Opening Day at the races is a bit like a reunion. All kinds of people who haven’t seen each other in months exchange hugs and handshakes, commiserate over the length of winter, and compare notes on horses. The national anthem, followed by the trumpeter’s call to the post, followed by Murray Slough’s voice over the public address system, heralds a new year at the races. At 1:10 PM on Sunday afternoon, everybody’s in good humour and no one’s lost a race. By 1:20 PM that story has changed a bit, but only slightly.
It was a cake and ice cold day at Century Downs. The ice cold is self explanatory. This winter of 2018 doesn’t seem to want to leave. It’s put trainers up to three weeks behind schedule. And yet, racing secretary, Jackson Wittup, was able to find enough horses for ten races. The last four each had full nine horse fields.
The cake was being served in the front of the racing entertainment centre to celebrate the third anniversary of the centre and the start of the fourth year of racing at the Balzac facility. Century Downs is part of the revitalization of Alberta’s oldest sporting enterprise. There was horse racing in the province before Alberta became a province in 1905. And when Century Mile is completed at Leduc and open for business early in 2019, that revitalization movement can take another step towards its full potential.
The record will show that Wetaskiwin horseman, Jean-Francois Gagne, was the first man to the winner’s circle with Chalk Player. It was, what seemed to me, a typical drive by the personable teamster. He let the other four horses in the first race battle it out on the front end, then cruised up the outside and nipped Metajka Road at the wire. Sanford Campbell trains the 5 year old son of Camluck for Calgary businessman, Ray Henry.
Campbell’s walking with a cane right now. He got dragged by a horse into a stall at the farm and suffered a broken leg. So, his share of the winner’s purse will be a bit of a salve on an aching pin.
Western Canada Drivers’ Challenge...
It looks like the top four drivers from each of Century Downs and Fraser Downs in Langley BC will come together for the west regional to be held at Century Downs on Saturday, June 23rd. It’s part of the set of qualifiers to get to the national finals later in the summer. Dave Hudon is home and cooled out for the driver’s title at Fraser. He’s got 31 wins, 13 more than Paul Davies. But with two weeks to go in the Fraser Downs season, only three wins separate five drivers. Travis Bowman and Jim Marino have 16 wins apiece and Kelly Hoerdt and Rod Therres have 15 wins each.
With the drivers’ colony in short supply to start the meet at Century Downs, veteran teamsters Bobby Clark and Rod Hennessy look like they’ll be more than just observers for a bit, at least until some of the other pilots return from Cal Expo in Sacramento or ship in from Fraser Downs. Clark will drive when he’s not needed at his full time job, manufacturing explosives at a small factory in Blackie. Hennessy will add driving horses on the track to his regular duties of driving horses by truck back and forth to the farm at Falun. He’s got 23 racehorses stabled at Century Downs at the moment.
“I thought I was semi-retired,” he told me, “but things change.” He certainly doesn’t have to be shown the way to the winner’s circle. Sunday’s trip following the seventh race was career win #2,810. And Mr. Clark is no slouch when it comes to finding his way around an oval either. He’s driven in more than 10,600 races and he’s made it to the winner’s circle on 1,373 occasions.
By the way, congratulations to Rod and to his long time partner, Diane Harries, who were married quietly in Lake Louise two weeks ago.
Hennessy and Clark hooked up in a duel in Race 7 on Sunday afternoon: Hennessy with Remember Terror and Clark with Lucky Lucka. Hennessy and Remember Terror prevailed in 1:58.3 for owner, Lorne Duffield, of Edmonton. Clark returned the favour in Race 9 with Freedom’s Fellow for owner and trainer, Sam Johnson. Hennessy finished fifth with Flamingbluestar.
Nathan Sobey has the early lead among Century Downs regulars. He won the third race with Western Olympian. He won the fifth race with Burn My Villa for owners Diane Bertrand and Robert Gilhespy of Edmonton. He won the eighth race for the same ownership with Burntisland Billy. And he won the tenth race with Shes All Mine for owner, Terry Yuck, of Calgary. A nice way to start the season.
One new face in the backstretch...
The retirement from the track by Bill Tainsh Jr., has opened up a spot for Daniel Leblonc. He’s inherited Tainsh’s five horse stable which is owned by the partnership of Wally Muroz and Willie Wyechopin of Edmonton and St. Paul, Alberta.
“Bill called me late in January,” Leblonc told me. “He said he’d found a job in the Shuswap looking after a water filtration plant for a condo building out there. He asked he if I wanted to take over his stable. I’ve been living in the Peterborough area, not far from Kawartha Downs. But with the racing scene in Ontario in a state of flux, particularly at some of the smaller tracks, I decided this might be a good opportunity. I’d worked years ago for Bill’s dad, at the farm he had in Tofield and with horses he sent to Regina and to Winnipeg. I’ve got a couple of catch drives here on opening day and I’m driving my own horse, Hez So Foxy. I’m also shoeing a few horses and I hope to pick up some more of that business.”
“Right now, we’re all looking at the track every day and trying to decide which shoes are best. The weather varies so much out here that you have to be sharp about the right shoes if you want your horse to train well and to win.”
ASHA & Social Media...
I’m serving on a committee of Standardbred Canada. We’re looking at how media can be encouraged to devote more airtime and print space to story-telling about horse racing. Clearly, in my view, a strong presence in social media is critical. I’m not a big fan of it but I recognize that a couple of generations of Canadians now spend more time on social media than they do reading newspapers or watching television, or listening to the radio.
It would seem that Alberta Standardbred is in agreement. ASHA has retained four young ambassadors whose job is to spread the word about what’s happening in the industry.
“We interviewed Bret Litke, Kayla Chappell, Jocelyn Hudon, and Charlene Barry,” ASHA vice-chair, Don McDougall, told me. “They all brought different skillsets and different ideas to the table so we decided to make each of them a part of our social media group. I was amazed. Fifteen minutes after we announced the program last Thursday, they were already active on Twitter, exchanging ideas and spreading the word. We’re going to use the ASHA web site as a base but we’re going to look at Instagram and YouTube and see how we can incorporate those assets into marketing our harness racing product. We’ve got a bunch of ideas we want to try and develop and we’ll be talking to the folks at Century about that. We want to be fully up to speed and ready for the opening of Century Mile in 2019.”
Litke already writes a blog called “Past The Finish Line.”
Two of the stars of the Alberta racing scene last year have been sold to eastern interests. One of them, Mateo, was back in action last Friday night at Yonkers Raceway in New York. He won in 1:55.4 in a qualifier and so he’ll soon be ready for service in the colours of new owner and trainer, Richard Banca. The 4 year old which had been owned by Christine Cutting and Jim Marino and trained by Justin Currie, earned a little more than $300,000 during his two racing seasons in Alberta. He’s a son of the late Blue Burner, which was lost a month ago… put a note in your calendar regarding Sunday, May 27th. That’s the day of the Pacing For Charity event at Century Downs. Canada’s leading driver, Doug McNair, Jody Jameson, and James McDonald, who won the world driver’s championship in Charlottetown last October, will headline the list of drivers taking part in the event. All three were popular participants in last year’s event… Bill Andrew, the longtime proprietor of Meridian Farms of High River and of Prince Edward Island, has his name on the ballot for the Canadian Horse Racing Hall of Fame. Andrew, who has held numerous posts in Alberta racing, in addition to his duties as an owner and a breeder, is one of 15 human candidates. There are also 15 horses nominated. A 20-person selection committee will make the final decision and the successful nominees will be announced on Tuesday, April 10th.