Fate and destiny rode in with Curlish Figure in the $75,000 Shirley Vargo Memorial while redemption was the story behind Killin Me Smalls triumph in the $50,000 Fred Jones this past weekend at Northlands. When Robert Vargo put up an extra $25,000 to the purse of the Shirley Vargo - formerly the Mademoiselle stakes - to honour his late wife, there was one little problem: Vargo and his Riversedge partner Norm Castiglione didn’t have a horse for the race which was open to fillies and mares.
“We had been looking for an older mare that could compete in stakes races for quite a while and for obvious reasons I knew Robert really wanted to have a horse in this race,” said Castiglione. “About two weeks before the race Robert told me it was too bad that we didn’t have an older filly or mare. Then I told him we may already have one."
“We’ve been working with a racing consultant, a former bloodstock agent, and he told me he had one picked out and if he vetted out good we could buy her.” ‘Her,’ of course, is Curlish Figure, a five-year-old mare who had been running all over the U.S. against quality opponents including a smart five and a half length win at Indiana Grant Race Course two starts ago and putting up solid Beyer Speed Ratings and Equibase speed figures.
“I only had her in the barn for 10 days and didn't really know what to expect,” said trainer Tim Rycroft. “I didn’t know her quirks. Before the race she was laying down - stretched right out in her stall. I was a little worried that the heat was getting to her.”
Curlish Figure’s jockey, Rico Walcott didn’t really know either. “I really knew nothing about the horse except that I worked her once and watched one replay,” said Northlands leading rider. During the race there were a few more anxious moments with Curlish Figure in tight quarters both first time past the grandstand and then again down the backstretch.
“It wasn’t the smoothest of rides. I was getting a little nervous myself,” said Walcott. “It got a little tight.” But Curlish Figure was simply too much horse.
“I saw that Port Protection was starting to make her move so I moved first,” Walcott said of the winning move sweeping three wide past the front runners and then easily drawing away to a three and a quarter length triumph while getting the mile and a sixteenth in 1:44 1/5. “It couldn’t have worked out better,” said an emotional Vargo, who, while on the verge of tears, added “I know Shirley was watching from above cheering her on. “To win this race named in my wife’s honour is just so special.”
Then there’s Killin Me Smalls. “We aren’t done yet,” enthused Dennis ‘Bear’ Sexton, Killin Me Smalls’ groom and barn foreman for trainer Ernie Keller as he paraded the champion into the winner’s circle.
“After a couple of fourth-place finishes I know there was a lot of people who didn’t think he could get there again.” Wrong.
Dueling with Blue Dancer from the outset, the seven-year-old much decorated runner, pulled away down the stretch en route to a two-length win over the late charging Royal Warrior stopping the timer in 1:43 4/5. “I knew at the quarter pole that I had Blue Dancer beat,” said Killin Me Smalls’ regular rider Keishan Balgobin. “But I didn’t know if I had Royal Warrior. I knew he was coming.”
Improving to a gaudy record of 17 wins in 39 starts, Killin Me Smalls, who, last season, repeated as Champion Older Horse and Champion Sprinter, has proven just one more time that, as Sexton said, the veteran remains the horse to beat every time he’s led into the starting gate.
After winning his 2017 debut, Killin Me Smalls followed up with two disappointing efforts - finishing fourth in the Journal and then fourth again in the Spangled Jimmy. But those two races come with asterisks.
“In the Journal the ground broke out from underneath him leaving the starting gate and he hooked himself,” said Ed Welsh, co-owner along with Dennis Dale of an injury to the horse’s left hind ankle which left several puncture marks. “And in the Spangled Jimmy the speed wasn’t holding the way it usually does,” said Keller.
There is also the matter of the works leading up to the Spangled Jimmy. “He worked too slow in his first work before the Spangled Jimmy,” Sexton said of a five-furlong work on June 11 when he was only clocked in 1:07. “Ernie knew he didn’t get anything out of that so he worked him the next morning. This time he went too fast,” Sexton said pointing out the :46 second, four-furlong move.
“He was dead tired going into the race. We knew that once he got back on a regular training schedule that he’d be there and he was,” said Sexton, 61, who first came to the track in 1971 when he was only 15. “I wandered over from Eastglen High School which was just a few blocks from the track. One of the first guys I met asked me if I was a hot walker and I said ‘What’s a hot walker?’ Then he asked me if I was looking for a job and I said 'Yes!'"
“That was 46 years ago and I fell in love with it. But this horse right there has been the sweetest,” Sexton said pointing at Killin Me Smalls, who was claimed for $25,000 in the fall of 2014. The horse has now won $532,015.
“There were three horses that Dennis Dale and I were looking at to claim,” said Welsh. “So Dennis and I decided to count to three and when we got to three we would both call out the name of the horse we liked the best. We both said Killin Me Smalls."
Fortuity is also how Keller got into the horse racing business. “I was a building contractor and I was on a holiday with my wife in San Antonio, Texas in 1975. “I saw an ad for a quarter horse sale and, as it happened, I had been reading a book about the sport. I really had no more idea of buying a horse than flying to the moon. But I wound up putting up my hand a couple of times and lo and behold I ended up buying a couple of them.
“I had to buy a horse trailer to get them home. Then I had to weld a hitch to the back of our motorhome to pull the trainer. That was the end of our vacation.” Keller said he trained quarter horses purely as a hobby. “Something to get me out of the office. But I got hooked right away. I fell in love with it,” he said. “I sold the construction business and horse racing just took over."
“One of the first quarter horses I trained was a horse named Laico Leo Bar. I started her nine times. She won seven of them and finished second in the other two.” It was almost 20 years later that Keller switched to thoroughbred racing. “There was no money in quarter horse racing. Sometimes we even ran for pots of $50 or $100. And then there was all of the travelling.
“Every weekend we went somewhere to race. Lethbridge, Grande Prairie, Teepee Creek, Millarville... We hit all the little tracks. We’d leave on a Friday night and then race on Saturday and Sundays. Sometimes, we’d even race the same horses on back-to-back days.”
After switching to thoroughbred racing in 1992, it wasn’t long before Keller trained Timely Ruckus, a horse co-owned by Welsh who would win Sprinter of the Year four times and who held the six and a half furlong track record for 18 years until Hemlock Channel broke it this spring.
“Ernie does a heck of a job for us,” said Welsh. “We’ve had a lot of fun for a lot of years.”
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