When Robert ‘Red’ McKenzie was born on January 1, 1927 Mount Rushmore hadn’t even built. It would be five months before Charles Lindbergh flew the Spirit of St. Louis non stop and solo from New York to Paris. The Ford Motor Company stopped making Model Ts and started selling the Model A for $460. Milk sold for 14 cents a quart. “Time goes so fast now. It’s terrible. Especially when you are getting older,” said McKenzie, 89, the the oldest trainer in Alberta. “The days and the years just fly past. “I’ve seen everybody come and everybody go.”
Today, McKenzie is still going strong. Still riding his bicycle up and down the barn area, still arriving at the track at 5:15 every morning and still looking and acting like he did 25 years ago, this past weekend McKenzie hauled a horse, Marcado, to win the Paint the Purple stakes in Grande Prairie.
“It’s been a good ride,” said McKenzie, who has won over 1,600 races as a trainer which doesn’t count the 300 races he won as a jockey. “I started riding horses when I was 10; I was galloping horses when I was 12. “There was a riding academy on 76 avenue and 112 street in Edmonton. Curries Riding Academy. My sister and I used to go there all the time. We got on anything we could. I just liked animals of any kind but I really liked horses. “My dad did too. He never trained horses but he liked to go to the track and he’d take me and my sister with him.”
As a 13-year-old McKenzie, started riding for real winning races in the bushes in places like Ponoka, Rimbey and Red Deer. “I won the Red Deer Derby twice,” said McKenzie, who has been married to his wife, Jean, for 58 years with whom he had three sons. “You had to be 16 to ride on the A tracks, the old Western Canada Association,” he said of the circuit which took horses - by train - from Calgary in the spring, to Winnipeg, back to Calgary for the Stampede, to Edmonton for the Exhibition and then on the Saskatoon, Regina, back to Edmonton and then to back to Winnipeg.
Even that wasn’t enough for McKenzie, who for many years - when he lost the battle of the bulge and started training - would also head to Toronto where he won over 200 races. McKenzie wasn’t just ‘good’ at everything he did at the track; he was really good. The first horse McKenzie rode was Alaska at Ponoka. He finished second. Just two days later he rode Alaska again and won.
It was the same on the A tracks. “The first horse I rode in Edmonton was Man of Iron in 1944. He finished fourth or fifth. They only showed the top three finishers on the tote board in those days. The next horse McKenzie rode was Lev’s Dust; she won. The following year, as a 17-year-old, McKenzie was the circuit’s leading rider with 87 wins.
“And that was when they used to have 25 riders. There was a lot of competition but I still pretty much used to ride the entire card back in those days. “But then I got heavy. I started out riding at 93 pounds. It wasn’t long before I had to reduce to just make 112 pounds. By the time I was 18 I was too big. I was all through as a rider.”
So, McKenzie started training. “Well, I was really doing that already. Rex Ireland was down as the trainer of Man of Iron but i was really doing the training. It was a colt I broke myself. Rex gave me half the horse to train and he paid for the feed.” One time Man of Iron won and paid $93 to win. “He was an old class horse but he had a bowed tendon so we had to give him some time off. It was in Calgary. I bet $2 to win and $2 to place. Ninety-three dollars was a lot of money in those days.”
Unfortunately, McKenzie didn’t bet the Daily Double too. “The Double was something they had just put in. It used to be on the first and the third races. A horse called Thatcher won the other half of the Double. He paid $15 and the Double paid $3,338. It’s funny how you remember things like that,” whose memory is uncanny.
Just like he had done as a jockey, McKenzie, who also used to do his own shoeing, had success right away as a trainer. “I had a lot of good ones but Grandin Park was the best. He won 29 races for me and Morris Stevenson. That’s a lot of races.” Grandin Park’s dam, was Colatha - a mare McKenzie claimed off Bud Mathes for $900. “I won a race or two with her but she had a bad leg so I gave her to a friend of mine, Jim Russell, who used to live in Bonacourt. He bred her to a stud named Haydn.”
The result of that mating was Grandin Park. “Morris Stevenson bought him for $2,500. Naturally I was interested in him so I started training him. “He was good right from the start. He won all the big two-year-old races including the Birdcatcher.
“Then he won all the big races for older horses. You name it, he won it. “He should have won the 1973 Canadian Derby too but he got beat by an inch - a dirty nose - by a horse that came from the east, Wing Span, who was owned by Kinghaven Farms.” “I had a lot of good horses… So many good ones,” said McKenzie, who then began to list off several of them like Wind and Strife, Dobbington, Bonnie Brier Magic, Klondike Lil, Canadian Cajun, So Long Fellas, Avec Plaisir and Whirling Rich.
Two others were Chariot Chaser and Chopstick who both won divisions of the 1965 Alberta Derby in Calgary. “Sandy Shields won with both of them. After Chariot Chaser won they made the presentation to Shields - they gave him a pair of golden stirrups - they told Sandy that they had to take the stirrups back so that they could make the presentation to the winner of the second division. “Sandy told them not to worry. He said ‘I’ll be right back’ because he was going to win the second division with Chopstick.”
Sure enough… “Chariot Chaser was a bronc. She was a handful. But boy could she could run. “She not only won the Alberta Derby she won the Saskatchewan and Canadian Derbies too.” In the latter, contested in the mud, Chariot Chaser game from a million miles back but still nailed the front-running favourite from Toronto, Weedbender.
McKenzie has trained horses at tracks across North America. “As well as racing across Canada I raced at Belmont, the Meadowlands and in the winter I often went to Bay Meadows and Golden Gate. “I’m not bragging but I’ve been everywhere twice.” Everywhere, that is, except for Phoenix.
“A lot of trainers from Alberta would go to Phoenix in the winter. It was a lot colder and it rained a lot in Bay Meadows and Golden Gate than in Phoenix but the purses were a lot better. So that’s where I went.” Awarded the Ken Cohoe trophy for Horseperson of the Year in 2014, McKenzie now trains a small stable of six horses. “Just enough that you can look after everyone of them,” said McKenzie.
“I never made much money in horse racing but I was doing something I loved. You see a lot of guys going to work everyday with their ears pinned back. They hate their jobs. “I love going to work.
“Eighty years at the track; that’s a long time. Things have changed so much but one thing hasn’t and that’s the excitement of running a horse. It’s still the same as it used to be. If it wasn’t I wouldn’t be there.”