I’m Shooting High and I Double Dare You are two of John Sneesby’s prize-winning thoroughbreds, but you won’t find him watching the races until after they’re over.
“I watch it on the replay. I get too nervous,” the 76-year-old Australian admits. “I don’t even stay in the house when the horse is running.”
Fortine may seem like an unusual place to raise some of the country’s top thoroughbreds, especially for a guy who grew up surfing and lifeguarding in the Land Down Under. But after 12 years in Northwest Montana, this is home, and Sneesby is completely enchanted with his 30-acre farm.
“I had a moose come through last week, running through fences like they weren’t there,” he said, his Aussie accent still obvious after decades in America. Last week he spotted a grizzly bear, too.
Sneesby also has been charmed by the neighborly camaraderie of folks in the Fortine area who help out one another, and marvels over his neighbors’ generosity when local fundraisers are held to help those in need.
It wasn’t his horses — or the people — that brought him to Fortine, though. It was pigeons.
Sneesby used to be an avid pigeon racer in California and Washington, and was active with the Great Northern Racing Pigeon Club based in Eureka before the group disbanded a few years ago.
“With pigeon racing, if you’re in that fraternity, they’ll call you,” he explained. “A guy from here called me and asked me to come and look at this area.”
That was all it took to nudge Sneesby to relocate to the Fortine area. Sneesby spent many years as a beach lifeguard in California, and later was a longshoreman based in Tacoma, Washington. He still has about 100 racing pigeons in cages at his farm. He doesn’t have the heart to part with them, but he can’t let them out because other larger birds, namely hawks, will tangle with them.
“They just live on,” he said about the pet pigeons.
Sneesby’s Murrumbidgee Farm, named after the second-longest river in Australia and one of his favorite rivers, also is home to two warring flocks of wild turkeys he’s dubbed the Hatfields and McCoys.
It’s clear Sneesby has a soft spot for animals as well as his homeland. His cat, Clancy, is named after “Clancy of the Overflow,” a poem by Banjo Paterson that offers a romantic view of rural life. The well-known literary work was published in Australia in 1889.
Even Sneesby’s eclectic two-room cabin bears an Australian name, adorned with a sign that reads Cunnamulla, a small town in Queensland.
Raising thoroughbreds is an all-consuming task, and it all starts with good breeding.
“You have to have the goods to start with,” Sneesby said. “It’s one in a million who can come from nothing” and become a winning horse.
The horses’ diet has to be high-quality, too. They get a special blend of certified hay and LMF Development, a fortified grain concentrate.
“I feed the best,” he said.
Sneesby will have eight thoroughbreds wintering at his farm. They’ll be equipped with special snowshoes so they don’t slip on the snow.
There’s fluidity in the life of a race-horse owner. Beyond the daily chores and keeping his thoroughbreds healthy, Sneesby’s days are filled figuring out schedules to determine when and where his horses will be racing.
“I reckon I can race [a horse] once every six weeks,” he said. “They have to stay sound.”
It’s not a stretch to say that Sneesby loves his horses. The affection is evident as they nuzzle him over the fence and brush against his jacket pockets with the hope of a treat.
His thoroughbreds come and go according to the race circuit, but their time at Murrumbidgee Farm is what Sneesby lives for.
“When they’re here, that’s when you get attached,” he said.
Features editor Lynnette Hintze may be reached at 758-4421 or firstname.lastname@example.org.