Biggest crowd I’ve ever seen this past Sunday at Century Downs. It was Father’s Day and it was a beautiful afternoon. Century Downs laid on a Father’s Day brunch together with some special activities to go along with an afternoon of harness racing. I took a couple of walks around the premises and watched folks lining up at the concession stands, the betting terminals, and the windows. A few folks are comfortable with using the technology that allows them to wager off their smartphones. But there are still a great many fans who prefer to deal with a human teller at a window, especially when buying something other than a $2 win ticket. I think that will change, going forward, especially as racetracks continue to provide assistance to fans to wager electronically.
So far as the racing was concerned, a lot of horsemen used the weekend to tune up their stock for the resumption of the stakes schedule this coming weekend. The Meridian Farms Breeders stakes for 3 year old fillies and the Brad Gunn Breeders for colts and geldings will go to the post on Saturday afternoon. Horses have to be owned, foaled or sired in the province to be eligible. Eliminations will take place on Saturday with the top nine horses coming back in $60,000 finals as part of Canada Day celebrations on July 1st.
“Like every other racing jurisdiction in North America, we’re facing challenges with horse supply,” racing secretary, Jackson Wittup, told me. “On the male side, our supply of racing stock from the $10,000 claiming level and higher is pretty good. The filly and mare side is not quite as strong. Ironically, where we are in shorter supply is in the cheaper claiming ranks. We’ve got lots of horsemen looking around to see what they can find and there’s just not a lot of horses available, even in other jurisdictions.”
“Having said that, I think we’ll get a couple of strong eliminations for the fillies for the weekend and I hope we’ll get two eliminations for the colts.”
Stylomilohos (1:57.2 vs non-winners of 3), Keep On Burning (1:57 vs non-winners of 2), Perfect Mystery (1:58.1), Steady Breeze (1:57.2 vs non-winners of 4) and That’s It (1:58) are among the fillies liable to find their names in the entry box on Wednesday morning. All were winners on the weekend. On the male side, Mr. Peterman, who’s been in a couple of stakes this spring, finally broke his maiden on Sunday afternoon in 1:57.2. Retros Mystery and Getup Gideon were second and fourth respectively behind Ima Dude in Sunday’s 9th race. Mr. Peterman, Retros Mystery and Getup Gideon, I would expect, would give trainer Rod Starkewski a decent shot at winning some money in the Brad Gunn Breeders. It’s almost certain that Ima Dude’s name would be in the entry box as well. Brandon Campbell has long believed that his horse is an elite competitor. Ima Dude has a 2-2-1 record from 6 starts this year and scored Sunday despite starting from post eight.
On Monday afternoon, Serge Masse’s Da Magician finished third behind a couple of older horses, Cool Cowboy and Iwontdothatagain in a close finish in Race 2. Da Magician crossed the finish line in 1:52.4, so he looks to be ready for the Brad Gunn.
A couple of likely favourites, Wedding Dance on the fillies side and Mateo on the colts side, were given the past weekend off. Expect to see them back in action this coming Saturday.
All in the Name of Charity
Alberta’s standardbred industry continues to make friends by its willingness to give back to communities in which it races. Kelly Hoerdt’s special event at his Bedrock Stables farm in Beaumont last week, drew more than 1,400 people and raised about $35,000 for the Stollery Children’s Hospital in Edmonton.
“Michael Byrne came by and threw in $5,000 to help raise the total,” Hoerdt told me. “He also said he’d like to be involved in the event going forward. I was especially pleased that the day cleared up enough that we could offer jog cart rides on the track. Fred Gillis took 55 youngsters himself and I finished my last circuit at about 6 PM. Clearly, it’s something the youngsters look forward to doing.”
Among the attractions was one of the newest horses in the Hoerdt barn, Town Speaker. He’s not a carrot fan but he was happy to be petted by a host of youngsters that crowded around his stall. On Sunday, he qualified at Century Downs in 1:58 and Hoerdt, who bought the horse at the Meadowlands Sale a month ago, now has a decision to make about putting him into the Brad Gunn eliminations this Saturday. He would have to be supplemented to the Stake and the question is whether he’s ready to race after not racing since April 22nd.
Meanwhile, this Sunday, June 25th, marks the second time a trio of Ontario drivers have come west to drive in the Pacing For Charity event at Century Downs. Jody Jamieson and James Macdonald are back for a second time and Doug McNair will make his debut in the event. He’s coming off a win with Bettors Up in 1:49.4 in the final of the Fan Hanover Stake last Saturday evening at Mohawk Raceway in Campbellville, Ontario. He also has the fastest recorded mile in Canadian racing, a mark of 1:46.4 set on June 3rd with Dr. J. Hanover.
Jamieson and Kelly Hoerdt are friends and both have an affection for the work done by Autism Canada. That’s the charity Jamieson will drive for on Sunday and he’ll be driving whichever horses the Hoerdt stable has racing that day. McNair will drive for Perky in Pink which represents cancer research in the province. Macdonald will drive on behalf of Juvenile Diabetes.
The three drivers are arriving on Sunday morning and will be part of an autograph session that begins at 12 noon on the second floor at Century Downs. The expectation is that they’ll drive their first horses of the day starting in Race 2.
“I really want to thank Alberta horsemen for their willingness to support these initiatives,” ASHA’s Colleen Haining told me. “Some of our regular drivers will step back from a number of drives on Sunday so that our visitors can compete for charity. And we had five horsemen put their stock in the Old Time Pace this past Sunday. Kaitlin Haining (HF Princess Peach), Lloyd Ducharme (Minettas Highball), Donna Wyse and Dave Lamont (Hush A Bye Baby), Dan Sifert and Nicole Smith (Starry Eyes), and Cory and Betty Manning (Broadway Pebbles) didn’t get any financial return for allowing their horses to be used, but they made a contribution to a great event, nonetheless.”
As expected, the chirping made up for the lack of excitement that usually comes with a race that allows pari-mutuel wagering. On his first pass of the grandstand, Fred Gillis who was driving the leading horse at the time, HF Princess Peach, hollered…”OK boys, I’m the bus driver and everybody sits behind the driver…” That lasted until midway through the backstretch when Joe Ratchford decided enough was enough and took the lead with Starry Eyes. He managed to hold off a hard-charging Daryl Litke and Hush A Bye Baby to get to the finish line in a respectable 2:02.1.
“Once you’re in the starting gate, it all comes back,” grinned Ratchford, who was competing in his first actual race in more than twenty years. Of course he jogs horses every day, but it’s a little different than driving in a race.
“I had four horses in Sunday and Daryl Litke gave me my best trip,” chimed in Dave Lamont. A decent number of fans stuck around after the regular race card to watch the Old Tim Pace and it was more than just family who applauded the work of Gillis, Ratchford, Litke, Pat Tracey and John Baxter.
Gillis claims he’s now officially retired from driving. “I wanted my granddaughter to see me drive in a race and she was here today,” he told me. “My suit’s getting old and ripped and when I took it off, I decided that’s it.” It should be noted that Colleen Haining claimed the garment and is unlikely to throw it out, at least until next year!
Packwood Grand set for July 29th
I got a note last week from the folks at Packwood Grand, organizers of a big party to be staged at Century Downs on Saturday, July 29th. The opening line says…”indulge in a (day) of lively fashion, refined creations, crafted libations and a heart-pounding day of Standardbred racing, supporting Alberta’s horse racing community.”
This year’s event is partnering with Calgary Jewellry to award the winning horse and driver a prize valued at $3,000.
Founded in 2014 and modeled after renowned functions like Royal Ascot and the Kentucky Derby, the event drew about 1,500 fans to Century Downs last year. Organizers are looking to build on that in 2017. There’s a Red Carpet that begins at 12 noon with the first race going to the post at 1:10 PM.
Tickets and further information available at PackwoodGrand.com.
The Millarville Races
It wouldn’t be Canada Day without the Millarville Races. The old style country race meet is set for Saturday, July 1st, in the hamlet southwest of Calgary. The farmer’s market is not to be missed. It opened last Saturday and runs each Saturday until Oct. 7th. On Canada Day, hours of operation are 11 AM to 5 PM to coincide with the afternoon race card. The racing stock comes from Alberta’s community circuit which is racing that weekend in Lethbridge.
“A lot of our trainers love Millarville and are planning to be part of the day,” community circuit boss, Max Gibb, told me. “We’ll do the best we can to put on a good show. And I’m in training for the Stockman’s Race. I’ve got Sunflower ready. As long as nobody loosens the girth on my saddle when I’m looking the other way, I think I’ve got a real shot this year (editor’s note: Max has been trying without success to win this race for the better part of a half century!). The rules say the only people qualified to race in the Stockman’s have to live within the Millarville community. Sometimes, I think the definition of community extends to most of southern Alberta. But it’s a good time, anyway.”
It’s interesting that Woodbine Entertainment Group has announced plans to consolidate harness racing at Mohawk Raceway beginning in 2018, instead of moving horses back and forth between Mohawk and Woodbine. That would leave the thoroughbreds exclusively at the Toronto track. I would guess that WEG would save dollars having to change the track surface to accommodate each breed. And with the amount of simulcasting and digital wagering going on, fans watch more racing on a television or computer screen now than ever before. It also means that horsemen don’t have to look for new accommodation every few months as they used to do when thoroughbreds and Standardbreds shifted back and forth between Edmonton and Calgary. It’s an obvious discussion point as Century Mile is set to open in Leduc next summer.