Ernie Keller couldn’t sleep.
He tossed. He turned. But Northlands veteran trainer kept waking up
“I don’t think it was about worrying about the race,” Keller said after Monday’s Sun Sprint Championship at Northlands which Killin Me Smalls won in a romp - a race the horse could have won in its sleep itself.
“But all the speed in the race did have me worried.”
And why not?
Killin Me Smalls, last year’s champion Horse of the Year, champion sprinter and champion older horse, had Capitalism, Bears Reality, Red Red Rose and Our Dandy’s Boy - four genuine speedsters all dawn to his outside.
Keller’s plan going into the race was to go to the top himself. But when Killin Me Smalls got out broke at the gate, jockey Keishan Balgobin, who rode in Vancouver last year and has quickly established himself as an elite rider at Northlands, settled his mount just off the pace in fourth position and waited.
He didn’t have to wait long.
While Red Red Rose broke, as is his style, alertly and sailed to the top where he was soon met by Our Dandy’s Boy, Balgobin, who replaced regular rider Rico Walcott when the latter went to Hastings Park for the B.C. Cup Day card, didn’t panic. Entering the final turn, Killin Me Smalls set sail, sweeping around the front runners and on to his very comfortable victory.
“I had lots of horse,” said Balgobin.
Did he ever.
Owned by Ed Welsh and Dennis Dale, Killin Me Smalls not only won the race by five and a half lengths - crossing the wire under a tight hold, he stopped the clock for six and a half panels at 1:16 3/5.
And that was over a track that was still wet after rain and more rain pelted Edmonton.
“Easy,” said Balgobin. “Very easy.”
The time was just a second and a fifth off the track record which was set way back in 1999 when another Keller-trained runner - Timely Ruckus, who was also owned by Welsh - zipped around in 1:15 2/5.
On a fast track and if Blue Dancer hadn’t opted to stay in the barn there’s no telling how fast the race would have gone.
“It was about time he won,” said Keller, who had saddled Killin Me Smalls to three straight runner-up finishes - two to Blue Dancer in the Spangled Jimmy and the Fred Jones and the other in the horse’s debut on June 11.
“We got off to a slow start with Killin Me Smalls. He cast himself in his stall before the May 28 Journal Handicap so we couldn’t run him then,” Keller said of an injury when a horse lies down too close to a wall or rolls against the stable walls and can’t get up.
“He was really sore. He needed his first start.”
Then Killin Me Smalls ran into Blue Dancer two races in a row.
In the first meeting, the June 18 Spangled Jimmy, Killin Me Smalls and Blue Dancer hooked up from the outset and battled noses apart until Blue Dancer, from the outside, gradually prevailed by half a length.
Switching strategies in the July 16 Fred Jones, Killin Me Smalls let Blue Dancer go uncontested to the front and then tried to make one big move in the stretch.
That didn’t work either as Blue Dancer had plenty left.
“Blue Dancer is a super horse,” said Keller. “But we’ll get him even if we have to wait until we go a mile and three-eighths in the (Sept. 5) Speed to Spare.”
Chance are, however, that Killin Me Smalls and Blue Dancer, will hook up before the Speed to Spare with both horses being pointed to the Aug. 20 Canadian Derby card’s mile and a sixteenth Westerner - a race that promises to be just as exciting as the Derby itself.
“I was thinking of going into the Longacres Mile but right now I’m looking at the Westerner instead,” said Blue Dancer’s trainer, Greg Tracy.
“I didn’t run him on Monday because I didn’t want to shorten him up after going two routes with him.
“I’ve also learned over the years, to give good horses like Blue Dancer time between races and keep them strong.”
Aside from the Sun Sprint there was plenty of other important racing going on this past weekend.
The biggest question is where to begin.
In Winnipeg, Inside Straight, owned by Randy Howg splashed his way to victory in the slop in Monday’s Manitoba Derby at Assiniboia Downs; Lord Vancouver won the B.C. Cup’s Stellar’s Jay Handicap at Hastings; Opportunistic came from well back to win Sunday’s Emerald Downs Derby in Washington and Law Master won the $50,000 Grande Prairie Derby.
All four of those horses could run in the Canadian Derby.
Inside Straight, along with stablemate Solve - fourth in the Manitoba Derby after a tough trip - are virtual certainties.
“So far so good,” said Inside Straight and Solve’s trainer Robertino Diodoro.
“The plan is to ship both horses to Edmonton on Thursday.
“Inside Straight’s jockey Scott Stevens told me he had lots of horse left after the race. I definitely liked to hear that. Scott also said that half way down the backstretch he knew he was going to win. I liked hearing that too.
“Scott is a veteran rider; he knows what he is talking about and I depend on his opinion.”
While Alberta has been deluged with rain, Diodoro wouldn’t mind seeing more rain on Derby Day.
“Yeah, I might have to do a rain dance,” laughed Diodoro given that Inside Straight has now won three mud races in a row.
As well as the very sloppy Manitoba Derby, Inside Straight won a $40,000 maiden race by 10 1/2 lengths at New York’s Belmont in the mud and an optional claimer at New York’s Aqueduct in another off-track performance at the start of the season.
Slop or no slop, Inside Straight was full value for his win circling his foes four wide - where the mud was the deepest.
Runner-up Ruck, who may also come to the Derby, had to be steadied a bit while looking for room inside.
in B.C. Lord Vancouver showed a lot of poise battling for the early lead to prevail by a length.
In Lord Vancouver’s previous start he was beaten half a length by Opportunistic in the Chris Loseth Stakes.
Opportunistic, meanwhile, also looked good emerging from a torrid stretch drive to nail favourite Barkley by a head going a mile and an eighth.
It was five lengths back to the third finisher, Silvertown, who also ran third in the Chris Loseth.
As well as all of that, there were two impressive performances by a pair of two-year-olds in the Sales Stakes at Northlands.
Norm’s Big Bucks, last year’s Alberta Yearling Sales topper purchased for $95,000 by Riversedge Racing Stables, was especially marvellous winning by seven and a half lengths for trainer Tim Rycroft taking the colts and geldings division in a sold time of 1:18 2/5.
By comparison, the filly Sales stakes, won by Saveitforarainyday was clocked in 1:20 3/5. Saveitforarainyday is trained by Tim’s father, Tom, and is co-owned by Tim’s brother, Riley.
“He doesn’t like sitting behind other horses,” said Norm Castiglione, who co-owns Norm’s Big Bucks, with partner Robert Vargo. “Even in the mornings he doesn’t like it.
“But he didn’t mind it here,” said Castiglione, after watching Norm’s Big Bucks sit second behind pace-setter Forrest Gump before making his move at the five-sixteenths pole and easily drawing away.
“Confirmation wise he was perfect; on looks alone he stood out,” said Tim, explaining why his owners paid so much for him.
“He better be good when we paid that much for him,” chided Vargo.