One of the more anticipated events of the season comes to Century Downs on Sunday. It’s the west regional drivers challenge, featuring eight drivers drawn from Manitoba, British Columbia and Alberta. They qualified through their regional tracks and will compete over a series of eight races on Sunday, June 26th. Each driver will drive a race from each of the eight post positions. Points will be accumulated for top three finishes. The top two drivers from the west regional will advance to a national championship at Western Raceway in London on October 14th.
The Alberta drivers qualified by performance at Century Downs in races up to mid May. At this point, Travis Cullen is the leading driver with 137 wins. Mike Hennessy is second with 41, Phil Giesbrecht is third with 39 and David Kelly is fourth with 20.
“I’ve only been driving in races for a year and a half,” Kelly told Stephanie Tang of Century Downs. “This gives me a chance to put myself out there and show others what I can do with a horse.”
This is a big deal in the racing community. Mike Hennessy, who competed once previously in the challenge representing Fraser Downs, remembers Dave Magee winning the world title years ago. Mike was about 10 years old at the time. Now he’s got a chance to do the same thing.
“It’ll be a good challenge,” he told me. “I compete regularly against Phil and David and Travis – and Brandon as well. So it’ll be fun to see how we do, especially when we don’t find out until Thursday morning what horses we are driving. For some of us, the horses will be new to us, so that will add to the challenge.”
Brandon is Brandon Campbell, who’s from Calgary, but who qualified as one of three drivers from Fraser Downs. The other two BC representatives are Jim Marino and Paul Davies, both veteran horsemen with strong track records in harness racing. Marino, who’s been racing this spring at Running Aces in Minnesota, has 7 wins from 94 starters through Sunday. But he led all drivers at Fraser Downs with 47 wins from 362 starters during the winter-spring meet. The third BC qualifier, Paul Davies, was right behind him with 46 wins from 262 starters.
Don Howlett represents Manitoba and spends a lot of his summers on the Manitoba fair circuit. He’s got the least amount of experience of the eight drivers – which means he has the most to gain by a strong showing this Sunday.
Sunday’s racing will be one of four regional challenges across Canada leading to the national finals in London on Oct. 14th. The winning driver will represent Canada in the world driving championships next year, to be staged as part of the World Trotting Congress which Canada will host. Century Downs will get the first stage of a 5-track series of races leading to the crowning of the world drivers champion. That stage will bring the best in the world to Balzac August 17th, 2017.
Learning the Ropes – Loving the Business
Kaitlin Haining isn’t quite ready for the world drivers challenge. But then again, she’s only 16. And yet, she’s already showing what other older, more prominent horsemen and women have shown as they have climbed to the top of the harness racing world. It’s a willingness to work hard, to learn, and to pay attention to detail.
She started early, as the daughter of longtime trainer, Harold Haining and his wife, Colleen. “She was 11 when she talked us into acquiring a horse called Little Bit Faster,” her proud mother told me. “Little Bit Faster was a yearling at the time. She wasn’t getting the attention she needed and deserved, and the breeder, Diane Bertrand, gave her to Kaitlin to look after. I think Diane knew that Kaitlin was just what the yearling needed.”
Her dad taught Kaitlin how to train and how to drive. But what can’t be taught is the love and care that Kaitlin has lavished on the yearling. Little Bit Faster is now 6. He’s racing in the lower claiming ranks but he’s won 14 races from 104 lifetime starts and earned enough money that Kaitlin could buy her first vehicle last year. And the successful partnership has sparked an interest in driving. She sat behind Smokin Aces during a training trip behind the gate last year at Lacombe and did her job in a 2:08 mile. And she’s gotten some pointers from veteran conditioners Don Monkman, (now the track superintendent at Century Downs), Gerry Hudon, and Joe Ratchford.
“She knows what she’s doing and she pays attention,” Monkman told me. “That’s not always the case with people that have far more experience than she does.”
So, watch out guys. One day you may have to contend with another Haining in a drivers challenge.
Two Year Olds in Training
We’re starting to see the first 2 year olds qualifying to race at Century Downs. Four of them got through on the weekend and dozens more are getting ready. Once through qualifying they’ll be spotted in maiden claimers, getting inside post positions according to racing secretary, Jackson Wittup, until there’s enough of them to be put together in a race written specifically for them. While the focus is on solid preparation, trainers have their eye on the first two year old stakes race, the Emerald Filly, July 23rd for the girls and on the Century Bets Pace, July 24th, for the boys.
Never Say Sorry and Nighttime Chase are both by one of Alberta’s up and coming sires, Mystery Chase, and are products of the Alberta breed improvement program. Charge and Go was a $45,000 yearling purchase by Keith Clark and Doris McDougall at the Harrisburgh Pennsylvania sale last fall. Clark also has Beer Bribe, a 2 year old son of Camystic, that sold for $37,000 at last fall’s ASHA yearling sale. Serge Masse qualified Last Time to Play, a $40,000 investment out of the Lexington Select Sale and Da Magician, an $18,000 buy, out of the same market.
The Emerald Filly and the Century Bet are open stakes events, so it could be an early chance to see how this group of Alberta-breds can do against some imports.
A Day at Bedrock a Big Success
Sunday’s public invitation to Kelly Hoerdt’s Bedrock Stables near Beaumont turned out to be a big success, and it raised a lot of money for the Stollery Children’s Hospital in Edmonton.
“I don’t have final numbers yet, but we drew a bigger crowd and we raised more money than we did last year,” Hoerdt told me. I had a lot of help from guys like Rod Hennessy and Rickie Schneider. They showed up and kept the jogger carts busy all day taking folks around the track. Some of the guys like Mike Hennessy who were working at Century Downs, donated their driver’s fees to the cause. The silent auction was phenomenal. We had an Oilers jersey signed by all the players that raised $1,100. So it was a great day for a great cause.”
Standardbred Canada, ASHA and Horse Racing Alberta all helped to make it that way.