Like any successful person, trainer Tim Rycroft aims high. Asked to describe Trooper John, who was voted Alberta’s Horse of the Year and champion three-year-old on Saturday night, Rycroft didn’t miss a beat. “He reminds me of Killin Me Smalls,” Rycroft said in a flash of the newest champion who also won Saturday afternoon’s $50,000 Journal Handicap at Northlands - defeating longshot Born in a Breeze by a neck.
“They’re both warriors. They’re both tough. They both show up and they both will run on any kind of a track - bad, good, fast or slop.” Now, Trooper John and Killin Me Smalls, who was third in the Journal, have another thing in common as the latter was also voted a champion Saturday night - taking Older Horse of the Year honours for the third straight season.
“Considering everything that Killin Me Smalls has done around here, comparing Trooper John to a horse like that is definitely a good thing,” said Rycroft. But then Rycroft will also make another comparison: “Trooper John is also like a teenager. He likes to eat and he likes to sleep.
“After we’ve fed Trooper John his breakfast he likes to lay down and sleep some more. Even just before he runs we often have to wake him up." But when the starting gate opens or when he’s training, nobody needs to set an alarm clock for the four-year-old owned by Robert Vargo and Norm Castiglione.
Evidence of that came last Sunday when, while prepping for The Journal, he was sent out for a four-furlong work which he did with aplomb stopping the clock in a very swift 45 2/5. “Fast horses go fast,” Rycroft said succinctly. Trooper John came within a nose and half a length of going undefeated last year. And the half-length loss - in the Canadian Derby - is still not settled given that the decision of the Derby won by Chief Know It All is still under appeal.
At the same time the nose defeat, which came in the B.C. Derby on a sloppy track - also against Chief Know It All - could have easily gone the other way as Trooper John was fanned wide turning for home while Rico Walcott got through on the rail. Otherwise, Trooper John was perfect winning the Western Canada, Ky Alta and Count Lathum all in succession.
Here’s how the rest of the awards went:
Setting the track record at Northlands when he won a six and a half furlong sprint in 1:15 1/5 helped Hemlock Channel win Sprinter of the Year. Only out of the top three once in eight starts, Hemlock Channel, owned by C and H Duggan Farms and the Shot In the Dark stable, scored three times including the Oct. 22, seven-furlong Harvest Gold Plate coming from well back to win going away.
A winner of three of her four starts last year including the Bird of Pay, which she won by 14 1/2 lengths, and then the Freedom of the City stakes, gave Suzette Two-Year-Old Filly of the Year. Owned by Don Danard and Brad Auger, Suzette won at three different tracks: Hastings Park, Northlands and Century Downs.
Shimshine, who was claimed for $12,000 in his career debut, was well worth the money for White Pine Ranch’s Walter Petruniak. The juvenile went on to win $110,911 for trainer Elige Bourne with the bulk of his earnings coming in stake scores in the Birdcatcher and Alberta Premiers’ Futurity.
Bred and raised by Wally Pugh and Andy Stronach, Shimshine was also voted Alberta-bred of the Year.
Anstrum, won what was undoubtedly a photo finish, to take Three-Year-Old Filly of the Year honours. Owned by B.C.’s Peter Redekop, Anstrum won three of her eight starts last year and also added a pair of seconds and thirds. One of Anstrum’s wins came in the R.K. Smith stakes which she won by four and a quarter lengths for trainer Monica Russell. Another came in the Sonoma which she won by a head over Parcam Cowgirl.
Tara’s Way, 2017’s champion aged mare, came from Ontario to find her best stride winning five of eight starts in Alberta for owners Brian and Janet Alexander’s Almac Racing Stable. Two of those victories came in stakes including the City of Edmonton Distaff. Trained by Rick Hedge, Tara’s Way was only off the board once and that was in the slop in Vancouver.
As alluded to earlier, Killin Me Smalls captured the Older Horse title. The veteran, who was 2016’s Horse of the Year, won four in a row last summer when he rolled up victories in the Fred Jones, the Don Getty - by 9 1/4 lengths - the Westerner - by nine - and then in the enthralling the Speed to Spare holding off the late charge of Royal Warrior.
And, Spectrus, who won half of his 10 starts last year including his last four in a row for owners Garry and Lauri Kugler and trainer Rod Cone, who claimed the hard hitting eight-year-old for $8,000, was named Claimer of the Year. Spectrus’ last win was for $17,500.
Walcott was recognized as the leading jockey, Greg Tracy as the leading trainer, Wally Pugh and Andy Stronach as Alberta’s top breeder and Bar None Ranches as Alberta’s leading owner. Ken and Maxine Anderson were honoured with the Ken Cohoe trophy as Horse Persons of the Year.
And, a special award - the Lloyd and Mary Wilson trophy - was bestowed on Lynn Chouinard, who passed away late last year but not before he saw his dream fulfilled winning an allowance race at Balzac’s Century Downs racetrack. Because of his declining health, it was the first and only time Chouinard was able to visit Century Downs, the track probably wouldn’t have been built if it wasn’t for his tenacious resolve.
“He swore to me that he was never going to die until (Century Downs) was built,” said Jennifer Mundy, one of his four children. “As always he kept his promise. He wanted so much for horse racing to stay in Calgary and he tried to help as much as he could.”
“Without Lynn Century Downs would not be up and operating today. I know that for a fact,” agreed his friend Max Gibb, owner and operator of the Rocky Mountain Turf Club in Lethbridge. Whenever I needed interim funding, he just wrote a check. He was set on having a track in southern Alberta after Calgary’s Stampede Park closed its doors following the 2008 racing season.”
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