“The best day I’ve ever had in racing.”
That sums up Saturday, Oct. 29th, 2016 for Wetaskiwin’s Jean-Francois Gagne. In 5 drives in the Alberta Super Series, Gagne’s horses earned $141,200. He added $2,900 for a couple of drives in overnight events. Not a bad way to spend a Saturday. I’m told there was a little celebration Saturday evening (!) but we’ll leave an account of that for another time. Gagne was back to work Sunday afternoon at Century Downs, winning the first race on the card with Fallout Boy for trainer, Daryl Cutting.
“I’m so busy right now, I really haven’t had much time to enjoy it,” Gagne told me. “I’ve got horses to break. I’m trying to get a grader so I can work on my training track at the farm before winter sets in. I’ve got to get Tajmeallover and Watch My Luck out to Fraser Downs for an Open Stakes series early in November. Then I have to get them back to Edmonton. Then I’ve got to get horses ready for the Northlands Filly Pace and the Western Canada Pacing Derby. I’ve never won either one of those races. I’d really like to go to the Harrisburg Sale next week, but I just don’t think I’m going to be able to get there.”
It’s a nice problem for the personable driver-trainer. He scored three times in the championship finals on Saturday afternoon with Outlaw Fireball in the 2 year old fillies (1:59), with Outlaw Turn N Burn in the 3 year old colts & geldings (1:58.2), and with Monstrous in the 3 year old fillies (1:59). The performance with Outlaw Turn N Burn was especially noteworthy. Gagne started from PP-8 but took advantage in the lane when Wrangler Cash faltered on the final turn. Turn N Burn won in a photo finish.
He also coaxed a second place finish out of Mateo in the 2 year old colts & geldings final, as well as a fourth from Outlaw Imahotvixen in the 2 year old fillies consolation. As Sunday’s racing began, Gagne had a 43-26-34 log from 187 starters. The money earned Saturday pushed his seasonal total to $504,079 and his udrs. percentage is at .367, the highest of his career. And there’s still two months to go in the season with those lucrative stakes races at Northlands Park and whatever stakes events he’s able to get to at Fraser Downs.
“I guess my best year was 2004,” he told me. “I had Tajma Hall that year and I drove some other good horses as well. I’m told my horses earned $644,177 that year and that this will be the seventh year my horses have earned more than $500,000.”
Super Finals Bits ‘n Pieces
Drivers get 5% of a horse’s earnings in a race and that money comes off the top and is paid into their ASHA accounts, even if they also train, and perhaps own all, or part, of the horse. Trainers’ fees are billed to owners. Owners’ get their money about ten days after the race is run. Breeders have to wait until February of the following year to collect a percentage bonus of what an Alberta-bred has made over the course of the season. The bonus pool for breeders this year will be $400,000.
High Speed Chase, which won the 2 year old colts consolation final, is owned by Trevor Williams of Winnipeg. A banker by trade, he trains horses in the summertime on the Manitoba Fair Circuit. One of his horses is Burn The House, acquired from Edmonton trainer, Gerry Hudon, which was named “Claimer of the Year” in Manitoba. Williams also started a small club of racing enthusiasts to get more folks to follow the horses on the Fair Circuit. “A good time was had by all,” he told me, “and I think we’re going to do it again and try and grow it next summer.”
Owner and brand new trainer, Chelsea Chase now has a cheque to cash from a Super Finals result. Never Say Sorry finished third in the 2 year old fillies consolation event. She shares ownership in the filly with breeder, Dr. Jim Rhodes of High River.
Fun For Fans Stable picked up a fourth place finish in the 3 year old fillies Super Final. Outlawburntpopcorn earned $6,400 for her efforts and stable spokesman, Fred Gillis, was tickled pink at the way she performed.
“That’ll take care of my t-shirt costs for next year,” he told me. “I get t-shirts made up for each of the charities for which ‘popcorn runs. I just ordered a couple of dozen t-shirts with the Stollery Children’s Hospital logo on the sleeve because she’ll be racing for the Hospital when we move to Edmonton. In fact, I had to text the outcome to Northlands GM, Scott Sinclair and he’s going to try and get some of the patients from the Hospital to come watch her race. And, if they can’t come to the track, maybe we can take the filly to the Hospital so the kids can see her. But we might have to keep her in the parking lot. I don’t know if we can put her on an elevator and take her up to one of the floors.”
And a really nice note about one of the great names in Alberta breeding. The late Brad Gunn ran Gunnholm Farms in Lloydminster for many years, and grew it into one of the premier breeding operations in Canada. The last horse he bred was a filly named Nells Sweet Future. That filly is now the dam of Senga Naptha, which finished third in the 3 year old filly consolation. She’s also the dam of Senga Nitro, which Ryan Grundy piloted to victory in the 2 year old colts Super Final. Senga Nitro may very well be the Alberta 2 year old of the year. The “Senga” portion of the names is “Agnes” spelled backwards. Agnes Gunn was Brad’s wife, and every bit as involved in the farm operation as Brad, himself.
“It felt like Mom and Dad were here today,” son Kenneth Gunn told me following Senga Nitro’s win.
It appears Senga Naptha will, perhaps, get one or two more starts and then move next season to a new career as a broodmare.
Monstrous’ win in the 3 year old filly Super Final pushed her year-to-date earnings to $128,799. Not bad for the filly which has won six times and finished second on seven occasions in fourteen starts in 2016. She is a challenge to keep in good health, but when trainer Daryl Cutting gets her to the races, she has been awfully good. If he can keep her in top form, Edmonton racing fans can look forward to seeing her in the Northlands Filly Pace.
And it was a pretty good day for Rod Starkewski who sent out ten starters for the Super Finals. Five of the horses earned cheques, making for some happy owners. Perhaps the happiest was Clauzette Byckal of Onoway, who shed a few tears when Outlawtriggerhappy claimed a runner-up share in the 3 year old filly Super Final. She (the human, not the horse) had been “a little nervous” in the hours before the race.
“I did see that one,” Starkewski told me. “I missed a bunch of them because I was warming up horses while the early stakes races were being run. I had to listen to (track announcer) Murray Slough, to keep track of how they were doing. The one that really disappointed me was Retros Mystery in the 2 year old colts final. He finished eighth and I really thought he had a shot.”
Starkewski-trained horses won $43,000 on Saturday. “And just to get 10 horses through a busy season and into the Super Finals is what I’m most proud of accomplishing,” he added.
Legends of Racing, November 5th
As the racing season winds down at Century Downs, ASHA’s Colleen Haining has come up with one more promotion that will be of special interest to long time fans of the sport. Fred Gillis, Ron Graham Pat Tracey, Doug Stout, John Baxter, and Don Monkman have agreed to take part in an exhibiton race this coming Saturday. Ed Tracey has been invited to the event but health issues will keep him from climbing into a sulky.
“I think it’ll be fun provided they can get a half dozen horses of equal ability for us,” Baxter told me. “It’s just an exhibition race, they tell me. That’ll hold up until we get to the starting gate! Then it’s every man for himself! You never forget how to compete whenever you get the chance.”
Brent Grundy, who’s now a harness racing judge, was invited to take part but felt he had to decline. “They’ll stick the race in the middle of the card and I’d have to hustle down from the stand and then hustle back to finish the card,” said Grundy. “With this bunch there’d be 15 or 20 minutes of jawing about the race and the results followed by at least one cold beer.”
Monkman won 2,779 races from 20,446 starts. Ed Tracey had 3,168 winners. Baxter drove 2,301 winners in a career that started in Alberta in 1969. He still jumps in a bike to warm up horses prior to races as part of his work for Kelly Hoerdt’s Bedrock Stables. He last drove in a pari-mutuel race in 2014.
“I raced a lot against Eddie,” said Baxter. I raced a bit against Pat, although he drove for most of his career in Ontario and was moving on to his trucking business when I was getting into driving. Anyway, it should be fun to see what we can remember and how fast we can go.”
Off to Harrisburg
It is a measure of the renewed confidence in Alberta racing that several owners and breeders along with a number of horsemen are headed to the Harrisburg Sale in Pennsylvania next week. Some like Connie Kolthammer, Al Neurauter Jim Rhodes, and Meridien Farms, Terry MacIsaac, are looking for breeding stock, primarily broodmare prospects. Others like Keith Clark, Kelly Hoerdt, Rod Hennessy, and Serge Masse – who’s currently racing at Fraser Downs – will be looking for yearlings.
“I’m not sure what we’ll find,” Hennessy told me. “I’ve noticed that prices have been higher than usual at the sales so far in London Ontario and in Lexington Ky. And, of course, we’re having to deal with the US dollar. But we’ll go look and see if there’s something available we can afford.”
Clark has already made one purchase, a filly, for which he paid $48,000 US in Lexington. That filly is tucked in at the Clark farm in Okotoks. He’s also acquired a 3 year old pacer, Kokanee Seelster, which he’s bought to have an entry in the Western Canada Pacing Derby in Edmonton. Kokanee Seelster was sixth in its first start at Century Downs a week ago. He improved to third Sunday behind a couple of older horses, Somwhereinmexico and Cool Cowboy, in a $20,000 claiming race.
Getting in Gear for 2017
Now that Northlands Park has agreed to bridge staging of live racing in Edmonton until Century Mile is ready to open in late summer, 2018, the next challenge is to get the business model in place and for Northlands to get a racing license from Horse Racing Alberta. “I hope that will get done in short order,” a senior official told me. “Then we can pass a budget so the horsemen know what they’ll have for purses in 2017. That will then allow the horsemen’s groups to negotiate with the tracks for dates. It’s all going to get done. It’s just a matter of how long it takes.”
It can’t happen too quickly for horsemen. They’d like to know where their livelihood is going to take them beyond Dec. 31st.