I didn’t have a specific story in mind when I strolled through the backstretch on the weekend. It was clear that there are more horses on the grounds at Century Downs than there had been a week earlier. I stopped in to talk to racing secretary, Jackson Wittup, about that. In the course of the conversation, another face appeared in the doorway, one I had not met before. It turned out to be Paul Davies, a second generation horseman from Ontario who has spent most of the past decade racing in western Canada.
“I came out to work for Rod Hennessy in 2010,” he told me. “I wanted some driving experience and the Ontario circuit didn’t have a lot of options for a rookie at that time. I went back to Ontario in 2011 and worked construction and at the racetrack for a couple of years. Then I came back out to work for Rod in 2012 and spent a couple of seasons in Alberta before I moved on to BC. I’ve mostly been catch-driving and I’ve done pretty well at it. I won the Fraser Downs dash title in 2016 and finished runner-up in 2017 and again this year. Last year my horses earned more than $600,000 in purses which is the most I’ve ever won. This year I earned a chance to compete with Dave Hudon and Jim Marino and represent Fraser Downs in the west regional for the Canadian Driver’s Championship. The west regional is set for Saturday, June 23rd at Century Downs.”
“Now, I’m starting to build a public stable. I’ve got four racehorses and a 2 year old at the moment. One of them is Sabine Pass which I think can handle the open class. I’ve got Time to Play The Game which fits in non-winners of seven. And I’ve got Life on Homicide which will start here at the $4,500 claiming level.”
Davies is also catch driving at Century Downs and picked up his first win on Sunday afternoon with an 18-1 longshot winner, Marlons Magic, in the second race. That horse is owned by Lorne Duffield of Edmonton and by Diane Harries of Falun. It’s trained by Rod Hennessy who’s got 23 horses stabled at Century Downs and can’t begin to drive them all. It’s nice to be able to find a good catch-driver when you need one, and know you can trust the horse in his hands.
The next day when I ran into Davies again outside his shed row, he pointed out a 3 year old gelding named Boiling Oar. The horse won the Keith Linton Pace at Fraser Downs on Friday the 13th. The date shouldn’t surprise us if you look at his background. He’s by Shadow Play, which stands in Ontario, out of the American Ideal mare, Arm In Arm. His breeder is Blue Chip Bloodstock out of Wallkill, NY. He was actually foaled in Craven Saskatchewan where the mare is owned by Dr. Larry Hanson, a longtime participant in the Alberta yearling sale. Boiling Oar went through two yearling sales, the ASHA auction in September of 2016 and the BC Yearling Sale two months later. He’s now owned by the highly successful JJJ Stable out of Prince George BC.
Davies drove the horse to victory in the Keith Linton and calls Boiling Oar one of the best he’s ever sat behind. The horse won it easily in 1:55 including a :28 final quarter. Jim Marino, who trains the horse, agreed.
“I’ve had some good horses over the years and I’d put him up there as one of the best,” Marino told me. “We sent him to Century Downs for the Norm Kennedy Stake which will run on May 13th. Depending upon how he does, we may take a shot at Ontario. He’s eligible for the Ontario Sire Stakes Stakes program and there’s a race at Flamboro Downs that is part of that. It’s a half mile track and it might be a good time and a good way to see if he’s competitive with what’s racing there. I believe he’s good enough, but we’ll have to see how he does at Century Downs first.”
Marino will arrive at Century Downs this week with at least seventeen horses. “I’d bring more if I could get stalls,” he told me. “As it is, I may have to rotate some of my horses between the track and a farm, just to keep them all trained up and ready to race. I’ve got my eye on some of the Alberta Sire Stakes races this summer.”
The next stop on my tour was Rod Hennessy’s barn. The veteran teamster is a little busy this spring, but he paused long enough to take stock of some of the early season performances from his barn.
“I’ve got a 3 year old Mystery Chase filly named Paperback Thriller that showed nicely in winning on Saturday,” he told me. “And I’m looking forward to seeing what another 3 year old, Cheddar Jack, can do. I think he’s got possibilities.”
Cheddar Jack was in action on Sunday afternoon in a non-winners of three. He led most of the way before being caught at the wire by the 4 year old, Mr Peterman in 1:57.1. It took a photo to determine the winner – and it took a second look at the photo to confirm the result. In all, the Hennessy barn collected three wins, two seconds, and two thirds from twelve starters on the weekend.
Next stop on my tour, I ran into Nathan Sobey, who’s off to a good start this season at Century Downs. He’s got a dozen horses in his shed row and has had a particularly good run with three of them. Burntisland Billy has not been worse than 4th in his four starts and has one win at Century Downs. Burn My Villa is the real star with 3 wins and a runner-up share in four outings. And Western Olympian has started twice and collected one win.
“I’m pleased at the start and just want to ride the wave as long as I can,” Sobey told me. “I’ve learned from guys like Keith Clark that this is a business and you can’t treat your horses like pets. They have to do well and they have to earn cheques or you have to move them.”
“I’d really like to be able to be one of the three or four drivers who’ll represent Century Downs in the drivers challenge on June 23rd. There’s a long way to go yet, but that’s my goal.”
Before I reached the end of the barn, I stopped in to see Jamie Gray. He’s another veteran who had a tough start and an encouraging finish in 2017.
“I had a bunch of younger horses and some of them weren’t ready until late in the fall,” Gray told me. “Richard Lancaster had Ready N Steady at Fraser Downs this winter. As a 2 year old he had a 5-3-1 record from ten starts. So far this year, he’s got a second in five trips. Now I’ve got him here. I hope he’ll be a good starter in the Norm Kennedy on May 13th.
“As for my own Alberta-sired horses, I’m prepping them for the first part of June when the Alberta Sire Stakes program gets underway. I’m looking forward to seeing if Yankee Up can get it going again. He won the Snowflake final at Northlands Park on Jan. 6th and hasn’t raced since. I’ll be trying to get him qualified in mid May. I’ve got another 3 year old colt called Exit Smiling that I qualified last week. And I’ve got another unraced colt called Noguardio. He’s a full brother to Mateo who was pretty good. He’s a big leggy colt who wasn’t ready to race last year. But he’s training well this spring and hopefully, he’ll be ready for the first part of June.”
“So far this spring, I’ve had some good luck with a couple of my cheaper claimers, Test Pattern and Ima Keepsake. So if we can keep them going and get some help from some of the youngsters, we might have a good year.”
I also ran into driver-trainer, Dave Kelly. He tells me he’s got six fellow Prince Edward Islanders who live in Calgary and who are interested in getting into the racing business as owners.
“I’m trying to find something for them but it’s not easy, given the horse supply right now,” Kelly told me. “We’ll keep trying and we’re looking all over North America. We may find it’ll be better to wait for the yearling sale in September and see what the catalogue looks like.”
Speaking of the catalogue, the ASHA yearling sale, this year’s event is set for Sunday, Sept. 9th at the Olds Regional Exhibition Megadome. The entry deadline for consigners is coming up on Tuesday, May 1st.
One horse Kelly is pleased to have is Anywhereanytime, a son of the late great sire, Somebeachsomewhere. Kelly found the horse racing at The Meadows in Pennsylvania, and picked him up for co-owner, Mike Dicks, of Parkland County, AB.
“He won in 1:58.4 including a final quarter of :29,” said Kelly. “It took him 25 starts to get his first lifetime win and he did it here on April 15th. So, maybe that’ll be the start of something good.”
No tour of Century Downs would be complete without a stop at Keith Clark’s location. He qualified a couple of three year olds, Rare Gem and Born A Dragon on Saturday. When I asked him what he thinks he has in the pair, he just smiled. “We’ll see,” was what he told me.
By this point, I was exhausted. I found a chair in the office of the horseman’s bookkeeper, Colleen Haining, and tried to read my scribbles. I think I got it right. I hope you enjoyed the read.
Jockey Rico Walcott had a good day in Vancouver Sunday on the opening weekend of the Hastings Park meet. He won the Brighouse Belles Stakes with the favoured Alliford Bay for owner Peter Redekop of Vancouver. And he finished a hard-charging second with Quick and Silver behind Blue Law in the Swift Thoroughbreds Inaugural. Both races were contested over six and a half furlongs.