Mateo, a horse with a blind left eye, and Justin Currie, the horse’s young co-owner and trainer, who not so long ago was left with only one horse in his barn, are the favourites for Saturday’s $138,430 Western Canada Pacing Derby.
If that isn’t a heck of a story nothing is. But it even gets better. Currie is also the trainer of Yoga Pants, who will likely be favoured in the $132,390 Northlands Filly Pace the same evening.
“I’ve been very lucky,” said trainer Justin Currie. “I’ve had my share of ups and downs in this business but now, hopefully, I’m back climbing the stairs up again." Mateo has won 10 of his 21 lifetime starts including a smashing three and a quarter length 1:54 victory in last week’s Pacing Derby eliminations. Yoga Pants, who won her Filly Pace elimination, has won 11 of her 12 career starts.
Yet, despite those formidable forms, Currie is still going to need some more luck come Saturday. Yoga Pants drew post seven in the Filly Pace; Mateo got post eight in the Pacing Derby. “Getting the outside posts is always a hurdle for any horse to overcome,” said Currie, 26. “Only time will tell. They are both going into their races in good shape. But we’re going to need some racing luck and a couple of good trips. It is what it is. Someone has to draw the outside.”
While Currie said Yoga Pants’ form “speaks for itself,” Mateo is a whole different story. But let’s let Currie tell the story which begins when Currie’s good friend, Jim Marino - one of B.C.’s top drivers and trainers - was involved in a horrific racing accident at Fraser Downs on Jan. 23, 2015, when the horse Marino was driving, Mood Light, broke stride. Coming almost to a complete stop, Mood Light and Marino were then hit hard by the horse pacing just behind. Catapulted into the air and landing hard on the track, Marino broke his left femur, tore his left ACL and broke bones in his left wrist. Marino would require multiple surgeries and spent two full months in the hospital.
But as is almost always the case in horse racing his friends were quick to come to his aid. Currie was one of the first. “I just did what any friend would do,” said Currie. “And I wasn’t the only one. A bunch of horsemen chipped in to make things happen. I was down on horses and didn’t have any serious plans to go anywhere so I wound up helping Jim more and more. When the meet at Fraser Downs ended I went to Alberta with Jim’s horses."
“With Jim on the sidelines - he was on crutches and could barely walk - we became a team and I ran his barn as much as I could.” Marino was so appreciative he offered Currie a trip to Mexico. Currie, however, had another idea. “I said why don’t we buy a yearling together instead. Maybe we can find a good one that can win us more money than a trip to Mexico is worth. Jim agreed and we went to the Alberta Standardbed Yearling Sale later the same year Jim was hurt. We went through the catalogue and found a few we liked. The trouble was we didn’t have much of a budget so we were thrift shopping. When we came across Mateo’s page we both loved what we saw.
“He was by Blue Burner a sire that Jim had always liked and I saw the mare, Mater Deo, win a stake at Mohawk. But a full sister to Mateo sold for $28,000 a few years earlier so I figured we’d never get him. Then they disclosed that Mateo was blind in his left eye and was pulled from the sale.”
Not dissuaded by the horse’s infirmity, Currie and Marino went to the horse’s breeders and arranged to buy the horse privately for an undisclosed price. “We just took a chance. He was well put together and like I said, we both liked his breeding. Anyway, I didn’t have $2 to my name so I was willing to take a shot on just about anything. You miss 100 per cent of the shots you don’t take. This shot has obviously worked out. We were lucky to get him.”
No kidding. Racing with a full cup over his left eye, as a two-year-old Mateo won four of his nine starts and placed second or third in the other five races he contested for earnings of $68,281. This year has even been better. Much better.
Mateo won two $50,000 stakes at Century Downs in Balzac. He won one of those by three and a half lengths pacing in 1:52 2/5 and the other, the Marksman, by 11 and a quarter lengths, in 1:54 1/5. As well, Mateo finished second in the $60,000 Brad Gun as well as in the $152,410 Super Series. In both of those latter races he finished behind Da Magician, who he will have to try and defeat again on Saturday.
Da Magician, however, didn’t draw well either and will start from post seven. “It’s going to be interesting. Da Magician is a tough colt. But then so is mine,” said Currie, who owns Mateo with his wife, Christine, and Marino. “Mateo has also been freshened up. Until last week’s Derby elimination, he hadn’t raced since he lost the Super Series in early August.”
Giving the horse a rest certainly looked like it paid off last Saturday. Opening a huge lead early through fractions of 27 1/5, 56 1/5 and 1:24 2/5 en route to that 1:54 win, driver Jean Francois Gagne said “He did it all on his own. He was overly sharp and I tried not to fight him; I didn’t want to wrestle with him.” Marino will drive Mateo on Saturday.
By comparison, Da Magician won his elimination in 1:57 after coasting on the lead through dawdling fractions of 28 3/5, 1:00 1/5 and 1:29 3/5. “Whatever happens, he certainly doesn’t owe us anything,” said Currie. “He’s exceeded all expectations. I’m very grateful to have the horse.”
Getting his trainer’s license when he was only 16, Currie has had to fight to get to where he is now. “I’ve gone through some peaks and valleys. I won the Northlands Filly Pace with Mystic Maiden when I was just 19. But I’ve had my downs too. When you are young you think your luck is never going to run out. I had a couple of solid years but then I went to Ontario. I took nine horses with me but they all got sick and it drained all of the funds from the farm. We were spending money and not getting anything back."
“At one point I had just one horse. I was sleeping in my mother’s spare room and I had to take a job with an insulation company to try and get by. Another time I was down to no owners at all. Just five of the cheapest horses on the grounds. Combined they were probably only worth $2,500. But we toughed it out and I never quit."
“Christine, my wife, has been my backbone. Before I met her I guess you could say I was a bit of a wild horse. We met two years ago; she’s a fantastic caretaker and now she’s also the mother of our six-week-old son. It’s been a big year for us. Now, hopefully we can overcome the posts. We are working as hard as we can and hopefully that’s enough. We’ve done everything we can do. It’s up to the horses now.”
Here is how they will line up for the Western Canada Pacing Derby and the Northlands Filly Pace:
1) Thats It
2) Outlaw Imahotvixen
3) Cardinal Rule
4) Pickles On Top
5) Double Mystery
6) Steady Breeze
7) Yoga Pants
8 Lil Bit O Jingle
9) Last Time to Play
1) Ima Dude
2) Three More Smiles
3) Senga Nitro
4) Town Speaker
6) Cold Case
7) Da Magician
9) American Dreamer
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