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Top Notch Tonto thriving in new career

Top Notch Tonto thriving in new career
Top Notch Tonto thriving in new career

When Top Notch Tonto finished last of six in a Doncaster conditions race in 2012, his name was jotted down in a Sheffield pub by an admirer watching the race on television.

From a humble start, the chestnut quickly hit his stride on the racecourse and became a thorough fan favourite throughout his eight-year Flat career, gaining a following for his longevity and his instantly recognisable appearance.

Trained initially by Ian McInnes, he switched stables to join Brian Ellison midway through the 2013 season and shortly after claimed the biggest prize of his career thus far when landing the Group Three Superior Mile at Haydock.

From then on, he regularly turned up in contests ranging from five furlongs to a mile and a half, finding an appreciative crowd wherever he went and earning nearly half a million pounds in prize money throughout his career.

The other big contributions to that pot came from his Listed win the Guisborough Stakes at Redcar and near misses at Group level when he was second in the Boomerang Stakes at Leopardstown, the York Stakes on the Knavesmire and notably the Queen Elizabeth II Stakes at Ascot.

Horse Racing – Betfred Sprint Cup Festival – Haydock Park Racecourse
Top Notch Tonto winning the Superior Mile (Anna Gowthorpe/PA)

He was evidently the apple of Ellison’s eye throughout his years at the Spring Cottage in Malton, with the trainer describing him “as one of the kindest horses we have ever had to deal with” – making him the sort of horse who has no trouble finding a loving home in retirement.

That proved to be the case after he ran his 61st and final race in 2019, when he ended up in the hands of the very same person who had made a note of his name all those years ago.

That person is Karen Woodall and her husband, former jump jockey Chris, with whom Top Notch Tonto has turned his hand to a new discipline with his usual versatility and is now collecting first prizes in the dressage arena at the age of 14.

“My husband was a jump jockey, so we’ve always taken on ex-racehorses. It was actually in our pub in Sheffield that I saw him on the TV, I think he was with Ian McInnes in a two-year-old race and he was just stunning. He just stood out a mile,” Woodall said.

“I put his name on the wall calendar in the pub, I said ‘I’m going to have that horse’. He came stone last and I just thought, bless him, I’ll have him! Then he started winning, the pub in Sheffield was a betting pub and they were all telling me to scribble his name out when he started running in Group Ones.

Horse Racing – Longines Irish Champions Weekend – Day One – Leopardstown Racecourse
Top Notch Tonto (white face) finishing second in the Boomerang Stakes at Leopardstown (Brian Lawless/PA)

“He came to me years later as a 10-year-old and I couldn’t believe it. I just had to have him, he’s Top Notch Tonto!”

The gelding was originally going to be aimed at show hack classes, but the environment at such competitions did not seem to be to his liking and he has instead found his second career in the dressage ring.

The duo are aiming for the British Dressage regional finals at Novice level and dabbling at the Elementary grade, though the walk to canter transitions involved can prove a little explosive on a horse used to leaping into gallop from a standstill.

“I gave him a bit of a break to let him chill out and get used to his life. Then I got itchy to have a sit on him but I was scared, I have to say, you know what they say about ginger sprinters…,” said Woodall.

“My husband told me to just get on him and he was just fantastic from day one.

Top Notch Tonto with Karen Woodall (Karen Woodall)

“He’s loving it, we were starting to crack on with Elementary but we’re trying to get qualified for the Novice regional finals first. We’re still ticking away at Elementary level, though he can get his knickers in a knot in the walk to canter transitions.

“He has nailed them but sometimes he just seems to think he’s coming out of the stalls!”

With his pinto-like markings, Top Notch Tonto is an easy horse to spot in the collecting ring and Woodall is inspired to aim high so that those who followed him in his racing days can see him thrive again in his new career.

“He gets recognised all the time, wherever he goes! That’s why it’s my aim to do my best with him, because he’s a superstar and everybody knows him,” she said.

Top Notch Tonto in his new home (Karen Woodall)

“He’s a dream to have, really. He’s lovely, taking ex-racehorses to new places can be an issue sometimes but he’s just been lovely wherever he’s been.

“He’s my lad. People do keep saying they’d buy him off me but he’s not going anywhere. Brian knows me and he knows he’s got a home for life here with me.”

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