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Thoroughbred Jelgo, with jockey Sahin Civaci, wins at Woodbine racetrack on Oct. 2, 2021.Michael Burns/Courtesy of Woodbine Entertainment

In 2019, John Handbury decided to buy a racehorse. This is generally what people do when they want to lose a lot of money.

The Toronto engineer got lucky, however. With help from trainer Matt Douglas, he found a gem named Jelgo at the Canadian Thoroughbred Horse Society’s annual premier yearling sale at Woodbine Racetrack.

Near the end of the event on Aug. 29, he bought Jelgo for $25,000. Earlier, Frank Stronach had paid $240,000 for a bay filly called Holy Lightning.

Handbury was a rookie and did not have pockets that deep.

“We were lucky to get Jelgo for an excellent price,” he said.

Basically, he stood back and let Douglas evaluate horses as they were brought into the auction.

“Matt looks at the horse’s gait, the lines, the demeanour,” Handbury said. “At that point, I wouldn’t have known a good horse from a mule.”

As it turned out, Jelgo was more than good. He was great. In 2021 he raced five times and won twice, finished second once and third once. On Dec. 5, the final day of Woodbine’s meet, Jelgo ran in a featured stakes race and suffered a broken ankle. He had to be euthanized.

“He was in so much pain,” Handbury said. “It was devastating for all of us.”

Jelgo had a few minor health issues, so he never raced as a two-year-old. The bay gelding with a white stripe down his nose spent a lot of time on a farm near Orangeville, Ont. The arrival of COVID-19 also made for fewer racing opportunities.

All the while, the bills for caring for, feeding and training Jelgo were piling up.

“I started to think, ‘Maybe I shouldn’t be in this business’ and ‘Maybe I am not cut out for this,’” Handbury said. “I decided to stick it out, and we eventually got him in good condition.

“Then he was lights out this year.”

Jelgo won at Woodbine as an 8-1 outsider in his first race on July 24. Ridden by jockey Sahin Civaci, he broke out of the gate smartly and pulled away over seven furlongs for a four-length victory in a $64,300 maiden claiming race.

On Aug. 29, two years to the day after he was purchased by Handbury, Jelgo made his next start at Woodbine in the $100,000 Elgin Stakes. After setting the pace in the seven-furlong contest, he was beaten near the finish line and ended up third, again at 8-1.

By the next time he ran, bettors were taking notice. Jelgo went off as the 3-5 favourite in a $60,300 optional claiming race at Woodbine run over 1⅛ of a mile. He stayed near the front of the pack and made a strong stretch run to win by a length.

He made a spectacular run to finish second in his next-to-last try at Woodbine on Oct. 24. Early in the one and 1/16th of a mile, $60,300 optional claiming race, Jelgo and Civaci were forced all the way out to the grandstand rail. After losing a huge amount of ground, Jelgo overtook all but one horse down the stretch.

He was rested for six weeks and ready before the $155,700 Valedictory Stakes at Woodbine on Dec. 5. It would easily be his toughest test. At 1½ miles, it was his longest race, and the field inocluded the 2019 Belmont Stakes winner, Sir Winston.

“He had been an excellent horse,” Handbury said of Jelgo. “I had recovered a lot of expenses from the previous year. We put him in this final race and were shooting for the moon with this one.”

Jelgo broke out of the gate second but, shortly after a half-mile, pulled up with the broken bone. Sir Winston and jockey Patrick Husbands went on to win and collect the first-place prize purse of $90,000.

“We went from being excited to despair,” Handbury said. “He came out of the gate fast and was fourth after a half-mile and then, bingo, he was gone. We were looking forward to running him the next four or five years and having a lot of fun with him.”

Before his death, Jelgo accumulated $72,178 in earnings. That is a windfall compared with most horses. All but a scant few are money pits.

“It is gambling,” Handbury said. “Bettors gamble and owners gamble. You hope you get a good horse.”

He got one and had come to love him dearly.

“He was nice,” Handbury said. “He was really rambunctious as a two-year-old. He was frisky and playful.”

Once, just for fun, Jelgo snuck up on Douglas and gave him a nip on the back.

Handbury said he was angry when the accident occurred.

“I’m still in the grieving stage,” he said. “I’m just a little bit fed up right now with the bad luck.”

Despite what happened, he does not think he will give up.

“Probably when it comes time for the yearling sales next year, I will look for another horse,” he said. “It’s kind of addictive.”

Of the $155,700 purse in the Dec. 5 stakes race, he received $400.

“It is the perils of racing,” he said.