.

“I was a little worried about claiming him because he had already made nine starts as a two-year-old which is a lot. I thought with that many starts as a two-year-old he’s going to fall apart. But he came into the paddock dancing - he’s a big, proud bugger - so I told William let’s claim him,” said Stojan, who will have three horses running in a Challenge Cup - a version of thoroughbred racing’s Breeders’ Cup - in Albuquerque, New Mexico at the end of this month.

Unfortunately, Free Thought, isn’t eligible. “We thought Free Thought was special when we got him. As a two- and three-year-old he only ran in races that were 300-350 yards long,” Sterling said of races that were just straight down the stretch. But as a four-year-old he acted like he wanted to run farther. And when we entered him in those longer races going around a turn that’s when he really started to shine.”

“He figured out how to run around the turns,” agreed Stojan. “A lot of horses will go around the turns but they won’t run around the turns.”

The other thing that changed Free Thought into a superstar was removing his blinkers. “At first he would get out there and wait for other horses to come at him. So I took the blinkers off him and then he was able to see other horses coming up on him and he’d grab another gear. Fully 17 of Free Thought’s 18-wins-in-a-row were without blinkers.”

In 51 career starts, Free Thought retires with 28 wins, 10 seconds and seven thirds for earnings of over $140,000. “He's been really consistent,” said Leech, who lives in Stirling, Alberta, a town of about 1,000 residents just south of Lethbridge. “Fourty-five times out of 51 starts he’s finished in the top three. That’s pretty amazing all by itself. He’s always been a real nice horse to handle,” continued Leech.

“He’s such a professional in the paddock and in the starting gate. He would often flick one ear every time another horse came into the gate. It was like he was counting them. In the mornings he likes to be the first one out of the barn. And when he goes to the track to train he likes to stop and look around for, heck, five or 10 minutes. He really enjoys that. He’s just a really neat horse. It’s been an honour to train him.”

Because of Covid-19 Free Thought only got to make two starts this year. “We had him ready to run the first part of May but then Covid came along and it didn’t look like we’d have any racing at all,” said Leech, 59, who has been training Quarter Horses since he was 19 - the first 10 years as a hobby while he worked a cow ranch north of Brooks. “Then we had him ready to run in Grande Prairie in July but they didn’t get enough horses to fill that race. That went on until August; he never started this year until August 15. He’s given a lot of people a long ride and a lot of fun. Especially Haley. She’s aways been the main groom for Big Ed and his No. 1 fan.”

“Haley has a love affair with Big Ed,” agreed Stojan. “She cuddles around him and he cuddles around her. They just get along so well.”

Leech said “We were hoping to let Free Thought have one more race at Century Mile so that he could redeem himself but that didn’t fill either. It’s a good time to quit with him. He’s happy and we’re happy. But we’re sure going to miss him around the barns. It’ll be a little lonely without him.”
 
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