by Ken Weingartner
Helene Engblom and Shake It Cerry have traveled together to the races 60 times in the past four years, but their next trip is likely to be the most difficult. Shake It Cerry, the 2014 Trotter of the Year, is expected to make the final start of her illustrious career Saturday (Nov. 12) at the TVG Series Championships at the Meadowlands Racetrack.
Engblom has been by Shake It Cerry’s side for nearly her entire career. As a yearling, Shake It Cerry connected immediately with Engblom and in the ensuing years the two forged a relationship that extends beyond racehorse and caretaker into the realm of friendship and family.
“We have a very special bond and always have,” Engblom said. “She’s more than a horse. I can communicate with her. We can ‘talk’ and there’s not so many horses like that. I know what she wants, I know what she means. She knows what I want, she knows what I mean.
“It’s very easy to work with her. I can feel her mood. (The communication) is more like eye contact. I can see in her eyes and in her face what she wants. She knows the same with me, if she can play or if it’s serious and she has to behave. She’s very special like that. I can trust her a hundred percent and she can trust me. The bond I have with Cerry, I’ve never had that with another horse in my whole life.”
Shake It Cerry’s connection with Engblom revealed itself the moment they met.
“I started with the yearling group right away,” said Engblom, who began working for the Jimmy Takter Stable, where her husband Per is second trainer, in November 2012. “One day I got to jog her and in the afternoon I put her away. The next morning when I came to the barn she started nickering to me when she saw me. So I said to Per and the guys ‘I want her. I think she likes me.’ It was love at first sight. That’s never happened before. We found a bond right away.”
Shake It Cerry’s love extends beyond Engblom to her family. Engblom’s 9-year-old son, Tom, also has a special relationship with Shake It Cerry. The mare is Tom’s favorite horse and it seems that Tom is the mare’s favorite young man. If Tom is down, Shake It Cerry lifts him up.
“One day he had his worst day ever, when everyone is against you and the whole world hates you,” Engblom said. “He was so sour. He just sat on a stool with his arms crossed and head down and wouldn’t talk to me. She was looking at him so I took her out and she went straight towards him and put her nose right here (on his shoulder) and just stood there quietly.
“After a while he started to loosen up and soon he was himself again, laughing and jumping. She was like, ‘Come here little brother, I can cure you.’ She knew right away that something was wrong with him. It was amazing to see.
“He’s spent almost half his life with her and she’s spent almost her entire life around him. He’s been brushing her, riding her, driving with her. They do everything together. They play sometimes and do silly games. They have that interaction. It’s fun to see. They are really good friends.”
Shake It Cerry has won 29 of 61 career races and hit the board a total of 49 times, earning $2.78 million in purses. Her earnings rank fourth among all North American female trotters in harness racing history. She was a Dan Patch Award winner at ages 2 and 3, with her 15-for-17 campaign at 3 resulting not only in divisional honors but Trotter of the Year.
“To see your horse be Trotter of the Year, that’s a dream,” Engblom said. “It’s not even a dream, it’s beyond a dream. Especially when you’re a horse girl and have been around horses your whole life. I was so proud. She was so good that year. It feels good to see a horse you love so much do so well.”
Engblom has traveled with Shake It Cerry to every one of the horse’s races — except Shake It Cerry’s first lifetime start. Shake It Cerry won that day at Pocono while Engblom was with 3-year-old pacer Source Of Pride, who also won that day, in a track-record performance at Yonkers.
But from that moment on, Shake It Cerry would be Engblom’s source of pride.
Shake It Cerry’s lifetime wins include two Breeders Crown finals (2013 and 2014), the 2013 Merrie Annabelle, Goldsmith Maid and Matron Stakes, 2014 Elegantimage, Kentucky Filly Futurity, Delvin Miller Memorial, Moni Maker, Matron, American-National and Zweig Memorial, and 2015 TVG Series Championship for older female trotters.
Among Engblom’s favorites are the 2013 Merrie Annabelle — a win Engblom predicted to Takter six months prior to the race — and the 2013 Breeders Crown.
“The Breeders Crown was kind of between her and Cooler Schooner,” Engblom said. “Everyone believed in Cooler Schooner, but Cerry was the best that day. I was crying so bad. I was crying and crying. (Winning driver) Ron Pierce went up to Per afterwards and said I’m so sorry I made your wife cry.
“I cried at all the big races, more or less. She did so many insane races. The way she won sometimes, it was so nice to see her swish by all the horses. She’d come in full of energy and hardly breathing. Of course you want your horse to do good, but she was just the very best.”
Another memorable race was the 2015 Graduate Series Championship at the Meadowlands, where a hard-charging Shake It Cerry lost by a nose to male rival JL Cruze in a world-record 1:49.4 mile.
“She’s always been full of energy,” Engblom said. “She’s so super professional, both on and off the track, and always gives you her best. But the speed she had, I could feel it so early. You can feel the power she has. That’s something special.”
Engblom is not looking forward to saying goodbye to Shake It Cerry, but she is happy her friend will be leaving the sport on her own terms and with the admiration of many fans and followers.
“I’ve been around horses my whole life, had my own horses for many, many years, but this is the hardest thing I’ll ever have to do,” Engblom said. “When you work with them every day and then you go and the stall is empty, I don’t look forward to that.
“But I’m prepared. I know it’s going to end. She’s always happy, but she’s not the same horse anymore. It’s time. So even if I’m sad, it’s the best thing to do for her.”
And even when Shake It Cerry is gone, she won’t be out of Engblom’s sight.
“Everything in my house is Cerry, Cerry, Cerry,” Engblom said, smiling. “She will always be around.”