Deanna and Brian Walper are the hidden faces of horse racing - the unsung lifeblood of the King of Sports toiling in obscurity and in the shadows at Northlands Park. Up before the sun, they ride their bikes eight blocks to the track every morning feeding, watering, walking, rubbing, brushing their 14-horse stable with pure love and gentle care starting work at 4 a.m. Then there are the stalls that have to be cleaned and mucked.
On evening race days when they have a horse running, they sometimes don’t get home until 11 p.m. Without a superstar or a stakes winner in their barn, they avoid the spotlight but without people like them there would be no horse racing. But that’s just the way they like it.
“I’ve never been a people person,” said Deanna, the trainer of the stable who is enjoying one of the best records at Northlands sending out three winners, five runner-ups and one third-place finisher from just 14 starters - an-in-the-money percentage that rivals even the record of leading trainer Tim Rycroft.
“I’m uncomfortable with people. I’m uncomfortable talking to you right now,” she says avoiding eye contact. "I much prefer to be back in the barn with the horses."
"Horses,” she says, “Are my comfort zone. My biggest concern has always been the same - I want my horses to come back safe. I love them.”
And the horses love them back. “We treat the horses as if they were are own,” said Brian, who assists his wife in the mornings and afternoons and then is also the assistant starter at Northlands. “It’s a horse thing. You’re not there for the wages. You’re not there for the people. You are there for the horses.”
Brian clearly remembers reading a story of some bus drivers, who were lamenting - with certain truth - their work schedule and demanding shift work. “I thought to myself ‘They don’t know what shift work is.’ We’re at the track at 4 a.m. At 11 a.m. we go home and try to get a nap. But Saturdays are the worst because there is afternoon racing; there is no time for naps on those days. Other than Saturdays we then come back at 3 p.m. to feed the horses. We go home for supper. And then if Dee has a horse - or horses to run - we come back to the track to get those horses ready to race. If we’re in a late race Dee doesn’t get home until sometimes 11 p.m. Because I work on the starting gate I don’t get home until late on every race day. We’re up early and still up late. And that’s seven days a week. That’s shift work.”
But they wouldn’t have it any other way. “It’s a little hectic. But we get her done,” said Brian. “It’s a way of life; it’s definitely not for everyone. But we love it because we love the horses. Dee and I are together just about 24 hours a day. The key is to leave the barn stuff at the barn and the house stuff at the house."
“That’s how we’ve made it work,” said Brian, who will be celebrating his 16th anniversary with his soulmate on June 8.
Brian and Deanna have always been around horses. “My great grandfather was a horse trainer; my grandmother used to sneak me into the races in Regina; my parents had a few riding horses and I was in 4-H in Saskatchewan where I grew up,” said Deanna. “I rode those horses and looked after them before I went to school. After school I couldn’t wait to get back to the horses. After I graduated from high school I came to Alberta because there were plenty of jobs. I was at Stampede Park one day when I was about 17. I was just walking through the barn area and Rod Cone asked if I was looking for work.”
Deanna, who has a 20-year-old daughter, Amber, who currently works for Dale Saunders, snatched that opportunity in a heart beat. She would work for several other trainers including Rick Hedge and Gail Henry. “When Gail retired in 2002 I started training myself. Brian and I owned one horse, Dan and Deborah Hurley gave me two horses to train and then I picked up another four horses so we had seven horses that first year.”
But it went well. “Fifty per cent of the horses I started that year finished in the top three,” she said which almost echoes this year when she has had nine of her 14 starters finish either first, second or third for a 65 per cent batting average. “There were only two races this year that our horses didn’t cover the jocks mount. So that’s pretty good.”
Brian’s path is similar. “My dad, Mack, worked for CPR for 35 years and he had a friend, Les Watson, an ex-wrestler turned trainer. When my dad wasn’t working - he worked the 6 p.m. to 6 a.m. shift - he was helping out Les and I’d go with him. I was only eight years old but I was already hooked. I’d walk horses, clean stalls … I’d do whatever I could to be in the game. At 8 a.m. I’d ride my bike back home 10 miles and go to school.”
Working at the track steadily when he was 17 - living in the old tack rooms at Northlands up on the catwalks above the barn area - Brian took out his trainer’s license in 1979. “My brother was a fireman, as I said my dad worked for CPR so I had three choices. For $30-$40 a week at first I chose the horses. Cash money? I said giddy up and go. I’ve never regretted it.”
Working for Eddie ‘Alphabet’ Grywacheski until the latter retired, Brian would soon be training one of the best thoroughbreds to ever race in Alberta - Rapido Dom, a three-time Horse of the Year and track record holder owned by Jim Miller who thrilled the crowds with his patented late charging moves from the clouds.
Brian would also train Bill’s Princess, a horse who won the Mount Royal stakes in the 1980’s paying $102 to win. “That was my first stakes winner, the sire’s first stakes winner and the mare’s first stakes winner.”
Brian started working on the precarious starting gate in 2003 where the gate crew sits on a steel bar holding one - or sometimes even two - horse’s heads straight and trying to keep them calm until the bell rings and the gates open wide. “It’s a dangerous job. I’ve seen riders get hurt, horses get hurt and guys on the gate get hurt.”
But it was as on outrider - where he was in charge of leading the horses from post parade to starting gate - where, eight years ago, Brian was seriously injured. When a horse got loose, Brian caught the horse in full gallop - reaching down to grab the loose horse by its reins. “I was pulling and pulling on both reins but we weren’t slowing down. I suddenly didn’t have any strength in my lower body,” he recalled. “When I went to get off the pony I went right to my knees. I didn’t hear anything pop; I didn’t feel any pain.” But the injury was real - Brian had broken his pelvis requiring a plate and nine screws to set back into place.
Deanna and Brian credit their clients and their staff for their success. Brent Nicholson is their groom; Clayton Quewezance helps muck stalls in the morning before he too works on the starting gate; Kirsty Luft-Nault gallops and ponies; Amanda Dixon is their No. 1 gallop girl - she’s been in two Powder Puff Derbies and won them both - and Kwame Joseph also gallops for them. “We’re like a team,” said Deanna. “We’ve always had good staff and good owners. We do what we have to do.”
And they do it well. Very well.
STOCK REPORT - Saturday’s Spangled Jimmy is the big race this weekend headlined by Trooper John, last year’s Horse of the Year and Champion Three-Year-Old. But Trooper John is anything but a cinch as he drew the outside seventh post and will be met by a long series of top challengers.
Born in a Breeze, who missed by a neck to Trooper John in The Journal Handicap and who will appreciate the Spangled Jimmy’s one-mile distance, is entered. So are Double Bear, who dead-heated with Trooper John for second in last year’s Canadian Derby - a race which is still under appeal - and who exits a solid win on May 13, veteran multiple Champion Older Horse Killin Me Smalls, the late running Royal Warrior, track record holder Hemlock Channel, and Aqua Frio, who contested last year’s Derby as well and has been racing in California.
Follow me on Twitter at CurtisJStock