By Sara Gordon
Ever since she was a young girl, Chelsie Raabe had dreamed of reaching the pinnacle moment in her career as an equestrian, where she envisioned one day standing atop the Olympic podium or making the victorious walk out following a clear cross-country round at the Land Rover Three-Day event.
But it wasn't until the evening of March 25 at Meydan Racecourse in Dubai, as she looked up at a bustling grandstand that echoed with the crescendo of excited fans awaiting the start of the Group 1 Dubai Golden Shaheen on Dubai World Cup night, that Raabe realized the dream had been achieved.
It was just a new version, with a showjumping stadium swapped out for a racetrack, and instead of her jumping around a course aboard her own off-track Thoroughbred, it was her walking out as the assistant trainer and exercise rider of Sibelius (Not This Time), who would go on to win the Dubai Golden Shaheen and become the first Group 1 winner for his trainer Jerry O'Dwyer.
“I looked up at the grandstand and burst into tears. I couldn't even control it, I literally started sobbing. It was just such a big moment,” said Raabe. “I was always that person that said, 'I'm going to do something really big,' even though I was mostly at a disadvantage. I just had that flashback to me as a little girl daydreaming about standing on an Olympic podium and I'm looking up at these fans and all of these people and these cameramen, and thought 'Wow, this is a dream come true.'”
A native of Oxford, Ohio, Raabe grew up on her family's 100-acre farm where ponies and horses were a constant as she participated in 4-H, FFA and rode as a member of the local Pony Club. From there, her passion for the sport of eventing led her to two-time Olympic rider Dorothy Crowell, who Raabe spent the summers with as a working student in Frankfort, Ky.
After graduating from Miami University of Oxford, Ohio, in 2013 with a bachelor's degree in integrative studies, Raabe headed south to Ocala, Fla., working various jobs in the horse industry before landing at Bridlewood Farm. That venture kickstarted her first endeavor into the training and racing side of the Thoroughbred business.
“While I was working at Bridlewood, I absolutely fell in love with racing and that farm. At that time, we had Tapwrit and just so many nice horses. I didn't even realize how nice so many of the horses were that I was around, until much later, because it was so new to me. But I just liked that there were so many different types of races and different types of horses and how new and interesting it was,” she said. “I went from never touching a real racehorse to learning how to gallop and I ended up being one of the traveling assistants, where I was traveling around the country and running horses. I was able to learn a lot quickly and whenever I wanted to learn more, I was always able to do those things there.”
After nearly three years at Bridlewood, Raabe moved on to work for trainers Jonathan Thomas and later Michelle Nihei, before returning to Ocala for a stint at Red Oak Farm.
By the spring of 2022, after working through the brunt of the Covid-19 pandemic in Florida, Maryland and Delaware, Raabe felt she was at a crossroads when it came to her future in the Thoroughbred industry. It was then she decided she'd have one final hurrah as an exercise rider, riding out for Todd Pletcher in Saratoga that summer, while also working for track photographer Adam Coglianese.
“I loved working for Todd. It's definitely what I needed at that point in time. It was a low-stress, good job with good horses,” she said. “But you do get really burnt out. It is a hard life. It's grueling, it really is.”
As summer winded down, Raabe began looking into housing as she planned her return to Florida, until a phone call from longtime friend Alison O'Dwyer, Jerry's wife, changed everything.
“Jerry has this really nice horse; he just won the Lite the Fuse [at Laurel Park] and we're going to run him in a Win and You're In [the Grade II Stoll Keenon Ogden Phoenix] at Keeneland. He's thinking about sending a string but doesn't really have anyone to oversee it, so we're still trying to figure out the details,” Alison O'Dwyer said.
“Ali, if he wants, I would love to go do that for you guys. I would love to go to Keeneland for the fall meet,” Raabe immediately replied.
It was a full circle moment for Raabe, who had met Alison O'Dwyer during her time working for Crowell in Kentucky. The two have been close friends ever since.
“Alison is one of my best friends, so that's actually how I met Jerry. It's always been kind of inevitable as to when I would be working for him. It was never a question, I knew that I'd end up in that barn at some point,” said Raabe. “He would say, 'You always have a job with me.'”
And that 'nice horse' Alison had mentioned? It was none other than Sibelius, a striking chestnut with an enchanting white face and chrome on his legs to match, who had just become a stakes winner with a rousing 7 1/2 length victory over Grade III winner Jaxon Traveler (Munnings) in the Sept. 10 Lite the Fuse.
“My first ride on him in September, I remember getting off of him, looking at my co-worker Ricardo [Barajas], who I had known in Delaware, and saying 'Ricardo, this horse is going to be a freak, but he's not a freak yet,'” she said.
The pair have spent each morning together since. Continuing on with his 4-year-old season, Sibelius wound up fourth in the Stoll Keenon Ogden Phoenix, by two lengths, and second in the Bet on Sunshine Stakes that November at Churchill, before heading back to Jerry O'Dwyer's home base at Palm Meadows Training Center in Boynton Beach, Fla. He closed out the year back in graded stakes company at Gulfstream Park, facing 10 others in the Dec. 31 GIII Mr. Prospector Stakes and prevailing by 2 1/4 lengths with regular jockey Junior Alvarado aboard.
“I really value teaching the horses how to relax while they train. I feel like when a horse is relaxed, a horse can think, and across any sport I've been involved with–I've helped with driving horses, western horses, showjumpers, dressage and eventing horses–the one thing that every horse needs to be successful in any sport is relaxation,” said Raabe. “I have really tried to carry that over in the way I gallop, the way I train horses to gallop. As I've come to know that horse, he really thrives in knowing his people and having a close relationship with them. I've been riding him for months now, and he's one of the easiest horses to ride in the barn now, but in the beginning he wasn't. It just took him time to learn how I wanted him to train and once he started catching on, he was much happier and I'm much happier.”
Following a resilient victory in the Pelican Stakes at Tampa Bay Downs, where he won by 1 ¼ lengths in a final time of 1:08.75 going six furlongs over a fast track on Feb. 11, Sibelius and his team were officially invited to Dubai for the $2-million Dubai Golden Shaheen.
The prep work off the track became just as important as the training on the track, as Raabe took two weeks to prepare the gelding for the long walks they would be making to and from the track when stabled at Meydan.
“Since we have such a small stable, we're able to customize what we do with each horse if we need to, so I just started walking him and getting his body used to carrying weight for that long. By the time I left for Dubai, he was already used to having that 30-minute walk before and after he trained. He really enjoyed it,” said Raabe. “We would march up and down the paths at Palm Meadows and we would have people coming out to visit him, specifically to say 'hi' to him and give him a pet. He loved it because he was getting attention, and of course he's a smart, relaxed horse anyways so he really enjoyed that part of his day.”
The work the O'Dwyer team put in, and the bond Sibelius has with Raabe, were the ideal foundation for a seamless transition to life over in Dubai leading up to the big race. With the pair both making their first trips outside of the United States, Raabe arrived March 12 and Sibelius shipped in the following day.
“As soon as he saw me, he took this deep breath and put his head against my chest. There was all of this madness going on around him, everyone's trying to rip wraps off of the horses and get them walked and get them bathed and in that moment, it was like he said, 'I'm just glad you're here,'” said Raabe. “I quietly took his wraps off, it was just me and him there, and I hung out with him for a few minutes. Once the barn quieted down, I walked him out, gave him a bath and took him for a little walk and let him do his thing. It's little things like that that he really appreciates.”
All eyes were on Sibelius each morning at Meydan, where the gelding established himself as a local celebrity of sorts with his routine of standing in on the rail, taking in his surroundings with ears pricked and head on a swivel. Raabe said his awareness of every situation he is in, regardless of the change in scenery, is a testament to his intelligence and ability to thrive in an ever-changing environment.
“Since everyone around him was relaxed, and the whole situation was relaxed, it was just easy for him. He's a horse that always stands in when he goes on the track. I think he's always done it and he's always been allowed to do it, because he loves just taking in the world. The closer he gets to a race, the longer he wants to stand in. I swear he knows what the routine is the closer he gets to a race and how many times he breezes before he's going to run,” said Raabe. “This was the easiest time I've ever had traveling with a horse, so you just knew something special was going to happen.”
Special indeed. With Ryan Moore aboard, Sibelius ran the race of a lifetime, overcoming a poor start and making up ground as he found a spot on the inside rail and fought until the very end, coming out a nose ahead of defending champion Switzerland (Speightstown). Jerry and Alison O'Dwyer, along with the gelding's owners Jun Park and Delia Nash, were all there to witness the magnificent feat, but it was Raabe who there to collect Sibelius as he came off of the track.
“I had so many people tell me they were going to watch the race and I felt like as many fans as we knew he had, I felt the entire world screaming, propelling him forward. Hundreds of people from my hometown watched that race that have never watched a horse race in their lives. People I didn't even know cared about horse racing tuned into that race. He's made such an impact on people, but maybe it's a little bit of our partnership too. It's a really beautiful bond and I think it's obvious to people, even people that don't know about horse racing, and it's something they can connect with,” said Raabe.
The emotional impact of the moment washed over her again, running through a mix of shock, relief and most importantly, pride, as she watched the culmination of hard work put in by the O'Dwyer team pay off in the most rewarding of successes. Raabe also gave the utmost credit to Alvarado, who had ridden him in his six previous starts, four of which he'd won.
“Junior has done an excellent job riding him. I think with what I do when I gallop in the morning, being really adamant about horses training relaxed, on the bit and using themselves, that's really complimentary to the way Junior rides. Junior has been able to take him from being a horse that was a little nervous and hot in the races to a horse that is very relaxed and really able to think about what's happening. He grew from a horse that wouldn't really pass other horses to a horse that will confidently go by traffic, and he's never had to go by as much traffic as he did in the Golden Shaheen,” said Raabe.
Returning to the states in early April, Sibelius enjoyed a few weeks of downtime on a farm near Lexington, Ky., before shipping to Keeneland to join Jerry O'Dwyer's small string being stabled there, overseen by Raabe. He resumed training April 25.
With three published works at Keeneland under his belt, most recently breezing four furlongs in :50 flat over the main track on May 27, the 5-year-old gelding is set to make his stateside return in Saturday's Aristides Stakes at Churchill Downs. He'll be reunited with Alvarado and once again face off with Gunite (Gun Runner), third in the Golden Shaheen, who is one of four others entered in the six-furlong test.
Despite the added pressure and pressure that tends to comes with being a Group 1 winner that currently holds a three-win streak, it's business as usual for Sibelius and his partner, Raabe, who is just happy to have one of her favorites back in the barn.
“Riding him through the fall and riding him into some of the races, I just fell back in love with the sport. I fell absolutely in love with him and just had so much respect for him as a soul in the world and he really connected with me, and on top of that, I'm working with people who are my family. Jerry has created a healthy space for all of his employees, where it's family-friendly oriented and everyone gets along, everyone is friends,” said Raabe. “All of a sudden, any bit of that sort of resentment or feelings of exhaustion I had melted away. I didn't even realize I had completely fallen back in love with doing what I was doing and it's all because of Sibelius.”
When Sibelius won in Meydan that fateful evening in late March, he did more than win a $2-million Group 1 race. His victory signified the devotion of his trainer and his small crew of staff members, the belief of his owners, and the support of fans, new and returning, that span across the globe. Raabe will never forget her experience with Sibelius in Dubai, but most of all, she'll treasure the precedent they set together.
“I think I've gotten hundreds and hundreds of messages from people, wishing us well, saying they were crying watching us win, or they were screaming, and that part has been really cool. Horse racing needs a horse that the people can relate to and I hope Sibelius can become that horse and our story can to. I think it's really important. We need that, the people need it, racing needs it,” said Raabe. “No matter what happens the rest of the year, or during this horse's career, what matters is that his owners are so nice and kind and just want the best for him, and want the best for Jerry. His story will never become bitter, and the sport really needs that, so that part I take pretty seriously. I hope to keep cultivating his story because we do have a following now.”
Take a bow, Chelsie Raabe.