With all due respect to the trainers, Love’s work in keeping the 7/8th mile oval in shape is one of the most important roles during the race season – which goes Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays in July and August.
A bad track can mean bad performances and potentially injury.
What’s the key to maintaining a good track?
“The secret is dedication and a desire to make sure that the horses are running on the best surface that will eliminate as many injuries as possible,” says Love, who was born in Grande Prairie and grew up on a ranch near Teepee Creek.
He has worked for Evergreen Park off and on since 1985 - the first five as a labourer and equipment operator. In 1986 he was promoted to water truck driver for the race track.
At the time the volunteer track man was Don Bonnett.
“He was the guy who showed me how to do the race track,” says Love, who groomed the track as a volunteer summer after summer for eight years. “At that time, Don had hardly any race track equipment to work with, but did a very good job with what he had.”
In 2008 Evergreen Park decided a track man should be included on the payroll and Love - who has done many roles at the facility from cleaning bathrooms to dishes, to picking garbage and operating all of the equipment, to operations manager - was the obvious choice.
“Since Don left I have basically learned on my own. And mostly by making mistakes and having to correct them. I have been here lots in the night fixing my mistakes.”
Grande Prairie’s race track is considered one of the best in North America and Love knows why.
“Over 35 years ago the board members of the Grande Prairie, Agricultural and Exhibition Society built Evergreen Park in one of the most beautiful places on,” he says. “They acquired the proper equipment to maintain the track. With the proper equipment, and a commitment from board members and management, it makes my job easier to make this track what it is today.”
A few years ago the surface was completely re-done and the Park spent a lot of money on that and purchasing the equipment to ensure there were no rocks.
“Evergreen Park has invested in its race track to make sure it is kind to horses,” says Love.
The race track is mostly sand with some loam as well.
“It is different than most that have a clay base with a sand surface,” says Love, who works as a hotshot driver during the off season. “The key to this race track is that it takes a lot of water. We haul on hot, dry days up to 50,000 gallons of water and some days we can't keep up. But on the other side of it when it rains, we only need a few hours of sunshine and the track is dry.”
How often the track is worked is in Mother Nature’s hands.
“The weather plays the major factor in how the track gets done,” he says. “We live by the weather reports. Rain, shine, wind, or even humidity plays a huge role in how many hours a week we spend on the track.”
Because the Evergreen track is not entirely flat, keeping it groomed offers its problems.
“It is a challenge keeping the track shaped properly. This track, as most tracks, is sloped. The straights always have two degree bank and the corners go from two degrees up to six degrees. As the track is worked or if it rains, or even wind, the sand always goes where gravity takes it -down to the inside, which creates a deep track on the inside. “
The track, he says, needs more surface.
“It’s not as an easy thing to just go out and buy. When they built this track there was a lot of good quality sand on this property, but over the years most of it is gone. Even though Evergreen Park is all sand, it is not the right kind of sand that works on racetracks or even arenas.
He says chuckwagons and race horses like similar surfaces with the only real difference being the depth. The chuckwagons like a harder track so that the wagons can slide and race horses prefer a track with about two-and-a-half to three inches of depth.
There was a time when a chuckwagon driver or horse owner might nudge Love hoping to get him to groom the track in a way that might favor them.
“That doesn’t happen so much anymore. That's where race track management comes in. The chuckwagon associations appoint one person who communicates with me to stop that (favoritism) from happening.
“With the thoroughbred, quarter horses and Paints, they each have associations that have the right to appoint a liaison.”
The track opens to the horsemen at 6 a.m. daily, so that means Love’s day starts at 4 a.m. The track gets its first grooming between 4:30- 6 a.m. When the track is closed to the horsemen at noon, it is groomed again and if it needs shaping that is done as well. The track is sealed or packed (using a packing machine similar to those seen working on roads) depending on the weather. Around 7 p.m. the track watering starts. It can take until midnight or 1 a.m. for the crew to get enough water on for the next day.
The “crew” is not a large one.
“I have one other full-time guy helping me - Neil Rycroft. Neil runs mostly the water truck, but has the ability to do anything that is needed. We communicate very well together and we both have the desire to make the track perfect. I rely on him lots. Joe Rode comes and helps on weekends when we need an extra hand around. They both do an excellent job.”
And so does Love.
“I guess it is a labour of love,” he says. “Who else would want to get up at 4 a.m. to go around in circles at five-miles-per-hour?”
At Evergreen Park’s race track it is obvious love, and Love, is all you need.
Don Moon, Evergreen Park, Grande Prairie