Everybody loves a comeback. A second chance. A redemption.
And, that’s exactly what I’ve come to see, as I stand along the rail of our good neighbor’s riding arena on this warm and peaceful summer night. It’s a story unfolding day by day here … ever since the Angel came to stay at the Jedrzejewski family’s Circle J Stables in Hanover Township.
Angel is the barn name for Kiss An Angel, a champion thoroughbred who lost his nerve in a deadly horse racing accident years ago. Celene Jedrzejewski is the trainer helping him get it back.
On Friday – after 100 days of training – they will compete in the Extreme Retired Racehorse Makeover Barrel Race in Negley, Ohio. It’s a national competition meant to showcase the versatility of off-the-track thoroughbreds, as they come out of retirement and retrain for both a barrel race and a freestyle event.
At 18, Celene will be the youngest of the 12 trainers chosen from across the country; while 14-year-old Angel will be the oldest horse. The oldest horse and the youngest trainer may sound like a long shot – until you get to know Celene and Angel.
Celene was riding horses even before she was born. The oldest of three children of Karen and Al Jedrzejewski, Karen became pregnant with Celene while retraining thoroughbreds for a local track. Trainers would send Karen the jumpy horses, the ones too skittish to line up at the gate. Karen’s job was to settle them down. Some folks still recall the sight of her riding those horses at breakneck speed through Miller’s field. It was dangerous work – and Karen put it behind her when she became a mother.
Still, Celene and her younger sister and brother all grew up riding horses because their parents fell in love with this pretty piece of land in the country, where they decided to build their home and raise their children, even though they had both grown up in the city of Pittsburgh.
To make the dream a reality, Celene’s dad still commutes to work in the city at Al’s Motor Works, the garage he owns and operates in his childhood neighborhood of Polish Hill. Celene was home-schooled and now attends Fransiscan University in Steubenville, Ohio.
Celene began riding horses at 6 months (with her mom also in the saddle). She entered her first horse show when she was 18 months old. By 13, she was training horses and giving riding lessons.
In fact, it was one of her students who told her about the national contest to retrain a thoroughbred. Celene was interested. Her mother was against it, at first because she knew from her own experience the potential danger in retraining any horse. But her maternal worries began to melt away once Celene brought home the Angel.
Celene would spend weeks looking for a horse to retrain for the makeover – a first-ever event developed by promoter Jackie Harris to raise both awareness and funds for the rescue of off-the-track thoroughbreds. After searching online and visiting racetracks, Celene discovered Angel, almost by accident, when she went to visit some friends who had rescued the thoroughbred years before to an easy retirement in their West Virginia pasture.
Angel – actually Kiss An Angel – turned out to be a son of Kissin Kris, a grade-one millionaire champion who earned $1.6 million and whose progeny’s earnings have topped $18 million. Kiss An Angel not only looks like his famous sire with the same white blaze and silky dark coat, but, for a time, it also looked as if he would follow in his winning hoof steps.
Kiss An Angel had the blood and the nerve and a lot of promise until a tragic accident Aug.11, 2003, during the fourth race at Del Mar in California. Three horses were euthanized on the track following the chain-reaction pileup in which five jockeys went down. Kiss An Angel steered clear of the fallen horses but stumbled, losing his rider, who broke his left foot.
One of his trainers was Doug O’Neill (the same O’Neill whose I’ll Have Another won the Kentucky Derby last year). But Kiss An Angel had lost something on the track that day that none of his trainers could recover for him. He was soon sold; and, he finished his career running at Mountaineer racetrack in Chester, W.Va., until 2004, when he left racing as a giveaway. A horse that once sold for $60,000, Kiss An Angel had no value if he couldn’t race. Luckily, he was rescued and retired to a field less than 20 miles down the country road from Celene and Circle J Stables.
Now, after years off the track, the old champ Angel is back in the ring – an outdoor riding ring where he and Celene have spent hours and hours together during the 100-day challenge to retrain the thoroughbred for a barrel race and freestyle routine.
“It’s definitely been a learning experience,” reflects Celene.”Just like with people, it’s harder to teach an older horse. In the beginning, there was a lot of groundwork to gain trust … and then to build a relationship based on trust and respect.”
There’s a graceful elegance about Celene seated on the handsome, dark bay gelding – her body and his body so remarkably in tune – as he trots around the ring in perfect time to the music of their freestyle number. Tonight, they’re working on a series of steps known as a flying lead change. Celene has Angel do it again and again and again.
“We have a bond that is growing,” she says, recalling a recent morning doing chores in the barn when she got to Angel’s stall, he nickered and nudged her as if to say, “Come on, let’s go.” Sometimes the trainer is amazed at how hard the thoroughbred is willing to work for her; sometimes even a little afraid of his tremendous speed and power.
Fear can stop you in your tracks. It can change your life and break your heart. One day, a high-stakes winner; the next, a giveaway. Fear or love, each one of us must decide. Celene chose love and Angel found his “try.”
A hundred days of love and trust and try and Angel will be ready to fly. But on this magic summer night, I watch and wonder. Is Celene teaching Angel? Or, is Angel teaching me?