Developing an athlete in harness racing isn’t much different that developing an athlete in any sport. You need pedigree, patience, a willingness to work hard, and a little bit of luck.
I was thinking about that during a visit to Gerry Hudon’s shed row at Century Downs on Saturday morning. I ran into Gerry’s daughter, Ashley, as she was prepping Just A Dragon for its first qualifying race. It was to be an important milepost in the development of this particular athlete. But it was hardly the first step in turning a foal into a racehorse.
“He was so stubborn,” Ashley told me. “We got him out of the September, 2016 Alberta yearling sale for $12,000. For a long time it was a challenge just to get a bridle on him. He would shy away every time we came close. It took a lot of time and patience just to get to the point where he was comfortable with human contact. Then, Sean Moore and I came up with the idea of taking the bit off the bridle and just letting it hang to one side. We were finally able to ease the bridle over his head and then re-attach the bit. Once he got used to that, he was fine.”
For weeks, Ashley worked with the young horse, building a bond with him. “I didn’t want him to fear what he was born to do,” she explained. “I wanted him to be able to enjoy becoming a racehorse.”
Ashley used some of her own background as a competitive figure skater to learn how best to handle Just A Dragon. She knew what hours and hours of hard work were all about, and how they were necessary for the development of any athlete. And she knew the value of patience.
“Dad started training him last summer,” she told me. “We had gotten the harness on him and I jogged him a lot at the farm. At first during training, Dad would take him to a certain point and turn him and he would stop. It got frustrating and I had to remind Dad to be patient with him. He showed a lack of confidence in what we wanted him to do. But slowly but surely he started to feel comfortable. We started to train him with stablemate, Western Ladybug and he developed to the point that he would compete with her. He wouldn’t let her pass him on the track.”
“Sometimes, Cory Vicker, who worked for us at the farm, would take Just A Dragon while Dad drove Western Ladybug. It took a full team effort to get Just A Dragon used to the job and to what was expected of him.”
Just A Dragon had to go through gate school and get used to being on a racetrack with a lot of company. Then came the big day. Saturday morning, Just A Dragon went out for his first qualifying race in the hands of driver, Phil Giesbrecht.
“He was a little nervous but he did fine,” Giesbrecht told me. Just A Dragon qualified in 2:02.1 including a :30.1 last quarter, very respectable results from a first time starter. If all goes well between now and Wednesday morning, his name will be in the entry box for a first time pari-mutuel race next weekend.
“I was nervous before his qualifier. I expect I’ll be a little more nervous before his first race,” said Ashley, who owns a share in the horse along with her parents and with Don McDougall. “But he’s come a long way. We’ve always liked his breeding and we think he’s capable of being a good racehorse.”
Only time will tell where Just A Dragon fits into the racing scene. He might be the equivalent of a good journeyman. He might become a star. It could happen quickly, or it might take awhile. It sounds like just what any athlete in any sport faces, doesn’t it.
Leading the Way…
Dave Kelly has charged into the lead in the driver’s standings at Century Downs. It helps when you can win five races on a card and Kelly accomplished that on Saturday. He won the first three races with catch drives, scored again with Outlawburntpopcorn and finished up driving one of his own horses, Hush A Bye Baby, into the winner’s circle. He added another win on Sunday afternoon with Young Drunk Punk in the third race. And , he and one of his owners, Don McDonald, haltered Blue Star Admiral out of a claiming handicap in Race 5.
Nathan Sobey, who had been leading in dash victories when the weekend began, added just one to his total. Sobey scored with Mortgage My Villa in Race 2. That one might wind up in the Moores Mile, the first 3 year old filly stakes of the season and the kickoff event to the Alberta stakes calendar. The Moore Mile goes on May 12th with the colts getting their turn the next day in the inaugural Norm Kennedy Memorial.
Kelly now leads the way with 14 wins this young season. Sobey is next with eleven. The top three drivers as of June 10th will represent Century Downs in the regional driver’s challenge on June 23rd.
And speaking of special events, Jody Jamieson, James MacDonald, and Doug McNair will be back to reprise their roles in the Pacing For Charity event at Century Downs on May 27th. Each will drive a number of races that day on behalf of a charity. MacDonald is coming off a fabulous 2017 season, highlighted by winning the World Drivers Challenge final in Charlottetown last September.
There’s a new face in the backstretch at Century Downs but it’s hardly a new face in the backstretch of a racetrack. Stewart Waterman has been around racetracks in the Maritimes most of his life. That’s where he ran into Dave Kelly and that’s one of the connections that brought him to Alberta.
“I used to have a farm in Cape Breton,” he told me. “I raced off the farm. Always had a couple of horses. I finally sold the farm a couple of months ago and came out to Lloydminster. I’ve got two sons and a grandchild there and another grandchild due in the next couple of weeks. When Dave was getting started as a driver, I used to compete against him. So, when I got here, I gave him a call. He invited me to come over and see him here at the track, and I decided if I was going to be around, I might as well get a horse or two.”
Waterman claimed Odds Western Three out of the 6th race on Saturday, a group of $4,500 claimers. Odds Western Three finished 3rd in 1:58 with a :29.3 last quarter. He has 60 lifetime starts and 14 wins on his card. The 5 year old mare will give Waterman a way to keep his hand in, in a game he loves, while he settles into his new role as Grandpa.
Graduating From School…
The latest class of exercise riders and grooms launches into its practicum on Monday. All 6 exercise riders are at Northlands Park in Edmonton where they’ll be taking morning rides. They need 60 rides to graduate on June 4th. The 7 prospective grooms all have jobs as well. Lauren Weigel will be the new face in Justin Currie’s shed row on Monday morning. The groom grads need 120 hours of barn work to qualify for their certificates. The practicum comes at the end of a 12 week intensive course of instruction at Olds College.
“The program started with a grooms school in 2003,” program co-ordinator, Theresa Sealy, told me. “The exercise rider program was added in 2005. Both programs came out of Horse Racing Alberta’s need and desire for more good help on the racetrack and in the backstretch. We’ve had a lot of people go through the program since it began, and we’ve had some graduates who have gone on to do pretty well. Omar Moreno started his riding career in Alberta after he graduated. He’s gone on to win two Sovereign Awards and an Eclipse award as leading apprentice and he’s now riding regularly at Woodbine. Sheena Ryan is also at Woodbine. So is Brendan Duchesne. Scotty Williams is riding at Hastings Park in Vancouver.”
“Our groom graduates are working at racetracks and at farms in Alberta and elsewhere. Ashley Grundy has been a big help to her husband, Ryan, in keeping his standardbred stable in good order. Amber Lynn Jacobson came through groom’s school and worked for a time at Meridian Farms in High River. She’s now turned to thoroughbred breeding. Amanda Gregory has progressed from the school to be a thoroughbred trainer on the Alberta circuit. I’ve got ten applicants for the exercise rider program for this fall and three applicants at the moment for the grooms school. And the fact we were able to find positions for all 13 students in this year’s programs, shows that the students are well trained and that there’s a need for good help.”
Sealy continues to work at getting more contributions towards the cost of training students. While the students pay a portion of their fees in the form of tuition, it costs $3-5.000 per person to train a groom. For the exercise rider program, the cost rises to between $8-10,000. Contributions to the program earn a tax receipt.
The harness racing community extends its deepest sympathy to former driver-trainer, Derek Wilson, whose father, Don, passed away on Wednesday, April 25th at the age of 84. Don was a successful real estate developer who rose to the position of president of Genstar Homes. He continued the tradition of harness racing begun by his own father, Forest Wilson. A funeral service will be held at Mountain View Funeral Home, (Prairie View Chapel, 1605 – 100 Street SE, Calgary) on Thursday, May 3, 2018 at 2:00 p.m. Graveside Service to follow at Mountain View Memorial Gardens. In lieu of flowers, memorial donations may be made directly to the Alberta Children’s Hospital Foundation (Dr. Gordon Townsend School). To express condolences, please visit: www.mountainviewmemorial.ca.
And we want to wish a speedy recovery to trainer, Cathy Reid, who slipped and suffered a broken ankle.