The Magic Of Albert

Magical Albert with Susan and Bert Mollica
Published: November 20, 2023 12:00 pm EST

Magical Albert has overcome multiple and significant obstacles throughout his nine years of life and his journey has been well chronicled. Now, after a racing career and stint retraining with the Ontario Standardbred Adoption Society (OSAS), he has become the first Standardbred ever accepted into a leading therapeutic riding centre.

It seems only fitting that a Standardbred who overcame significant odds to simply survive his entry into the world, should spend the latter part of his life helping others who also face challenges.

Magical Albert is one of those few horses who actually lives up to his name. He defied tremendous odds to live after his traumatic premature birth, and his journey since then has been truly magical ending with a home at TEAD Therapeutic Riding Centre.

Melissa Horvath, TEAD’s executive director, noted, “TEAD is a truly magical place. We always like to use that word to describe what we do so it was very appropriate we got Magical Albert.”

Albert’s story begins almost two decades ago when longtime horse owner Dave Lumsden of Dundas, Ont. bought a share of his dam, the Camluck daughter, Illusionist.

“I bought an interest during Illusionist’s three-year-old season, my partner said, ‘You’re going to love this horse,’ and he was right, I ended up buying out his half,” explained Lumsden, who developed a love of harness racing thanks to his father who would often take him to nearby Flamboro Downs. 

The first horse Lumsden owned was Are You Pan Enough, an Artsplace iron horse who won 48 races in his career. He is now 24, still owned by the Lumsden family, and happily retired alongside Illusionist.  

Throughout her career, Illusionist competed in the upper echelon of her division racing against such standouts as My Little Dragon, Darlins Delight, Burning Point and Invitro. When Illusionist finally hung up her racing harness for good, her summary showed 43-19-23 in 140 trips behind the gate for $1,023,047 in earnings.

“Illusionist was retired at the end of her seven-year-old season. 'Lusi' [Illusionist’s nickname] had been winning the Open Mares that summer but as the year wore on she just didn’t seem to have the same interest. She wasn’t lame, maybe a little sore, but we thought she’s done very well by us. It was time to retire and she became our first broodmare.” 

Illusionist’s first consort was the great Somebeachsomewhere and she foaled a filly in February of 2010 named, Lido Magic. Although unraced herself, all of Lido’s foals to date have made it to the track including Magical Arthur, who is currently racing at Mohawk and has won more than $380,000 to date.

Illusionist’s next foal was another filly, this time by Mach Three, named Mach Magic (the Lumsdens put the word Magic in their female foal’s names while the colts are dubbed with Magical). Mach Magic earned $154,502 during her time on the track and is now a member of their small broodmare band. Her second foal is a two-year-old named Magical Aoine, who won his second lifetime start last month at Mohawk in 1:54.2.

Illusionist skipped the next year and in 2013 she was bred back to Mach Three, due to deliver in early January. That’s when the trouble started.

“I got a call from Darlene Hayes at Hillsborough Stables [where she was boarded] saying that Illusionist was just not right so we got the vet in to look at her and then took her to Guelph [the University of Guelph’s renowned equine hospital]. They said the foal was so big it had started to tear her inside and she had zero chance of giving birth normally.

“The chief surgeon at Guelph said he could do a C-section, but the foal wouldn’t survive. Or we can let the pregnancy run its course but the mare won’t survive. That was our choice. I thought, let’s see if we can make both survive -- that was our hope through Illusionist’s tricky and dicey emergency C-section.

“Albert survived the tough surgery but his lungs weren’t developed and he was having trouble breathing. They told us he only had a five per cent chance of survival at that point. We went to see our mare and her foal as my wife wanted to say goodbye to Albert, that’s how dire it was,” explained Lumsden.

“Dr. [Luis] Arroyo said we could try and put Albert on a ventilator, they had never done that before and it was going to cost a lot of money. I said go ahead. My wife thought I was nuts but slowly we started to have more hope. He was still struggling of course and had other minor complications.

“Ten days after the emergency surgery, we had another dilemma. The vets had determined that both mother and baby will survive but they’ve been separated for those crucial, bonding days. They decided to introduce them in a hallway. They put heads together and sure enough it was like they’d never been apart. By that time, the mare didn’t have any milk so Albert had to be fed out of a bucket.

“After about three weeks, he looked a lot better than she did. She obviously can’t have any more babies and as far as we were concerned Albert could be whatever he wanted to be. I thought, wouldn’t it be a great story if he could make it to the races? Ted MacDonell broke him and he was a bit of a handful. 

“Little by little Albert kept getting stronger. Scott Young drove him in his first qualifying race [on Nov. 16, 2017] and said he wants to do this, he is trying. It was challenging for Albert and he struggled, and we were close to giving up.”

In Albert’s first official race at Woodbine that December, he was distanced by the half and was far behind his rivals by the time he crossed the finish line. The Lumsdens were pragmatic about the situation.

“We figured we gave him a shot; it wasn’t going to work as a racehorse so now it’s up to us to find Albert another job. And then we got a call from our trainer telling us that it wasn’t Albert’s fault he was so far behind. Albert was hot and bothered at the gate and the driver had taken too much of a hold on him and he choked,” remembered Lumsden.

Magical Albert’s next outing was more successful as he earned a cheque and he literally was away to the races.

“The first time he won [the following February], it was quite a party,” laughed Lumsden. “Albert went on to win 12 races, at four different racetracks, and earn over $100,000. It was a lot of fun and so much more special considering his start in life.”

In addition to the fun and celebrating, there was some drama in Albert’s racing career. On Sept. 8, 2021, he was entered into a claiming race at Grand River Raceway and was claimed, an outcome the Lumsdens and their trainer hadn’t expected.

“My wife wouldn’t let him go. She said, ‘You’re not leaving without the horse.’ She was bawling her eyes out. I made a few phone calls and everything got fixed and we owned Albert again.”

For Lumsden's wife, Renata, Albert was more than special. He was the subject of two of her books, The Bounty of Illusionist: The inspirational story of a champion racehorse and her foals, published in 2017, and Magical Albert: How a Preemie Foal Changed One Couple’s Definition of Family Forever, which was released three years ago.

Magical Albert’s unique story was also featured in TROT Magazine and the Toronto Star in 2014. The Star feature, by Jim Coyle, was voted as the paper’s most liked front page story that year.

The chapter of Magical Albert’s life on the racetrack ended in May of this year and it was time to start a new one. Enter TEAD Therapeutic Riding Centre, which celebrated its 45th anniversary this year. Its website states, "Established on April 28, 1978, TEAD has been a steady source of support, growth and independence for countless individuals with various challenges, fostering a strong community that thrives on the connection between humans and horses."

Melissa Horvath, a lifelong equestrian, took over as their Executive Director earlier this year.

“We received a package in the mail with both of Renata’s books and a note explaining who Magical Albert was and how he now wanted to become a therapy horse. I found Renata on Facebook and we had a chat. At that time, we had just put down our beloved horse, Ebony, who had been a staple in TEAD’s program for years. We were both crying, it was an intense, emotional chat. We connected right away and the timing was perfect,” recalled Horvath.

The only issue was that Magical Albert had never been ridden. That needed to be rectified so enter the Ontario Standardbred Adoption Society and its wonderful foster farm operated by Susan and Bert Mollica. The couple have worked with OSAS for the past few years. Bert’s meticulous and patient approach to each individual horse he works with has earned him the nickname ‘The Horse Whisperer.’

“Renata and Melissa reached out to Joanne Colville [OSAS’s administrator] and she got Albert to the Mollicas and Bert worked his magic,” said Lumsden.

“Magical Albert came off the trailer like he was already home. When we put Albert in the poly paddock, he followed Bert around like a puppy dog. He loved playing with us,” remembered Susan Mollica. “When Bert started working with Albert, he knew right away that Albert had been loved and handled his entire life. Bert tacked up Albert and he was a natural and they just started riding. It was like Albert already knew what to do.

“We knew that Albert was being adopted to TEAD so we trained him to be ridden by a special needs rider who would also have people assisting the rider. We then had Bert's great nephew, who is five, come and ride on Albert. Albert was a gentle giant with the little boy,” she continued.

“Melissa and Hilary from TEAD came to visit Albert with a rider they knew. Albert was a super star with her on his back. The horse and rider both enjoyed doing all the obstacles in the extreme paddock. Magical Albert is truly a miracle! Bert and I would like to thank Dave and Renata for loving Magical Albert and to everyone who had the pleasure and honour of being a special part of making Magical Albert's second career one that will leave a forever memory in the hearts of everyone at TEAD.”

What makes Magical Albert’s story even more special is the fact that he is the first Standardbred ever accepted into the TEAD program.

“It’s a great opportunity for Standardbreds,” noted Lumsden.

“I have a soft spot for Standardbreds and their gentle nature,” admitted Horvath. “I went first to Classy Lane training centre to meet Albert and it was a crazy, racing environment. He stood in cross ties and was a bit nippy and chewing on the cross ties.

“I then saw Albert at Rod Hughes’ farm. With time to decompress from harness racing, he was a completely different horse. He was snuggly, wanted his face rubbed and stood there quietly. He reacted well to a break from track life and enjoyed the chance to just be a horse. After that, Albert went to Susan and Bert’s who were incredible with him.

“Albert blew me away from the first day I met him. His is a very special story and the Lumsdens are the sweetest people. I feel blessed to know them personally.

“There is a stigma many people have about horses that come from a racing background, they’re hot and unpredictable, but that’s not the case especially with Albert. Standardbreds try their hardest for the most part. Even though he is a pacer, we do have Albert trotting. Bert hadn’t worked on that as he wasn’t aware we wanted that. We have a very strong rider, our volunteer coordinator, who got on him and he did it. Albert has the try and is going to do his best. I’m quite impressed by how quickly he picked up everything.”

Once Albert arrived at TEAD’s facility in Mount Hope, he had two weeks of quarantine and then a slow introduction to the program.

“He’s still being integrated; we do things slowly. Right now, the staff and strong, independent riders are riding him.

“Albert has never put a foot wrong. We had a fairly nervous staff member riding him recently and he was phenomenal. Albert could tell she was nervous and he took care of her. He’s very close to being able to carry therapeutic riders.”

Given Albert’s smooth transition, Horvath and Colville are confident he won’t be the only harness horse finding a home at TEAD in the future. Having a Standardbred accepted into such a well known and respected program facilitates one of OSAS’s mandates, which is to showcase the breed’s versatility and suitability for many equine disciplines beyond the racetrack.

“He is so good with people, he wants to be with people and they all love him, so this seems the perfect fit,” concluded Lumsden, who noted that the family will be visiting their special horse often. 

Magical Albert’s story is truly inspirational.

“He overcame so much that when this opportunity arose, we thought, if any horse can do it, he can.”

(With files from Ontario Standardbred Adoption Society; Photo of Susan and Bert Mollica with Magical Albert)