Tuesday, 28 February 2017 10:26

In Her Elements

Written by Melissa Keith, Standardbred Canada
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Tajmeallover and J.F. Gagne at Northlands Park Tajmeallover and J.F. Gagne at Northlands Park Ryan Haynes/Coady Photo

Standing in the same stall where her father used to reside, Tajmeallover is dominating Alberta’s competition just like Mom and Dad did. As she continues to pick up wins, there’s no telling the limits of her amazing run of success.

Jean-François Gagne is a fortunate man. Not only does he co-own Tajmeallover, inarguably the best Canadian distaff pacer west of Ontario, but the mare’s sire and dam also reside on his farm in Wetaskiwin, Alberta. One ingredient in the Tajma Hall-Watch Over Me daughter’s success is undoubtedly her longstanding collaboration with Gagne. Now six years old, Tajmeallover has never had another driver, and her trainer is the horseman’s partner, Marjorie Dumont.

“When you breed and raise and break and shoe and train and drive, there was nothing else to be done by anybody else, let’s put it that way,” remarks Gagne.

Tajmeallover has rarely disappointed her connections. In 2016, she finished off the board exactly twice in 26 starts, most at the Open level for her own sex. Her 14 victories include two winning miles, at two different-sized tracks, in a shared lifetime best 1:53.2, plus a rare triumph over Open-calibre male pacers at Northlands Park. But the race that Gagne considers her biggest of the year was on November 27th in Fraser Downs’ $50,000 Lady Elements Final, and not only because of the generous purse.

“The one that was a little bit different was the Lady Elements, because Tajmeallover had been asking me, as a driver, every start, to make a quarter-pole move,” he explains, describing his communication with the mare in language reflecting their close understanding. “You can see it, watching the replays -- she’s right at the headpole and throwing her head, asking ‘Ok, let’s go! Now!’ at the quarter-pole and I’m like ‘No, no!’ talking to her. ‘No, no -- gotta wait!’” Getting away fourth from post seven, Gagne watched the pace slow down and eventually decided to give in to the mare’s demands and unleash the insistent Tajmeallover shortly after the quarter-mile mark. “In six strides, I was like clearing for the front. It was unbelievable.” The 1:53.2 win came over a “good” track at Elements at Fraser Downs and delivered the biggest payday to date for her connections.

Tajmeallover is owned by Ron Tillapaugh, Peter Van Seggelen, Carl Warnaar and Gagne himself. “They all watch, but they all have different businesses. Peter and Ron are in Calgary, and Carl is in Kelowna, B.C. They come to the races whenever they can, but they also do travel quite a bit, so they’re watching from different places.” Their most recent star is not their first, adds the ownership group’s only hands-on member. “That group, we’ve been together for like 18 years. Peter Van Seggelen was the first one; in Calgary, years ago when I first moved out here, he wanted to have a horse with me and this is how it started.” This partnership soon expanded in the traditional way, as Van Seggelen’s good friends were invited to join. “He brought Carl Waarner, and then three or four years ago, Ron joined the venture there with a Tajma Hall mare that we raced for a couple of years, but then she got injured. The second one [co-owned together] was Tajmeallover.” Another partner, Joe Tinelli, shares ownership of the dam, Watch Over Me.

Over the past two seasons, the four owners have enjoyed seeing their late-blooming mare reward their faith. Unraced at two, the well-conformed homebred was a handful in early lessons with Gagne. “Mental issues, maybe, a little bit,” he remembers. “She was looking at stuff and turning around, trying to rebel a little bit more than I like. But I’ve also broke and raced about 10-15 Tajma Halls, and they all got better later.” The filly showed promise, so her owner-driver says he opted not to push her. “This one was good-gaited and good-looking; she just didn’t have it all together. We got her going at two and trained her down until maybe 2:15, 2:20, and then in the fall I turned her back out for like ten months.”

The decision would pay dividends, although it wasn’t yet apparent to what extent. “She was with the herd, as we call it. She’s good that way,” Gagne tells TROT about his unproblematic star, who spent the time running with mares on his farm. “There’s like 40 acres and 15 head, so for them it’s like paradise I guess. It allowed her to mature, I think, physically and mentally. Then we started her back late -- I went to pick her up in the spring, from the field, and started jogging her.” The three-year-old qualified November 1st, 2014 at Alberta Downs. She won, in her driver’s words, “holding onto the bit” in 1:59.2.

Having campaigned both Tajemeallover’s parents, the third-generation horseman says he had an idea of what to expect from her. While she did not get significantly taller during her time off to mature, the long-bodied filly did gain strength through her stifle joints, which Gagne calls slow to mature in many horses. More importantly, her attitude toward racing improved. “When we started her back, she never tried to look at anything, was not scared of anything anymore, didn’t try to run off the track -- none of that. No, this second time around, she was enjoying it.”

Tajmeallover’s dam was a $35,000 yearling purchased by Gagne in 2004 at the ASHA Yearling Sale. Alberta’s Two-Year-Old Pacing Filly of the Year, Watch Over Me (p,3,1:53.2f; $281,767) was lightly raced, but productive in her freshman season: “She made like $67,800 and she only raced seven times I think” (It was actually just four starts). Proving the strength of her maternal lineage, Watch Over Me earned $170,000 at age three and equalled the divisional track record at Northlands Park set by her own dam, Keeping Watch (p,3,1:53.2f; $210,304). “Those two mares had it for a while -- it got broken by a good mare the year after -- APs Money Maker [who set the current 1:52.1 record in June 2008, and went on to win at Mohawk in 1:49.1]. It’s been a strong family.”

Besides speed, a love of racing is shared among Tajmeallover’s immediate family. “Her sire [1:50.3 Northlands Park record holder Tajma Hall] did like it a lot. Her dam did too, but she got injured at four so that’s when we quit and bred her,” says Gagne. “She pulled a suspensory but she had $280,000 made by then, and the track record.” Watch Over Me’s first foal was Watch And Pray (p,1:53.2f; $107,528), by Ludwig Pan Beethoven; her second, Tajmeallover. Her third, Watch My Luck (p,4,1:55.1f; $105,301), is an Ontario-bred Camluck mare whose pedigree reflected the ownership group’s concerns about Alberta racing after Stampede Park ceased to offer harness dates after 2007. “The racing here was maybe a little bit in jeopardy then. We lost Stampede Park, and we were racing at ‘B’ tracks and we thought, ok, maybe we’ll go for an Ontario-sired, in case things get worse and we have to move.”

Neither of Watch Over Me’s last two foals have survived.

“There was a filly [by Custard The Dragon] that was born backwards. We pulled her out, but we couldn’t save her. This year, it was the full brother to Tajmeallover, because we went back and bred her to Tajma Hall again,” says Gagne. “He was born backward and we pulled him out and then he lived about 45 minutes. A nice, big brown colt. I was very, very shook up by that.” The broodmare is back in foal to the same sire, only this time with plans for close monitoring and possibly induced labour at an Edmonton veterinary clinic in the late stages of her pregnancy. Her owner doesn’t rule out embryo transfer in the future.

With Tajmeallover the top Western Canadian mare racing, and Watch Over Me a top-producing broodmare, Gagne says Tillapaugh, Van Seggelen, Warnaar and Tinelli are understandably pleased. “I think they start to see the light at the end of the tunnel. We’ve had a good run with two, three mares there who made enough money to pay for the breeding venture. It’s all very expensive at the end of the day, so they regained enthusiasm!”

An improved forecast for Alberta racing, thanks to Century Downs and the Century Mile project expected to open in Edmonton in August 2018, offers renewed opportunities for Western Canadian-based owners and breeders. “They were getting a little bit tired, and I can understand that. At one point we had eight, nine broodmares, so we invested a lot in the breeding and then things went south,” admits Gagne. “Yearlings were not selling at the yearling sale; owners were stepping out of the business, so it got a whole lot narrower than it used to be.” The bonds of friendship sustained the team behind Tajmeallover when the prospects looked bleak for Alberta Standardbreds. “I’m sure at some point, that was why they stayed in more than anything -- we’ve been friends,” says the co-owner and driver. “Hopefully it’s all up from there, that we keep doing this for a long time ahead.”

A major indication of the group’s optimism is their decision to retain Tajmeallover. “We were offered some money last December,” Gagne notes. “We considered it hard and we talked and decided to keep her.” Besides the improvements on the Alberta racetrack front, Tajmeallover’s uncommon gifts have made the choice a rewarding one. “She’s a very, very fast mare; she came some last quarters in 26.4 there at Century and this is not a ‘speed’ track. It’s her desire -- she just loves to race.” A three-week hiatus from the track had the mare showing annoyance, adds Gagne. “I’ve been doing this for like 20 years full-time and I don’t think I had more than two or three horses that had that love for racing that high. Three-quarters of the battle is when the horse loves it -- all you try to do is not screw it up!”

Tajmeallover and Gagne at Century Downs (Coady Photo)

Tajmeallover has made his work easy, with her eagerness and intelligence. “She’s like a person. She just does everything right. She doesn’t have a flaw. She’ll stand at the stall door -- she’s in her daddy’s stall, actually, the one he used to have. She stands there and when you open the door, she pushes you out of there! That’s just how willing she is to do anything you want.” She’s also a worthy bearer of the “Lady Elements” title, having won the namesake B.C. race and recorded victories over a wide variety of track and weather conditions. Whether it’s the Century Downs Mares Open on a 22 degree August day with a surface rated “fast”; the Lady Elements Final at Fraser Downs on a “good” track in late November; or facing mixed Open company and the minus 21 Celsius chill over a “frozen” Northlands Park, Tajmeallover is herself a force of nature.

A low Northlands horse population in late 2016 reduced racing opportunities for the mare, who in her latest start bested half-sister Watch My Luck in a 1:57.3 Filly & Mare Open Pace on December 16th. (EDITOR'S NOTE: This past Saturday, Tajmeallover was named Alberta's Horse of the Year for 2016.) With a 160-acre farm (“the biggest investment of my life”) to run with Dumont, plus two young children at home, Gagne says the time required to travel and acclimatize to racing elsewhere is not usually feasible: “You cannot just go to Ontario for a month. When you go, it’s ‘the big ship’.” He wanted to give Tajmeallover her shot at the Lady Elements, so he trailered the pacer and five other horses to Fraser Downs on a route many would rather avoid.

“It’s an unbelievable drive -- it’s across the Rocky Mountains. This is like the steepest hills you can find in Canada and the worst weather,” the Quebec native tells TROT. “You can leave here and it’s plus 10, and there may be two feet of snow on top of the mountains. It’s a 13-hour drive non-stop, if the roads are good.” If the roads are not so good, situations like Gagne encountered a few winters back make for scary travel. Returning home with an empty trailer to pick up more horses, he says “they closed the road ahead of me because of an avalanche. So I stayed there overnight and they said they were going to re-open the next day.” After a four-hour wait the next day, drivers were informed that the road would be impassable for another couple of days, so Gagne detoured through a northern route. “They closed the road ahead of me at Jasper, so I stayed there overnight,” he laughs. “Usually from that point to home, we’re talking about five hours, and it took me another 13 or 14 to get here, so I was like ‘Never again!’ It’s a tough go.”

Speaking of tough, what about a mare having to contend with horses and geldings in Open company at Northlands? “It made a bigger field of Open horses [December 10th], combining the mares and the boys, but that’s the first time” Tajmeallover attempted a mixed Open, recounts her dedicated driver. “She raced one time against the boys last summer [at Century Downs]; it was not the Open though. Non-winners for the boys, and also eligible Mares Open. I think there was one or two [other females] in there and she finished third on a sloppy track.” Gagne says Tajmeallover was the beneficiary of quick fractions laid down in the Northlands Open on December 10th, coming from off the pace in a :28 second last quarter to hit the wire first by two-and-a-half lengths. From the sulky, he still “could feel the difference between boys and mares” and would prefer to race the ultra-game pacer only against other females, even if they assigned outer posts as a handicap. “In all honesty, she was never handicapped with the eight hole in a nine-horse field. It’s like six or seven hole in a six or seven-horse field, so it’s not like you’re going to be taken right out of the race.”

Daily routine for Tajmeallover includes being turned out in a paddock on Gagne’s farm, and countering the image of the difficult, diva-like top mare with her low-maintenance lifestyle. “She’s a very easy keeper. Cheapest horse at the end of the year, to keep, expense-wise. Usually that’s the way it is, eh?” says the man who knows her best.

Northlands Park has publicized plans to offer live harness racing until the opening of Century Mile in 2018, which is good news for Gagne and his fellow owners. With their Tajma Hall daughter entering what could be her racing prime -- her sire set the Northlands record at age ten -- the group has another decision ahead. For now, it looks like Tajmeallover will continue to race in 2017, “although I really would like to breed her, because of the mother and grandmother - we have a golden line of mares there,” assesses Gagne. What about embryo transfer while “Taj” adds to her 29 career wins and $206,866 in earnings? “Probably we should talk about that in the spring!” he laughs. “I would like to hit one like this every year! All my worries would be gone!”

Reposted from Standardbred Canada - original link

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