How easy is this? That’s what Robert Vargo wondered when he first got into thoroughbred racing in 2005. The first horse he ever owned, Knight’s Covenant, not only won, he took one of the richest races of the Alberta season taking the $150,000 Alberta Derby in Calgary in the slop and the rain. “That’s exactly what I thought: that there was nothing to it. At odds of 27-1 King’s Covenant took the lead from the start and never looked back,” said Vargo, of a horse that also ran third in the Canadian Derby. “He was the only horse in the race that wasn’t covered in mud. “I had always wanted to own a thoroughbred. My dad had horses 20 years earlier and then I got one that wins the Alberta Derby. It’s a day I’ll never forget.”
Now a partner in Riversedge Racing Stable with Norm Castiglione - who was with him when Knight’s Covenant won the Alberta Derby - the pair now own about 45 active thoroughbreds. As easy as that Alberta Derby was, Vargo would soon find out how difficult the horse racing business is. “Norm and I struggled for quite a few years to win any races after that,” said Vargo, who had no trouble getting Castiglione to partner up in a few horses in 2006. But once they got rolling it was back to the Knight’s Covenant days. In 2012 - a personal best - they won 43 races for earnings of $870,752.
Last year the stable won 33 races with $536,041 in earnings with seven different horses winning nine stakes races and ended up a finalist for a Sovereign Award as Canadian owners of the year. One of those seven stakes winners was Academic, a filly who won the Canadian Derby and then the B.C. Derby in partnership with the Bear Stable. “Winning the Canadian Derby was our goal when we first went into racing,” said Castiglione. “Everybody wants to win it. But it’s not easy. You spend a lot of money buying horses that you hope have a chance to win it.
“Every fall we are looking for Derby horses. The way we look at it is if you aren’t in it you can’t win it. “Every fall we buy about 10 yearlings with two or three of those meeting the criteria to win the Derby two years later. “The only thing that would have been better would be to win with one of our own yearlings.” Based on what some of Riversedge’s two-year-olds have done this year - particularly Norm’s Big Bucks and Spring in Alberta - that could happen next year.
Purchased out of last year’s Alberta Yearling Sale for $95,000 - a record price for an Alberta-bred - Norm’s Big Bucks has proven to be an astute purchase even at that price having won his only two races very easily including the Aug. 1 Sales stakes by seven and a half lengths in a solid time of 1:18 2/5. “He’ll do anything you want,” said Riversedge trainer Tim Rycroft. “It’s unbelievable how smart he is. A horse got loose in the Sales stakes but Norm’s Big Bucks never looked sideways even once to see what was going on. “I think he’s a freak of nature. I worked him in five furlongs on Aug. 19 and he went in 59 seconds flat and Rico (jockey Walcott) was just sitting on him.”
Spring in Alberta isn’t far behind. A Kentucky bred purchased for $40,000, Spring in Alberta won his only start by five and three-quarter lengths. “I put him in the same category as Norm’s Big Bucks,” said Rycroft. “He’s another Derby hope for next year. We’re hanging high hopes on him.” Having ultra-quality two-year-olds is nothing new to Riversedge.
Last year, Awesome Slate was named the champion two-year-old colt while Bootlegger’s Wife took home the champion two-year-old filly honours after winning three of her four races including the Princess Margaret. The other stakes winners that Riversedge campaigned last year were Kristofferson, who won the Birdcatcher at Northlands and missed by three parts of a length in B.C.’s Ascot Graduation; Hold the Giant, who took the Edmonton Juvenile to finish his season with two starts and two wins; Clear the Runway, who won the Sun Sprint Championship after being purchased for $75,000 (US) and Victory Day, an Alberta Yearling Sale graduate ($44,708), who won the Premiers.
“It was a great year but we still lost money,” said Castiglione. “We knew that going in. But there has to be some chance to win. Castiglione and Vargo certainly aren’t in horse racing to make money. “It’s all about the passion, the excitement of the race and never knowing what is going to happen. “It’s about the fun.
“But, again, there has to be the possibility of at least breaking even. You have to have a fighting chance. “It doesn’t make good business sense to keep our activity where it is now. At the level where we are now and the uncertainty of the future with Northlands we may have to make a decision to go elsewhere or stop racing period. “We’ve got a pretty big operation; it’s a multi-million dollar business ,” Castiglione said of their 800-acre ranch in Okotoks.
“We’ve got four barns, we cut our own hay, bale it, stack in and feed it, and turnout paddocks. We employ four to eight people - depending on the time of year - on the farm itself. “I don’t bet on any races myself. It’s all make it or break it with the purse money. “Horse racing is a great sport to go each week in the summer and get together with friends. The farm part is nice too.”
Castiglione is bouyed by the fact that four parties put in Request For Proposals to build, own and operate an "A" Horse Racing Facility in or near Edmonton. “Four people did the math that goes with it and said that a new facility makes sense. It can be profitable. “It’s also great that we have a 10-year memorandum of understanding with the government for slot revenues. “All the pieces are there.”
Getting into horse racing on scale they are at “just kind of grew on us,” said Castiglione, who is on the board of the Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association of Alberta. “I guess the reasoning was that if one horse could make you ‘X’ then 10 horses could make you ‘Y.’ Unfortunately it doesn’t work that way. “There’s only one real reason why you get in the sport and that’s for the love of the game.
“When Robert first got me involved we were with trainer Monica Russell. Then we were with Greg Tracy for three years. The last four years we’ve been with Tim (Rycroft). “With Monica we mostly got our horses from claiming races or private sales. Starting with Greg we got more into buying yearlings.”
While most of Riversedge’s horses run in Alberta, they also have half a dozen in B.C. - three of them racing this weekend at Hastings - and one in Kentucky. “There’s lots of things I like about horse racing. The strategizing - figuring out which horses are going to win - and especially the horses and the people.”
Castiglione, 59, and Vargo, 69, have known each other for some 40 years when they both lived in Fort McMurray and met at a Rotary Club meeting - Vargo just selling the GM dealership he owned for 42 years and Castiglione still involved in the construction business. “They’re good people,” said Rycroft. “They’ve been good to me and really good for the sport.” Having won the Canadian Derby, Vargo now has bigger plans. “We had a meeting this week and Norm told me we’re going to win the Kentucky Derby one year,” said Castiglione.
“That’s the definition of this business. “I’m a bit more pragmatical. But if you don’t dream it, you won’t aspire to it.”