“I watched Seabiscuit, and I knew that story, and I just felt that [the story of Somebeachsomewhere] had every element in it of that Hollywood film…and I don’t think people knew about it, for whatever reason.”
The highly-anticipated premiere of the television documentary Somebeachsomewhere: Horse of a Lifetime is set for Sunday (March 10) on Eastlink Community TV 10 and 610. But for film and TV production company Clerisy Entertainment, the premiere isn’t the end of this voyage. They hope it continues by taking the story of a Canadian harness racing icon and his humble beginnings to a much bigger audience.
“My sense of it was, I really thought of this as…my heart’s in Nova Scotia and I really wanted this opportunity to tell a story about something that I really feel is a part of Nova Scotia and I got that opportunity through this experience. And that’s very gratifying,” Clerisy’s founder and CEO Dale Stevens told Trot Insider, comparing the story of Somebeachsomewhere to that of thoroughbred legend Seabiscuit. “When you compare stories, pound for pound, they’re at least equal and I would argue that ‘Beach’ has a better story. To me, there’s a bit of I like being part of that. Let’s show the world it existed and let them do the same kind of math I’m doing…why isn’t this a film, right? And I think that’s a real question. There’s a part of me that enjoys that part of making that question come out in debate.”
The journey for Clerisy to bring the story of the ‘Beach’ to the masses started about two years ago when Stevens became aware of an internal project at EastLink: the start of a documentary on Somebeachsomewhere. Stevens noted that the production company focuses on subject matter with heart. “We love to tell a story that has a ton of emotion in it and we love challenging ourselves with making sense of things so that we can share information in an entertaining way with the audience. So finding a way to explain the subject matter in a documentary is probably one of the most satisfying aspects of what we do.”
A superstar in the harness racing industry starting to leave his mark as a stallion, Somebeachsomewhere’s rags-to-riches tale rife with local ties made it all the more appealing for the film company.
“That’s a pretty special thing when our area of the world with a smaller population can reach out and touch the greater, international world with something we do from our area. And I guess that’s what kind of tweaked my interest in the story to begin with…just how Nova Scotian this was, and how the ownership group could just reach out and do this from their community,” Stevens said. “It was a very interesting spot to be in, and I must admit I didn’t know a lot about ‘Beach’ at that time and I certainly didn’t know the type of horse that he was. That was all stuff that came out later, in terms of layers of the story that kept revealing themselves to me as Amanda [Gallagher] was doing her work. It became more and more obvious how much of a once-in-a-lifetime horse and once-in-a-lifetime story opportunity this was for Clerisy.”
Preliminary work started on the documentary in the summer of 2017, with Clerisy bringing in a writer over the summer to start sketching the story for film. By late August, Stevens approached director Amanda Gallagher, who was finishing up two “heavy documentaries” of her own.
“I was looking at this as being a bit of a break for Amanda to cover something in the animal world…something with more of a relaxing pace that what she had just been through, not knowing of course the roller coaster that was about to befall her.”
The documentary was originally planned to be more light-hearted until news of Somebeachsomewhere’s failing health broke in late 2017.
“We started filming in the fall, and we were about to go down to Hanover to visit Beach in November. We had it scheduled, we had the trip and prepared to go when we found out that he was ill,” said Gallagher. “He was going through testing and he had stomach surgery as we know now. So we were doing a little bit of planning, but we wanted to give them time to take care of the horse because he’s obviously the most important thing. So we postponed the trip, we thought we’d go see him in the new year and then of course the news came in January.
“We would have been smack-dab in the middle of our production at that point and in the middle of filming. It gives you a little bit of time when you know he’s ill and it could potentially be serious…you’re sort of continuously planning (for different scenarios). Of course we were hoping we would get down to meet him…I really wanted to meet him myself.”
The break in production for Clerisy helped the team refocus and truly understand the impact of Somebeachsomewhere not just in North America, but around the globe.
“What came of that is that we just wanted to allow the space of time for everyone close to him to grieve and mourn the loss at that point in time. While that was happening, while we were allowing that space, everyone associated with the project started to see all the people posting on social media about how much this horse meant…almost as if he was a member of their family,” Gallagher said. “That became very clear, that this was a big part of his story and it needed to go into the doc. It sort of helped us switch gears and see just how important he was.”
According to Stevens, Clerisy wasn’t forced into a rewrite of its script as much as the team needed to add a chapter at the end of the documentary that they had no clue would be part of the story they signed up for earlier that year.
“The work that we put into getting to know the horse, all of that information was still pertinent and it wasn’t lost when the curveball came. What that did, when we got the news, was added a chunk of story that we didn’t anticipate having to tell. And once I look at, if I look down from 50,000 feet at what changed, it was probably to reduce the amount of time we spent on Beach’s stud career so that we could insert, unfortunately, what was his fate.”
Clerisy resumed filming in late February of 2018, allowing an appropriate amount of time for those involved to grieve and recover from the loss of Somebeachsomewhere.
“The very first person we shot with was Bridgette [Dr. Bridgette Jablonsky of Hanover Shoe Farms] and as you can see, even with the amount of time that had passed, it was still very raw for her…and I’m sure it’s very raw still today,” Gallagher said.
“We shot with Paul MacDonell before and after, and just the difference in the things he said and the reflection…it’s a lot different when you think he’s got another 20 years versus ‘I’m not going to visit him again.’
“It was just really important that we allowed that space for them, but I think it comes through just how much of a family member ‘Beach’ was to so many people, even people who had never met him, which I think that alone sets this story apart from many others.”
Both Stevens and Gallagher came away from this experience with a better understanding of the harness racing industry and its community while being amazed by the connection and communication between horse and human as well as what people look for in a horse to understand and interpret emotion.
“Like how a horse can feel competitive, and they translate that horse’s desire to be competitive…which is fascinating,” Stevens said. “To think that a horse could respond negativity to a loss, the same way that a human would. That’s fascinating. And I would say that I had no clue about that before I started this project.”
“When I first came onto this project, I didn’t even know what a sulky was,” said Gallagher. “It was a lot of learning for me. One thing that became really apparent to me when we started to go out and start filming was how welcoming the community was and how much they wanted me to learn and teach me. So, in terms of that and the collaborative effort with the syndicate and everyone connected to ‘Beach’, overall I feel like I’ve just learned so much and I have such an appreciation for an industry that I didn’t know anything about to start with. And seeing just how much this horse meant to, really, the world…It’s been an amazing journey, from my perspective.”
The process to complete this project could be looked at in the same way a trainer, like the one profiled in this documentary, helps mold a yearling into a racehorse; hours and hours of behind-the-scenes work go into a product or an event which transpires seemingly in the blink of an eye in comparison.
“It’s been tweaks upon tweaks. For television, it’s rough cut, fine cut, master and then export. We hang on the rough cuts longer, fine cut you have a better idea of what everybody wants because it’s had a fair level of feedback by that time…these things are happening even while people are gathering footage,” said Stevens. “I think we had Brent [MacGrath] in just before Christmas, and we were adding footage at that point, he had suggestions of other photos to add so we came back and we were doing that in January. So based on when Amanda started to now, that process has been going on. And back to where we started, up until this week we’re still tweaking away to get this as close to the carrot on the end of the stick as we can….knowing we’ll never quite get there.
“I don’t get down by that pursuit. The thing that I find is when it finally goes to air people benefit from all of this behind-the-scenes reaching for that carrot. By then they’re pretty much amazed by what they see because they’re seeing the fifth or sixth or seventh (or more) iteration of striving for the perfect story.”
While noting the premature loss of Somebeachsomewhere at the age of just 13, Stevens recognized and appreciated the ability to capture and tell this amazing story in a respectful way.
“The other thing that I pulled out of it was, from my company’s perspective, I don’t think we have worked with documentary character that has as big a following as this character does, and so from that perspective it’s very satisfying to work with something, an entity, that will be part of history long after I’m gone….In a way, I’m part of that now.
“The fact that this took a turn, I feel very fortunate to be in the position we were to capture that story at the time that no one know it was going to happen, no one had any inkling. And here we are positioned with cameras, telling a story already and we’re ready to capture a story at a moment I think is very fortunate in terms of history that we were there to get it because ‘Beach’ is an amazing character in history and we were there to document his life in a way that added to his story.”
EastLink holds the Canadian rights to the documentary, but the international rights are still available. Stevens will look to partner with a distributor that can take this story to, in his opinion, its rightful global audience.
“When we find the right distributor that can access the markets—certainly the U.S. is an important, but also overseas as ‘Beach’ has a huge following all over the world—we want this program to get out to those audiences, and I know they want to see it. In a matter of time it will find its way to various platforms.”
For those yet-to-be-tapped markets, Stevens and Gallagher are both eager to show this tale for the feel-good outcome of Somebeachsomewhere’s racing career and that synergistic bond that can develop between a person and a horse.
“An amazing character that deserves his place in history. I think this documentary speaks the case for that. I think it goes beyond racing. Whatever that horse possessed in terms of charisma, I don’t know but people connected to him in a way that’s very human and it is invisible to the eye but people connected to that horse at a deep level. And that a guy from Truro, N.S. can go down to Lexington, Ky. and spend $40,000—a small amount compared to what other horses are going for—and walk away with an amazing experience…it’s possible, there’s a chance, and don’t sell yourself short.”
Stevens said that he could and would defend the harness racing industry to anyone that presented a negative view.
“I think I can easily carry a conversation with somebody who may not understand it or may think that the horses are mistreated or have a negative association to it. I think I could straighten things out, because I’ve seen nothing but appreciation for the animals and a genuine community and esprit de corps amongst the people that are involved in it,” he stated. “Once you get involved in it, it’s very comfortable…there’s comfortable family-kind-of-feel to it. And who isn’t looking for that in life? If animals and being part of a community is something you’re interested in, I would give harness racing an opportunity to be part of your life.”
Gallagher seconded that assertion, noting that there was in fact a family tie to harness racing within Clerisy that came to the fore during filming.
“One of our cameramen, his brother lives in Cape Breton and actually amateur harness races. I can talk to him about that, and have conversations about that. So it opened my eyes in a lot of ways, but it opened my eyes to a community of people that were a part of my circle and I didn’t even realize they were connected to it.”
With all that appreciation and respect in mind, Stevens and Gallagher both hope the harness racing industry appreciates and looks favourably upon the documentary they spent the better part of two years creating.
“You want to get close to the mark and have the people you’re working with appreciate it, because in a lot of ways you do feel like you owe a good story because of ‘Beach’s place in history, and we want to get it right.”