Greg Tracy is dominating the trainer’s standings at Northlands the way Tiger Woods used to command a golf course, Mike Tyson a boxing ring or how a lion would rule a birdhouse. Every thoroughbred he runs seems to win. Race after race. Day after day. As of July 9, Tracy had won a staggering, mind-blowing 49 races in 122 starts in Edmonton. Do the math and that’s a 40 per cent winning percentage. Twenty-five per cent is a great figure. Thirty per cent is outrageous. Forty? That’s just ludicrous. It’s not only tops at Northlands. It’s the best winning percentage for any trainer who has had at least 100 starts anywhere in North America. Put that in your drink and stir it. Just don’t choke on the ice cubes.
But then that’s really nothing new either. Two years ago when he finished the season with a 38 per cent winning percentage he was also the leading trainer in North America for anyone with over 100 trips to the starting gate. And, if all of that isn’t enough, Tracy’s 49 wins at Northlands this season are a full 34 more victories than the two trainers who are tied for second in the standings: Craig Smith and Dale Saunders.That isn’t a race; it’s a walkover mockery. It’s the equivalent of Secretariat’s 31-length win in the 1973 Belmont.
It’s hunter against the rabbit. It’s like trying to stop an avalanche with a plastic shovel. “I just try and do everything right,” said Tracy, 54. “Say there are 10 things that I can control. Picking a horse out at a yearling sale. Breaking the horse - which I do myself - feeding and nutrition, daily training, how to gallop a horse… “If I do all those 10 things right then I’m going to win races. If I do just two or three of those things right it isn’t going to be enough.”
Meticulous to the point of obsession, Tracy then adds the roundhouse punch that maybe sums it all up best: “It doesn’t happen by accident.” In Tracy’s world there are no accidents. Running his stable the way Leonard Bernstein conducted Candide, nothing is left to chance. “Tracy never rushes a horse into a race,” said Northlands racing secretary Jason Teague. “If they aren’t ready to run he doesn’t run them. “And if there’s a hiccup with a young horse - for example a problem at the starting gate - he’ll take that horse to the starting gate over and over until everything is just right.” Just right...
“Good horses are usually pretty high strung; they have a lot of energy. They’re not crazy high strung but it’s borderline,” said Tracy, whose cell phone never stops ringing. “The trick is to keep them peaked but not over peaked. There’s a fine balance. You want to keep them primed and peaked but you don’t want to go over the other side. “I’ve got about 70 horses in my barn and you want them all at their prime and at their peak when they run. I try to get every horse in the stable like that.”
It was no accident either that Tracy got into horse racing; he was born into the sport in eastern Montana the same way Paris Hilton was born into money. “My uncle, Joe Peila, had a cattle ranch but he also had thoroughbreds and quarter horses. I grew up and was raised on that ranch. “My dad, Ray, was a high school English teacher but in the summer he took my uncle’s horses and raced them in Montana, Wyoming and North Dakota. “Me and my brother, Ray Jr., would go with him. It’s all we wanted to do,” Tracy said adding that he was already helping his uncle and father break horses when he was only in Grade 5.
By the time the boys were in their early 20’s, they started training on their own - training on the same circuit where his dad had horses as well as sometimes going to Los Alamitos, Calif. and Washington state. That circuit, however, was pretty much a fair circuit and primarily quarter horse racing; the brothers soon wanted something better. “Quarter horse racing is pretty much like a jackpot and the purses were pretty small,” said Tracy, who has two daughters, Reagan. And Ryanne, that compete in rodeo, another daughter, Caitlin Fike, who is married to chuckwagon driver Chad Fike, and a son, Rowen, who is in high schoool.
“The closest big track where the purses were bigger was in Calgary. So, in the late 90’s that’s where I went. And when the horses moved from Calgary to Edmonton that’s where I went too. “Ray Jr. didn’t go with me to Alberta. He went to Washington State, moved back home and then to Iowa where he is still training at Prairie Meadows.”
Another younger brother, Jim, trains in Pennsylvania. Almost immediately Greg was a success in Alberta. That has never changed. Ten times Tracy has been the leading trainer in Calgary or Edmonton. This year he’ll do it again. “It didn’t happen overnight. I’ve been doing this for a long time,” said Tracy. “Over the years I’ve learned what works and what doesn’t work. A lot of it is trial and error. I try something new just about every day. You really can’t read it and you can’t teach it. You have to live it. You have to learn it.
“This is my living. If my horses don’t run well then I wouldn’t have any owners,” said Tracy. But the way Tracy has been going that’s not likely to ever be a problem. “He’s got owners that aren’t afraid to spend money,” said Teague. “They’ll buy yearlings and if horses get claimed from them Greg doesn’t have any problem replacing them. “He picks up fresh horses every fall; replenishes his stable every year. He bought five horses at Fairgrounds over the winter and all five won first time out.”
For Tracy it all starts at yearling sales - whether that’s in Kentucky, Alberta or B.C. “I firmly believe that buying yearlings is the way to build a stable,” said Tracy. “The horses I buy have to have that perfect look. When I see it then I check the catalogue. “Just about every trainer knows what is right and what is wrong with a horse’s confirmation. But you also have to know what kind of horses fit here; you want colts and fillies that are by sires that are proven on bull rings,” he said of Northlands five-eighths of a mile track. What that essentially means is speed sires.
“It’s all about speed at tracks like Northlands. A very high percentage of winners running in sprint races are either in front all the way or are no more than a length - maybe a length and a half - off the pace at the quarter pole. “On a smaller track like Northlands if you’re wide it’s too much for the horses to handle; they just lose too much ground.There are simply too many turns. “You buy speed pedigrees, you buy speed potential. Then you try to train that speed breeding out of them. “Sure, you have to get a horse to relax and rate but you will still want to be either in front or just off the pace. Deep closers just aren’t the right kind of horses to win races with at bull rings. They have to be so much the best to come from a long way out of it.”
A big man with a jaw that you could crack open coconuts on, Tracy walks with a purposeful stride and is as serious as the Godfather. But while he always seems to be on an even keel, Tracy said that’s deceiving. “Sure I get nervous and sure I get excited. Especially with a two-year-old that you have high hopes for. “You put a lot of time into training horses and this sport has a lot of highs and a lot of lows.”
This Saturday Tracy will experience it all again. There are six $50,000 stakes races on the program and Tracy has at least one nominee in every race. He’s got Onestaratatime in the one-mile Northlands Oaks - a filly that is coming off an 8 3/4 length romp in her last start, the Red Smith.
In the Fred Jones for older horses he has Blue Dancer. The beaten favourite in last year’s Canadian Derby, Blue Dancer is two-for-two this year having won the Journal by three and a quarter lengths and then the Spangled Jimmy which he won by half a length over Killin Me Smalls. In the latter Blue Dancer ran the mile in 1:36 flat - just a fifth of a second off the track record which has stood since 1981 when taken by Bagfull.
The fractions in that race were ridiculous as Blue Dancer and Killin Me Smalls battled through fractions of 23 1/5 seconds before tearing it up with a 22 3/5 second quarter and six panels in 1:09 4/5. The two battled eyeball-to-eyeball - Blue Dancer on the outside but still holding on for a half length victory. It was the race of the year thus far and both horses are entered again on Saturday.
In the Mademoiselle, Tracy will send out Eustacia, who won her first two starts before a tiring, four-wide journey last time out in the John Patrick that saw her finish a well-beaten sixth. Eustacia has won seven of her 14 lifetime starts. Tracy has three nominees - Autumn Song, Dickie Dunn and Reason For Being - that are prepping for this year’s Canadian Derby in the Count Lathum for three-year-olds but expects to just start Autumn Song and Reason For Being.
Autumn Song was boxed in last time out when he ran third in a three-horse photo in the Ky Alta while Reason for Being won his first two starts - including a comfortable four and a half length win in the Western Canada - before showing little last time out when the front runner hit the starting gate before the break and was consequently slow leaving.
Fall At Last is Tracy’s nominee for the 38th renewal of the Edmonton Juvenile for two-year-old colts and geldings. In his lone start, Fall At last won by a rather astonishing 12 3/4 lengths - especially given they were only going three and a half furlongs.
Finally, in the 37th Princess Margaret for two-year-old fillies, Tracy has nominated Ruffenuff and Tiza Boom Boom but will probably only start Ruffenuff, a Kentucky-bred first-time starter who has been working very well including a recent five-furlong drill in 1:01 1/5 and who also shows a sharp :48 4/5, four-furlong drill last month.
Emphasizing Tracy’s penchant for knowing what to buy and his eye for quality, Ruffenuff, Reason for Being, Eustacia, Blue Dancer and Onestepatatime were all picked out by Tracy at yearling sales. By having the best horses, Tracy gets the services of the best jockeys. The last few years he has used Rico Walcott, who was, not surprisingly, Alberta’s top rider while riding for Tracy. This year Tracy is using rejuvenated former leading jockey Quincy Welch and, again not surprisingly, Welch is this season’s top jockey. Right about now Tracy could put a gorilla on his horses and still win races.
What he says he couldn’t win without is his stable help - the people behind the scenes that follow Tracy’s orders to perfection. “Good help is huge. It’s all about attention to details. Especially the little ones,” said Tracy. “I’ve got a great assistant trainer,” he said of his girl friend Kerri Raven. “She basically runs the stable and she gallops for me too. “And I’ve got great grooms. With green help sometimes it takes a while for me to teach them our way. But in the end, everybody is on the same page.”
The only thing not on the same page is the rest of Northlands trainers. “Tracy is the boss. No doubt about it,” said trainer Ron Grieves. “Not everybody likes him but that’s just jealousy. I always say that I’d love to be the most hated trainer because that would mean that I’m winning all the races the way Tracy is doing it.” But then Tracy never tries to win a personality contest.
“All I care about is the health of my horses and getting them to the winner’s circle,” said Tracy, who has worn a path from his seat in the grandstand to that winner’s circle deep enough to bury an elephant. “Hopefully that happens on Saturday too."
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