Peetz bought a nice group of yearlings at sales in Kentucky and California last year, and maybe one of them will be the next great thing. Stenslie and Peetz will soon begin to find out: The Emerald Downs season opens Sunday.
Chris Stenslie steps into her small office in the barn area at Emerald Downs, with mementos and photos all over the wall.
“She thinks it’s real messy, but I think it’s one of the cleanest offices back here,” said Stenslie, speaking of Jody Peetz, who owns the majority of horses Stenslie trains.
It’s about the only thing the two disagree about.
Emerald Downs’ 23rd season
Opening day: Sunday, first race at 2 p.m.; the 67 race-date season ends Sept. 23.
Highlights: The $200,000 Longacres Mile for horses 3 years and older Aug. 12; the inaugural $100,000 Getaway Stakes for 3-year-olds on closing day (Sept. 23).
Promotions: A fireworks show (July 3) and several fun races during the summer, including wiener dogs, corgis, ostriches, camels and zebras. For more information, go to emeralddowns.com.
Together, they have become one of the most formidable teams at the Auburn racetrack, two women excelling in a sport that is predominantly male.
They have experienced great highs, like in 2016 when O B Harbor was the king at Emerald Downs, winning stakes race after stakes race and being crowned horse of the meeting.
And they have survived the lowest of lows, such as when O B Harbor died suddenly of colic after that triumphant season.
Stenslie, 54, suffered through a tough season last year, not just with the gut-wrenching deaths of a couple of her horses, but also a down season in which she had her fewest wins since 2008.
“We had so much tragedy, it was so heartbreaking, and I thought maybe that’s a sign for me just to retire,” said Stenslie, who had 10 wins last season, about a third of her annual average. “But I love the horses. It’s hard for me to walk away. I can walk away from the business, but I love the horses, and I like to ride and I like to go fast.”
In this game, hope reigns. Peetz bought a nice group of yearlings at sales in Kentucky and California last year, and now that they’re 2-year-olds maybe one of them will be the next great thing.
Stenslie and Peetz will soon begin to find out: The Emerald Downs season opens Sunday.
And there is no place the two would rather be.
Nature and nurture
Stenslie cannot remember a time when she was not around horses. Her mother, Alana Goff, had a short career as a jockey, then was a longtime trainer, including at Longacres in Renton.
“It was just a passion from the time I was born because we always had horses,” Stenslie said.
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At about 8, when her mother was working at a Quarter Horse training center in Northern California, Chris saddled up a riding horse and, “I galloped this old horse in exercise equipment and even got in the gate a time or two.”
It was instant love. She has been riding ever since.
At 14, she got a license to gallop her mom’s horses at Longacres and worked as a groom, learning the skills that would benefit her later as a trainer.
“I always loved grooming,” she said. “I loved the attachment to the horses, I liked the interaction. Anything to do with the horses, that’s just been a passion since Day One.”
But as much as she likes riding, being a jockey was never her goal, not after watching her mother work so hard to stay at a racing weight when she was a jockey.
“I would watch her try to pull weight, and she was real grouchy and we were young enough that that was pretty impressionable, so I never had a drive to be a jockey,” Stenslie said. “I love working horses out in the morning, but I just never had that passion to be a (jockey).”
She and her husband, Jeff, a veterinarian, moved to Illinois for a few years, “and I missed this a lot.” When they moved back a few years later, Stenslie began to gallop horses at Emerald Downs. In 2003 she got her training license.
Soon she would get a big break: working for Peetz.
Peetz, 64, grew up in Alaska, where her father was a prosperous businessman. She had ridden horses as a child, and in 1997 a friend took her to Emerald Downs. It became a life-changing event.
“I decided, ‘I am going to get a racehorse. This is what I was meant to be doing,’ ” she said. “I found my niche in life, and I love having people around you as passionate as you are.”
In 2004, Peetz hired Stenslie, who helped take Peetz’s One Horse Will Do stable to a new level.
“She was riding horses for (trainer) Larry Hoksbergen, and I owned a horse with him,” Peetz said. “Larry was dying with throat cancer, and he said on his deathbed, ‘Jody, you make sure Chris trains these horses for you.’ I’d already seen how she worked with these horses, and I said OK. And that’s how our partnership began.”
Peetz supplied horses with talent, and Stenslie has done the rest. She trains each horse as an individual, with a plan for each horse based on ability and personality. Unlike most trainers, she gallops and works out her horses, and she even trains the young ones in the starting gate.
She believes riding her horses is a big advantage.
“A lot of gallop people are just out there to make their 12 dollars and get on the next one,” she said. “When I get on them every day, you can notice slight changes and maybe prevent a problem before it becomes one. It’s something you might not even be able to see, but you can feel it.”
Said Peetz: “I can see what she can do with horses that other people cannot do. Horses really respond to her, and it’s a big difference.”
Passion and performance
Peetz and Stenslie have become a fixture among the owner and trainer leaders at Emerald Downs.
They have combined to win nine stakes races, including three with horses who were division champions at Emerald Downs, including O B Harbor.
In 2011, Talk to My Lawyer became the second filly to win the Gottstein Futurity at Emerald Downs and was the track’s top juvenile filly. In 2012, Hollywood Harbor set a world record for the fastest time at 5½ furlongs (1 minute, .87 seconds).
Emerald Downs has had several successful female trainers over the years, including Doris Harwood, the career leader in stakes wins at the track.
But nationwide, it is still a male-dominated profession. Of the 96 trainers in the National Racing Hall of Fame, only one — Janet Elliot — is a woman.
“I think women are much more compassionate than men,” Peetz said, while taking pains to say men can be compassionate, too. “We have a definite level of compassion for our horses, and if they get claimed we try to get them back. We care for them on a personal level, and we want to protect them. And after their racing careers are over, we try to find them another home. That’s why I have Chris as a trainer — because of that attitude.”
Of the 28 horses Stenslie is training at Emerald Downs, about 20 are at least partially owned by Peetz. (“I don’t like saying the exact number,” Peetz said.)
Despite being around each other so much, they say they have never fought. Occasionally, they disagree on what competitive level to run a horse. Consistent with their relationship, it’s about 50-50 who prevails.
When it comes to taking care of the horses, they never disagree. Peetz treats her horses like children. If she is lucky enough to own a super horse, she is not selling, no matter the offer. “God, no,” she said.
A family affair
Like most trainers, Stenslie rarely takes a day off.
“She is the first one here, and the last to leave,” Peetz said.
Unlike many trainers, though, Stenslie does not go to another track once the season is over. There is more to her life than horse racing.
She and Jeff have three children: twins Hailey and Amanda, who will be 21 in May, and 29-year-old son Jeremy. He and his wife have a 1-month-old son, Carson, and Chris Stenslie lights up when talking about her first grandchild.
It’s family that keeps Stenslie home after the Emerald Downs season ends.
“I didn’t want to uproot my family to move from track to track, and I didn’t want to leave my husband to raise the kids,” she said.
Stenslie also considers Peetz family and often invites her over on holidays.
But Peetz won’t do it.
“Even though I’ve known Chis for all these years, I don’t partake in family holidays with her,” Peetz said. “She tries very hard to get me to come over, but I refuse to impede on her family time because it is so precious. When she goes on holiday with her family, she will say, ‘Come with us,’ and I say no.”
Still, they spend plenty of time together. Peetz is at the track nearly every day to watch her horses and hopes one of the promising 2-year-olds will become a big star.
“It’s the One Horse Will Do Corporation because I need just that one horse to make a million, and I am still waiting,” Peetz said.
Like everyone in the sport, Stenslie and Peetz dream of having a horse in the Kentucky Derby or the Breeders’ Cup.
“She has a couple of good 2-year-olds, but they have to do it,” Stenslie said. “We try not to get too excited until they get there (to the big races).”
She is, however, excited about another season, and fully content she did not retire.
“I just really love the horses,” she said. “It’s what I do.”