The last harness horses were barely off the track at Century Downs last Saturday before Don Monkman and his crew began the process of converting the racing surface for the use of thoroughbreds and quarterhorses. The fall season is set to open on Saturday afternoon, Sept. 23rd at 1 PM. The date will mark the return of thoroughbred racing to the Calgary area market for the first time in nine years.
“We’ve built the paddock and added extra stalls to accommodate between 400 and 450 horses,” Monkman told me. “We’ve got Robin Stroud and his crew in town from Kentucky to install the safety rail. The pods to hold the rail were installed two years ago when the track was first built. We should have all the work done and be ready to welcome trainers and horses as scheduled, next Monday.”
The brackets to hold the rail were being set in place on Sunday morning when I stopped by for a visit. I was interested to learn how specific the work is. The rail has to be 40 inches above the track surface.
“Research shows that 40 inches equates to the shoulder of the average racehorse,” grader operator, Steve Wood, told me. “Any lower than that and you run the risk of having a horse topple over the rail if it comes into contact. Any higher than that and a jockey could be hurt by having a leg come into contact with the rail.”
Wood is an interesting guy. He started off as a jockey but by the time he was 18 he had outgrown that role. So, he got a job working at a track in California. Over the past 45 years he’s developed an expertise that has him in demand to build racetracks on five continents. To see him at the controls of a heavy grader is to appreciate the work of an artist. And his associate, longtime Northlands Park track superintendent, Ron Grift, is no slouch behind the wheel either.
“I’ve been trying to retire in Manitoba but the phone keeps ringing,” he told me with a smile. As we chatted, he was supervising the unloading of dump trucks filled with surface material. “We’ve got a limestone base to the track here at Century Downs so we need to make sure that the base is adequately and equally covered so that the thoroughbreds and quarterhorses can race on it safely. That involves putting down about 7 inches of material all the way around the track. We pack it down and water it to provide the horses with a good surface.”
“The material we use is 6 percent clay, 10 percent silt and 1 percent mulch,” said Wood. “The rest of the mixture is sand. Don and his crew did a good job of mixing it altogether before we got here, so we can spread it on the racetrack reasonably quickly. In all, we’ve got about 6,500 metric tons of material to install. Ron and I can pretty much eyeball it as we do it to make sure we’ve got it spread smoothly and to the right depth around the track.”
“About 20 years ago, I started doing some research on track surfaces. The mixture for Century Downs is something I came up with to ensure three things: proper drainage, safety for horses and riders, and ease of maintenance. I think this surface will be just fine when we get it done.”
Wood is consulting on the design and construction of the new racetrack at Century Mile in Leduc. Grift is headed to Northlands Park next Sunday to lead a team that will strip the thoroughbred surface from the racetrack in preparation for the fall harness meet which gets underway on Friday evening, September 22nd.
Reflections on the ASHA Yearling Sale
Shock and awe might best describe Amanda Barron’s state of mind as she stood on the edge of the crowd and watch three of her yearlings go through the sales ring Sunday afternoon at the Olds Megadome. It’s just her second season attending the sale as a breeder in her own right, although she’s been to many sales as an employee of Meridian Farms.
“I’m alright now but it was really something to watch three of my yearlings go through the ring,” she told me. I was hoping they’d be well received but I didn’t expect to see Winknattheladies draw a final bid of $24,000 from J.G. Gagne. With the prices I got, I can probably afford to add another broodmare or two. I might even go to the Harrisburg sale in November and see what’s available.”
Barron grew up in Manitoba and has been around horses all her life. She’s added one broodmare in the past year, a former racehorse named Born With A Grin, which she acquired from trainer, Dan Sifert. She started out with a handful of broodmares from Bill Andrew, her boss at Meridian Farms.
“Born With A Grin has a foal by Mystician by her side and the mare is back in foal to Prince Sharka,” she told me.
Amanda Barron is reflective of what the Alberta industry needs: young, talented people who want a bright future in the industry and are prepared to work hard to get it. Her attitude is finding slow but encouraging support from others who have struggled through the past decade as the industry sagged, but who now see a little brighter future on the horizon.
“A year from now, Century Mile will be up and running,” said breeders committee chair, Connie Kolthammer, who runs Outlaw Stables at Falun. “That should help bring some more money into the industry and, hopefully, attract more buyers to the sale.”
“I was a little worried when the sale started but the prices got better as we went along,” said ASHA executive director, Fred Gillis. “In the end, I think we averaged around $10,600 per head. “We had eight yearlings draw bids in excess of $20,000. There wasn’t a really huge price but there weren’t a lot of really low prices other. So, I hope breeders will be satisfied enough that they’ll start getting ready to support our sale again next year.”
It’s interesting that the ASHA sale is drawing more than just local interest, both from breeders and from buyers. California horseman, Mark Anderson, haltered three yearlings out of the sales ring. BC breeders Angelique Currie of Langley and Lynda Atkinson of Quesnel, each consigned yearlings to the sale for the first time, as did Jane Granger of Regina. Yearlings that are sired by Alberta stallions but that are foaled out in British Columbia, can be paid up for stakes programs in both provinces, which adds to their value. And, as usual, Surdale Farms from Kelowna was well represented at the sale with eight yearlings.
“It’s always nice to see their horses at our sale,” driver-trainer, Kelly Hoerdt, told me. They’re always in exceptional shape and show well. “I was happy to get a couple of them for myself and for clients.
“The one thing I am glad about is that we don’t have a sales stake in Alberta,” said Kolthammer. “It means that consignors to our sale are interested in selling their horses, rather than running them through the sales ring and buying them back just to make them eligible for a stake. I hope that’s something that continues.”
It was good to see Michael Byrne’s name on four sales slips out of the sale. I had a good conversation with him on Saturday afternoon on the final day of the harness meet at Century Downs.
“I’ve decided I want to stay involved in the business,” he told me. “I thought about it after my father, Don, passed away last April. But it was such a big part of his life and I want to keep the memory of what he accomplished in the sport alive, going forward. That’s why I’m involved in the sponsorship of the Filly Pace at Northlands at the end of September. My mother is looking forward to making the presentation in the winner’s circle. And I hope, in the future, that the race can be named in honour of my dad. I think he’d be happy about that.”
Byrne has teamed up with driver-trainer, Nathan Sobey to build Michael Byrne Stable. He’s bought back into Heated Exchange, a 3 year old gelding which was formerly owned by his late father. He’s started to build a broodmare band with Rocky Moma, a 6 year old mare that is in foal to Sunshine Beach. He’s looking for some land to develop a farm, although he hasn’t yet decided exactly where the farm will be located. And he added 4 yearlings to his stable on Sunday.
Leading owner, Lorne Duffield, paid $16,000 for June Morning, a bay filly by Vertical Horizon, consigned by Meridian Farms. Proceeds are divided among five area charities as part of the “Let The Sun Shine” program… three of the yearlings consigned to the sale were prepared by members of the Alberta 4-H program as part of their training. All three yearlings sold for more money than the highest bid of the 4-H yearlings in last year’s sale, which speaks to the quality of work done by students in this program. Dayton Rickard, Sierra Macdonald, and Madisen Groves will share in the proceeds from the sale of the three yearlings. Buyers of the three yearlings met with the 4-H members near the close of the sale to congratulate them on their work.
This is a terrific program that delivers a lot of value to participants and ASHA would love to see more youngsters get an opportunity to be a part of it, going forward.
The Last Day
Lorne Duffield and Rod Hennessy shared the award as leading owners at the Standardbred meet which ended on Saturday afternoon at Century Downs. They collected 22 winner’s circle pictures over the course of the meet. Duffield, who’s been a long time supporter of the Alberta standard-bred industry, turned some of his winnings into eight yearlings on Sunday.
Kelly Hoerdt put an exclamation point on his standing as leading trainer with four winners from nine starters on closing day. He finished the meet with 71 wins from an even 300 starters. Mike Hennessy was top driver with 97 wins from 498 drives. Hennessy was honoured on the final day by a good turnout of families involved in the Kidsport program. Mike had donated a portion of his driving fees to the organization and executive director, Kevin Webster, was grateful to accept the cheque.
“Every little bit helps,” he told me. “Mike stepped up to help us with this on his own initiative and we’re really grateful for what he’s done. I hope we can sit down and talk about some possibilities for the future.”
Also on the closing day of the harness meet, World Pro Chuckwagon driver, Chad Fike, won the exhibition race with Real Buzz, beating Dustin Gorst, Colt Cosgrave and Jim Nevada. That should take care of the chirping for awhile, at least until next year’s race.
Last but not least, the second leg of stakes qualifying for 2 year olds for the Super Finals was held. After two events, Bearcat Josi leads the filly class with 75 points, 13 more than Maid in Alberta. So far, 17 fillies have points over the two races. The final chance to qualify for the Super Finals will be the Alberta Stardust, October 13th at Northlands Park.
Among the colts, Outlaw True Grit and Custards Laststand share the lead with 100 points apiece. The 2 year olds get points for top five finishes according to a 50-25-12-8-5 formula. A whopping 26 colts and geldings have at least a point through two races. The third and final qualifier will be the Alberta Shooting Star, October 14th at Northlands. The top nine in each of the two divisions will make the Super Finals on October 28th for a purse of $80,000 for each sex. The next nine will go in the $15,000 consolation final on the same day.
“I want to thank the horsemen, very much, for a great season,” racing secretary, Jackson Wittup, told me. “They stepped up every week to fill the entry box and they helped substantially to meet a number of charity requests this summer along with the demands of the World Driving Championship. I think all of us at Century Downs are grateful for the co-operation we’ve had this season.”