It has been quite a ten day stretch at Century Downs.
It started on Sunday, June 10th with a noon hour meeting of horsemen with their ASHA representatives. The conclusion was that the racetrack was too hard and that something had to be done to fix it. Monday’s race card was cancelled. After that, things moved very quickly. By Tuesday afternoon, track samples from the Meadowlands and from Hawthorne Racetrack in Cicero, Illinois, had been obtained and the information had been forwarded to Canada Lafarge in Exshaw, Alberta, where the limestone surface for the race track has been produced. On Thursday morning, the first of dozens of tandem dump trucks began arriving at Century Downs. Long time Northlands Park track superintendent, Ron Grift, who’s an artist at the wheel of a heavy grader, arrived from his home in Manitoba to head up the re-surfacing project.
“I can’t say enough good things about how quickly Century moved on this when it became clear we had a problem,” ASHA executive director, Fred Gillis, told me. “The directive was, we have a problem, fix it now! Paul (Ryneveld, the GM at Century Downs) didn’t waste any time making the decision.”
By Saturday morning, about 3” of the limestone cushion had been spread on the track. The new material is a finer grain of limestone than what had been applied to the surface earlier. The project caused a few problems for training but the work had to be done and horsemen were quick to recognize that the re-surfacing took priority. As the first race went to the post on Saturday afternoon, the area was hit with a downpour that actually helped to begin the process of getting the surface to tighten. And trainer-driver, Rod Hennessy, sent out five horses and got 3 firsts and 2 seconds for his stable. Obviously he’s got a good farrier.
By Sunday, times were improving. Little Bit Faster, a $5,500 claimer, rolled to a win in 1:55.4 for driver, Brandon Campbell. It wasn’t record breaking but it was an indication that already, horses were responding to a better surface. Trainer Gerry Hudon sent out five horses and went to the winner’s circle four times. His other horse was third. On Monday, Appellate beat off five challengers in the Open pace in a sparkling 1:53.2 including a blazing :27.4 final quarter. Brandon Campbell was at the controls for owner, Ray Henry. The win, by the way, keeps Sanford Campbell in front in the trainers’ standings. He’s got 22 wins from 95 starters this spring and holds a 3 win lead over Rod Hennessy, who took Monday off.
There is still more to be done. Ron Grift returns on Tuesday to do some shaping on the third turn. The turn, which is in use twice during a mile pace because the start is fairly close to the entry to the turn, is shaped properly on the inside, but is a couple of degrees low on the outside. Grift will fix that. And there is still more material to be added to the surface.
“It needs to be done an inch or so at a time,” one veteran driver told me. “You add an inch, you water it, and you pack it. If you try to add too much too quickly, the water can’t seep down and help the material tighten. It has to be done in stages. And it has to be repeated periodically as the meet continues. That’s how you build a track and how you maintain it for the safety of the horses and for good racing.”
West Regional Driving Challenge…
The re-surfacing can do nothing but help the eight drivers who will be taking part in the west regional drivers challenge on Saturday afternoon at Century Downs. Dave Hudon, Jim Marino, and Paul Davies will represent Fraser Downs. Michel Rey will carry Manitoba’s colours. And Phil Giesbrecht, Jamie Gray, Kelly Hoerdt and Dave Kelly will represent Century Downs. It’s a second chance for Giesbrecht who suffered a broken ankle just before the 2016 regional event and could not compete.
The plan is that each of the drivers will compete from each position on the starting grid and will drive in a maximum of eight races. Each driver will be awarded points based on finishing position. At the end of the day, the top two drivers will represent the west regional in the national finals to be staged in September at Grand River Raceway in Elora, Ontario.
“The key is going to be to get eight, 8-horse fields,” racing secretary, Jackson Wittup, told me. “We’re going to do the draw on Wednesday morning at 11 MT and we’re going to try and show it on Facebook. It’ll help build a little interest towards Saturday.”
The Stakes Schedule Resumes…
Next up on the Alberta stakes racing schedule are the eliminations for the Meridian Farms Breeders Stakes for 3 year old fillies on Saturday. The 3 year old colts and geldings get their turn in the Brad Gunn Stake on Sunday afternoon. If there’s lots of interest from filly owners on Saturday, that’ll help Jackson Wittup fill out the card. Thirty-one 3 year olds are nominated. The rules say the horses must be sired by an ASHA registered stallion, OR be Alberta foaled, OR are 100% Alberta owned. The same conditions apply to the Brad Gunn and there are 31 colts and geldings nominated for that event as well. There’s a $15,000 pot for the eliminations for each stake. The finals to be run next weekend are worth $50,000 apiece.
Roaring Home, which won the Alberta Princess Stake last week can be expected to show up for the Meridian. The daughter of Mystery Chase is owned by Keith Clark, John Hind and Doris McDougall. Her win in the Princess final was her first in eight starts this year and her 5th career win in eighteen lifetime starts. She beat a field that included Duanne’s Horizon, Bearcat Josi, Custard Lite, Born A Dragon and Ginger Beer, that day, and all of them are eligible for the Meridian. So is Cusdmagicdragon which was a late scratch from the Princess final. You can bet that driver-trainer, Kelly Hoerdt, has been working to get her ready for this race.
Eight of the nine finalists from the Alberta Plainsman are nominated to Sunday’s Brad Gunn eliminations. The list is headed by the powerful duo of Exit Smiling and Yankee Up from Jamie Gray’s shed row. They were first and fifth respectively in the Plainsman final. Expect the competition to begin with Custard’s Laststand and Mortgage My Villa which were second and third in the Plainsman. But the competition will not stop there.
And one horse which isn’t yet ready may be a factor later this summer. Mystery Coz was a $4,500 buy at the 2016 ASHA yearling sale. He made just over $21,000 as a 2 year old and would have done better if he hadn’t gotten lame and then sick and was forced to miss the Alberta Snowflake final last December at Northlands Park. He pulled something in his shoulder in the semi-final of the Snowflake and has not raced since. Keith Clark qualified him for owner-trainer, Joe Ratchford, last Saturday in 2:01.3 with a last quarter of :29.2.
“I think he’s too good to put him in against this bunch too soon,” Ratchford told me. “I want him to have a couple of starts and see how he goes before I decide whether he’s ready to compete at this level.”
The Ratchford Stable…
There has been some shuffling in the shed row for Ratchford, who stables at Olds College and comes in to Century Downs to race. Outlaw Imahotvixen, the 4 year old mare which raced well for Ratchford last year, is now in Ontario. Jodie and Ron Cullen bought her for their operation last month. Outlaw Imahotvixen won her first start for the new owners at Grand River on June 6th.
“She was a good filly but she wasn’t quite good enough to take on the Open class here,” Ratchford told me. “So when Ron called and offered me a fair price, I took it. And I turned around and bought Outlawstormywether from Connie Kolthammer. She’s just getting her racing career started as a 3 year old and doesn’t have much to show for two starts. She is paid up for the Alberta Sire Stakes so maybe we’ll see her in some of those events later in the year. I’m hopeful.”
‘Vixen made almost $61,000 last year, posting a 6-5-5 record from 26 starts. Her lifetime mark stands at 1:56.1.
Ratchford also coaxed a win out of Day Longcard on Saturday. The four year old mare had not raced since last August. She was bred by Willie Wychopen of St. Paul and is a product of Sixdaysontheroad which Wychopen co-owns with Walter Moroz, another long time ASHA member from Edmonton. She won at the $7,500 claiming level in 2:04.1.
“She got hurt and we just turned her out and let her heal up,” said Ratchford. “It seems like it was the right thing to do.”
There will be a little extra horsepower at Century Downs on Saturday afternoon with the Shriners Shw “N Shine car display set to take over the south parking lot. Racing fans will want to take that into account and think about getting to the races a little earlier than usual.