In a plaintive, gut wrenching heart beat the juxtaposition of victory and tragedy violently collided head on Saturday afternoon at Northlands.
With the final rays of a setting October sun flashing on his heaving flanks, Trooper John stood in what should have been a delirious winner’s circle after winning the Canadian Juvenile by eight and a half lengths. But the tragic ending of the racing career of Trooper John’s precocious stable-mate Norm’s Big Bucks, who broke down midway around the final turn just as he seemed to be making another winning move, usurped everything ripping apart almost every shred of any satisfaction that should have belonged to owners Robert Vargo and Norm Castiglione and trainer Tim Rycroft.
Two hundred yards from the sombre winner’s circle, teetering on three legs - his right front knee as badly broken as the hearts of all of his connections - Norm’s Big Bucks will never race again.
The fight now is just to save the life of the two-year-old who came into the race with so much promise and potential having won his previous three races by widening margins.
“It’s frigging sickening,” said Rycroft, still sounding very much in shock as he talked on the phone while vanning Norm’s Big Bucks to the Delaney Veterinary Services in Sherwood Park where surgery was going to be performed. “The knee is badly busted. Keeping him alive is the only thing that matters right now. It’s devastating. Absolutely devastating."
“He was so happy and full of himself in the paddock. He had a nice little breeze under him. And then to have it end like this…,” said Rycroft, his words trailing off into the late and mild afternoon air on the final day of thoroughbred racing for the season and possibly - pending discussions between Northlands, the City and Horse Racing Alberta - the final day of thoroughbred racing ever at Northlands.
“He had so much in front of him. This race was just the tip of the iceberg for him. He was already special but he was going to be something very special. I really believe he was a freak of nature,” Rycroft said of a mountain of a two-year-old.
Purchased out of last year’s Alberta Yearling Sale for $95,000 - a record price for an Alberta-bred - Norm’s Big Bucks showed his finely tuned mettle and spunk right from day one winning his maiden voyage by three and half of the easiest lengths possible on June 11.
In his second start - two and a half months later - he won the Sales Stakes with the same conviction breezing home by seven and a half lengths while, on an off track, stopping the watches in 1:18 2/5. Then came the Sept. 17 Alberta Premiers where he wired his opposition one more time. Now this. Now this acrid, noxious finality.
“Rico (jockey Walcott) said he hadn’t even asked Norm’s Big Bucks when he broke down,” said Rycroft. “He said he hadn’t even thrown a cross at him yet. He broke in a tangle was wide through much of the race and Rico said he was still sure the horse was going to win and win easily. Trooper John won by almost nine lengths and Norm would have been six lengths in front of him. That’s how easily Rico said he was running."
“If there was ever a horse that could actually talk it would be Norm’s Big Bucks. He’s just so smart. Now all we can do is wait and hope.”
“I told Tim to do whatever is possible to save the horse’s life,” said Vargo. “He’ll never run again but hopefully he’ll be able to spend the rest of his life on our farm. It’s terrible. Simply terrible."
“Poor Trooper John never got the moment he should have received. We knew Trooper John would run big. It was his first time going a mile but he’s bred to run a route,” Vargo said of the horse who collected his third win of the season."
The grief so palpable, Trooper John wasn’t the only stakes winner that felt the air hissing out of Saturday’s flattening tire. Ruffenuff stayed undefeated when she marched home by 10 1/4 lengths in the Freedom of the City. The two-year-old filly, who has now won her only three starts by a combined and staggering 30 lengths, is headed for Toronto for a $150,000 stake race at Woodbine on Nov. 19.
“She’s only run three times so she’s fresh,” said Greg Tracy, who once again dominated the trainer’s standings winning with better than 30 per cent of his starters. It’ll be nice to get another start out of her.”
Can’t Use Nellie, who shipped in from Winnipeg, won the Duchess of York just as she did last year - this time upsetting odds-on-favourite Onestaratatime by a length and a quarter.
And then there was Royal Warrior’s magnificent charge to win the Harvest Gold Plate coming from sixth and last to get up in the final strides and edge Blue Dancer by three-quarters of a length.
“I just let him do whatever he wanted to do during the first part of the race,” said Walcott. “But I could see that Blue Dancer was still sitting chilly so I had to move sooner than I really wanted. With three and a half furlongs still to go I asked him and he took off.”
Trained by Dave NIcholson, it was Royal Warrior’s fourth win in seven starts since coming to Alberta this spring from Ontario. “I don’t think he liked the poly track at Woodbine,” said NIcholson. “If you look back he had made a couple of good runs at Churchill Downs in Kentucky. At Woodbine he would make a run but then hang.”
It also appears that Royal Warrior didn’t like the track at Vancouver’s Hastings Park either where, in his previous outing he never unleashed anything close to what he has shown to be capable of, finishing a well beaten sixth. “It looked like he was climbing the entire way. And the pace was really slow that race too."
“This was what I expected,” said Nicholson, looking at the tote board which flashed the final time for the mile and a sixteenth at 1:43 3/5 - just a second off the track record.
“He’s just a really nice horse,” Nicholson said of the horse who captured the Speed To Spare Championship last month, won two allowance races and barely lost in the Westerner. All three of those stakes races, however, sadly paled in comparison to what happened to Norm’s Big Bucks.
“All anyone can think about now is Norm’s Big Bucks,” said Vargo of a horse who departs the racing scene with all future chapters of more wonderful triumphs left in a heap of what might have been. Exciting, brash and bold, being able to frolic in a paddock is all anyone can hope for now for Norm’s Big Bucks. It wasn’t supposed to end this way. It never is.
Saturday’s closing curtain came down with grief and sadness. It came down with a hush of melting tears instead of a clamour. And, for Norm’s Big Bucks, it came down all too soon.
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