Sixteen degrees and breezy Saturday afternoon for the opening of the 2017 harness racing season at Century Downs. Mike Hennessy got the meet off to a fine start with his 500th career win in the opening race. It wasn’t his fastest trip around the 11/16ths of a mile track with Authentic Pizzazz – 2:06.3, including a 34 second last quarter. More on that in a moment.
“It’s no big deal,” he told me, back in the paddock before the second race. “If I hadn’t been out of the industry for seven years, I’d have had it a long time ago.”
Now back to that 34 second last quarter. During the off season, Century Downs spent a few dollars and a lot of time adding another 3 inches of surface to the track. The top dressing is crushed limestone. It’s thought that this will be a better surface for horses. Horsemen are likely to experiment a bit with shoes to see how horses respond to the grip they are able to get on the track. The early evidence is that horses aren’t slipping and sliding on the track, which is a good thing because that’s often when they get hurt. The track will take some time to knit together and dry out. As well, corner 3 has been re-graded so that there is a constant 8 degree banking from the rail to the outside fence.
“It won’t make much difference off the start,” racing secretary, Jackson Wittup, told me, “but it should make it possible for horses coming from off the pace to slingshot around the turn and challenge for the lead as they come to the stretch.
And that 34 second last quarter wasn’t the start of a trend. In the very next race, Tyler Redwood took Perapps Knot Yet around the track in 1:59.4, including a :28.2 third quarter. Silent Rescue won the tenth and final race of the day in 1:58.4. Not world class times by any means but an indication that as horses get more fit and the racetrack surface matures, times are going to come down.
Welcome a New Owner
Wandering around the tarmac at Century Downs on Saturday afternoon, I was introduced to Michael Arnold, a new owner to standardbred racing. An Ontario native, Arnold occasionally was taken to the races as a boy. He’s been working in oilfield trucking for the past decade and told me he’s had a respectable winter season despite the state of the economy.
“I’ve been kicking around the idea of getting into racing for four or five years,” he told me. “A friend of mine in BC, Calvin Chadwick, introduced me to (trainer) Darryl Cutting. I live just north of Olds and went to the yearling sale last fall. I didn’t get anything there so I claimed a couple of horses in Ontario and brought them out here. The rules say they cannot race for 60 days if they are claimed outside Alberta. So I’m here today to see the gelding get its first start.”
The gelding is Well Said Stride, a 6 year old son of Well Said out of the Run The Table mare, Cathedra. Well Said Stride had the benefit of Hall of Fame driver, Keith Clark, for his Century Downs debut. He finished 5th. The other pacer is the 5 year old filly, Rumour Mill, which he hopes to qualify in the next couple of weeks.
“I’m not a wealthy guy, I’m a businessman,” Arnold said. “I know what I can afford to spend. I’ve looked at the 10 year deal the industry has struck with the government. I look at the new track to be built in Edmonton, and I’ve decided that now is the time to get involved. This is a business decision as much as it is a sport to me.”
Century Downs Racing Club
Last year, Century Downs had about 80 members in its Racing Club. Each participant paid a one-time fee of $250.00 to be part of the fun. The club had two horses, the most successful of which was Warrawee Rap, which was in the care of Gerry Hudon. Rap is expected to qualify this coming Saturday. The other filly, Southwind Luna, has been sold to Bill Andrew’s Meridien Farms and will become a broodmare this year. Century Downs, which administers the club, will make a decision this week on a second horse.
“It’s a fun way for fans to be involved in racing without getting into the higher costs of owning racehorses as an individual,” says Wittup. “Training fees, drivers commissions, farrier and vet bills can add up. But club members pay one fee and that’s it. And they get to share in any revenues the horses generate after the bills are paid.”
Over 70 people have signed up so far with the cutoff set for Friday, March 31st.
Fun For Fans Stable
I think this will be the eighth year of this stable’s participation in Alberta harness racing. It was started by ASHA executive director, Fred Gillis, as a kind of outreach program to organizations in communities where harness racing was taking place. The idea was to turn over 75% of whatever the horse(s) earned after commissions and fees to organizations that might be challenged to fund raise for things they wanted to do. All the organizations had to do was show up on race day and cheer on the pacer. Last season was an example of the best and worst of horse ownership. Gillis shares the story.
“We had Sotally Tober all set to race for the stable,” Gillis told me. “Then a week before the first race for the club, the horse got hurt. He never raced the rest of the season. Well, I was stuck, so I phoned (breeders committee chair) Connie Kolthammer, who runs Outlaw Stables. She and Dave Farrell shared ownership in a filly named Outlawburntpopcorn. Connie let me have it for less than market price. Norm Kennedy (former ASHA President) and I put up the $6,300 and we had a horse to start the program last May.”
Little did anyone know what Outlawburntpopcorn would do at the races. She started off slowly but kept earning modest paycheques and kept generating revenues for a number of area charities. Then in October she scored a $28,000 upset win in the final of the Alberta Marquis for 3 year old fillies, and followed that up two weeks later with a 4th place finish in the Super Finals, earning $6,400 in the process. The final tally was just short of $58,000 from a 5-5-5 log in 29 starts.
“We paid off all the stable’s bills, turned over a bunch of money to the charities and gave Connie and Dave some extra money for supporting the stable,” said Gillis. “Norm and I got our money back. And we had a bit of a base to start off this year. We’ve leased Popcorn to trainer Devann Crick and we’ll get 25% of whatever she makes. And we’ve bought another filly from Connie namedOutlaw Intriguedbyu. She’s paid up for all of the stakes races this year too. So maybe, we can have some fun.”
That fun hopefully will extend to a number of charities. The stable will compete for Rockyview Volunteer Fire Department in April, Airdrie Boys & Girls Club in May, Breast Cancer in June, the Airdrie Over 50 Club in July, and Ronald McDonald House in August. September is up in the air as the racing circuit finishes at Century Downs and spends a weekend at Enoch before settling in for the fall meet at Northlands Park.
“For sure, though, we’ll be supporting the Stollery Children’s Hospital again,” said Gillis. “Popcorn was a big hit with a lot of the patients last fall, and we were able to make a few dollars for the hospital even though it was the end of the season.”