Racing & Wagering

Gotta Good Feeling's Impact Goes Beyond the Track

| Churchill Downs Communications | 06/14/2013 #

The horse with floppy ears and a big white blaze exited the sales ring at a 2-year old in training sale without having moved any buyers to take a chance, but trainer Dee Poulos couldn't get him out of her mind.

“He just grabbed me with that unforgettable white blaze,” Poulos said of the horse who would eventually be called Gotta Good Feeling. “He just had a special look, and I couldn't stop thinking about him. I called Homer [Schafer, Gotta Good Feeling's owner] and we wound up buying him.”

Poulos would take things slowly with the young horse, giving him time to mature in advance of his career debut on March 3, 2007, a race he would win at odds of 13-1, the first of three lifetime wins while earning more than $54,000. During his racing career, Poulos was introduced to Lara Filip, a volunteer with the racehorse retirement organization CANTER, who would frequent the Arlington backstretch in search of horses in need of homes after their racing days were over.

“Lara and I had a mutual friend, and she started coming around the barn. She fell in love with him the first time she saw him, and she started to come visit him more often,” Poulos said, “and while he was still racing, she told me that she would love to give him a home when his racing days were done. We can be superstitious at the racetrack, so the one thing I didn't want to think about was the end of his racing career.”

As it happened, Gotta Good Feeling would injure his sesamoid in a June 2008 race at Arlington, and he was taken back to the barn for observation. Owner Homer Schafer recalled, “He finished fourth in his last race, and so we took him back to the barn just to see how things went for a little bit. When it became clear that he wasn't going to race again, Dee and I were discussing what to do with the horse, and we knew that Lara was interested in taking him. They were a match made in heaven; it was love at first sight, and we knew that she would give him a good home.”

Filip, who lived in Forest Park at the time but now resides in Naperville, said that her visits to see Gotta Good Feeling had been slowing down in the time leading up to his injury. “When he was four years old, I had stopped visiting quite as often, because there wasn't as much of a need for CANTER's help on the backstretch – and that was a great thing. I had told Dee that I would love to have the horse when he was done racing, and she hated me saying that, so we never spoke of it again, but once it was clear that he wasn't going to make it back to the races, she called me and said, 'If you still want him, he's yours.'”

She took Gotta Good Feeling to Versailles Farm in Elburn, Ill. for additional rest and time to recover from his injury. “We started slow on him once we knew he was sound again, because that kind of injury isn't easy to overcome. I started riding him, and then eventually started him over a few small jumps because I have a hunter/jumper background. He loved it, and after that I moved him closer to me so I could keep working with him on that.”

Filip helped “Gibson,” as she calls him now, move forward off his injury, but it would not be long until she needed him the way that he needed her.

“I was diagnosed with cancer just before Christmas in 2009. I had had Gibson for almost a year and a half at that point, and we were doing so well together when this came out of the blue – I was young and there was no history of cancer in my family. The first thing I asked my doctor was whether or not this would impact my riding.”

Filip credits a network of family and friends for helping her continue her trips to the farm to ride Gibson.

“My friends and family were so great to me, but they all thought I was crazy. They would wonder how I wasn't okay to drive, but I was okay to ride. There were days that I didn't want to do anything; it was difficult to get off the couch and it was pretty easy to think about sitting around and feeling sorry for myself. Gibson was the reason that I didn't give myself a chance to do that, because the only thing I wanted to do most days was go spend time with him.

“Some days I did feel horrible,” Filip continued, “but even when I wasn't strong enough to ride, I still wanted to go hang out with him. I would sometimes take a saddle pad out into the paddock and just lay down, and he'd graze the grass right next to me.

“You know, I don't think he was ever a really spectacular athlete, but he's got an amazing work ethic, and he figures out what his job is and then tries as hard as he can to be good at it. I think that served him well on the racetrack, and it made him the perfect partner for me. I really believe that he figured out that his job was to take care of me.”

Filip credits that intuition for Gibson's ability to be such a key ally in her battle with cancer, but his ability to pick up on her mood didn't always make things easy.

“We only fell once, and I blame myself for it. I wasn't completely into it, and I was feeling weak from treatments, and he picked up on that. I wasn't 100%, so he didn't think he had to be either. When I needed him, he was there, but when I was lazy, he thought it was time for us to be lazy together and we didn't make it cleanly over a jump and I got tossed off,” she said, laughing.

Those types of miscues between the two were rare, however, and Filip reflects on her successful battle with cancer with a sense of thankfulness in her voice.

“I've been in remission for 2 ½ years now, and I am so incredibly grateful to Homer and Dee for giving me such an amazing gift. Gibson was such a huge part of my recovery, and I think of Dee every day. She's just a wonderful person, and having this horse helped me through so much. I kept thinking that I had to get better because I had this amazing horse in my life, and I needed to be there for him like he was there for me.”

Poulos, for her part, isn't surprised that the horse once known as Gotta Good Feeling would live up to his name.

“In Greek mythology, the horse is considered a messenger, and in my life I've been through difficult things and there has always been a horse there for me. Lara was so positive throughout her treatments, and I'm not sure I could have done that. It was almost like this horse was intended for something else from the very start. He was meant to be with Lara and to help her through her battle with cancer.”

The horse with the floppy ears and big white blaze that nobody wanted turned out to be the exact horse Lara Filip needed.