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Living on a dream
By Kathleen Ostrander

Arthur Andrew "Drew" Coontz always wanted to be a cowboy. His parents, Debbie and Dave Coontz, have pictures of a tiny cowboy Drew sitting on a rocking horse, a little bit bigger Drew on a pony and finally young man Drew on a horse.

He showed cattle in 4-H and he participated in the family hobby - owning and racing horses. Although he couldn't be a jockey, he nurtured his cowboy dreams by becoming a member of the Ansar Shrine and the Mounted Cowboy Unit and riding his horse in local and state fair parades.

"We've always had horses and he's always been around horses," said Dave Coontz.

After Drew graduated from Lincoln Land Community College, he hit the track. He had two important things going for him.

"He knew exactly what he wanted - to be a trainer," Dave said. "He can talk to people and he's really easy to talk to," said Debbie.

At the age of 23, Drew Coontz's cowboy dream has grown up, and he's now a trainer and groom for the highly successful Block Stables at Arlington Park.

Drew's horse knowledge, honed from a tender age, is why he's nearly a constant companion to a top-ranked thoroughbred called Giant Oak.

To the average person, a thoroughbred thundering down the racetrack would seem to be a fairly steady representative of horseflesh. Not quite.

Horse lore is replete with stories of silly stallions and flighty fillies that needed their favorite human or even a pet around to keep them on task. With just two years under his cowboy hat at Block Stables, Drew was thrown headfirst onto the Kentucky Derby trail with Giant Oak.

A decision was made to skip the Derby and have Giant Oak train in New Orleans instead, but right up until a couple of weeks before the Derby, Drew was in charge of conditioning and working with a Derby prospect.

"We kind of threw him into the fire," said Chris Block. "That's a lot of responsibility to take care of that kind of horse. There was a lot of press involved and travel, and he stepped right up.

"There's people who train and groom and they make it all about them and play up to the media about their horse. That's not my style, and Drew got that," Block added.

Drew got hired by Block after he checked out all of the trainers and then approached Block and introduced himself.

"I went into his barn one morning and told him I wanted to learn the basics and get to work. I owned my first racehorse when I was 16, and I think it really helped being around horses," Drew said. Drew worked at the Fairmont track in the St. Louis area in the summers under the tutelage of John Brandenburg.

"My daddy and my granddaddy owned horses and knew horses. When I graduated from college, I told my dad I wanted to work at the track," Drew recalled.

He started out doing a sort of horse trainer/assistant basic training with Block being a "hot walker" - someone who walks the horses to cool them down after a practice.

Block noticed Drew and Giant Oak struck up a friendship, and he got put on Giant Oak full time.

Drew grooms the horse and "schools" him at all the tracks. Horses are fickle creatures; they can decide they just don't want to behave at a different track than they are used to racing at.

"Everything is different, the feel of the ground, the sounds, all the different things going on and you have to get the horse acclimated and ready," Drew said. "Horses have bad days; sometimes they are on their game and sometimes they aren't. You have to have that kind of relationship where they trust you and know they are OK and they need to run," he added.

Right now, Drew is working on getting his assistant license, and that means he needs a knowledge of medicine and track and race rules.

Both Block and Drew had the same advice for those who want to work at the track with horses. "You've got to know the basics and have some knowledge of horses," Drew said. "If you don't have that sort of expertise going in," Block said, "you need to start out just getting some level of confidence around the horses."

"These horses are a substantial investment, and they need someone who knows how to handle them," Block added.

Drew said those trying to come up in the sport should study those around them. "Get to be a hot walker and then watch the grooms and the trainers. Watch how they work on the horses and help your boss out," he said.

Good advice, according to Block. "My hope for Drew is that he gets to do whatever he wants. I hope he likes the Chris Block stable enough to stay on and be one of my main men."

High praise coming from an owner of one of the top stables in the country. Cowboy dreams have a way of working out. 

 

Story published Friday, September 4, 2009 ( Volume 4, Number 5 )

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