Calgary’s Festival of Racing got off to a wonderful start, Saturday, under warm, sunny skies, and without the breeze that always seems to be a part of the weather story at Century Downs.
Some 1,600 people were on hand as part of the Packwood Grand event. They had their own infield setup but a lot of them were on the tarmac to watch the races. They added a lot of colour and glamour to the day and while the horses may not have cared, the drivers certainly took note!
“It’s by far the best Packwood Grand event we’ve ever hosted,” Century Downs GM, Paul Ryneveld, told me. “We posted the highest live on track handle and it was 20% improved from last year. I’m not sure any other Standardbred track in North America brings out this type of crowd. I was really pleased that Alberta Standardbred encouraged the drivers to be more involved with the public. There were all kinds of opportunities for photographs. The interaction among fans and the drivers is important because there might be a few prospective owners coming out of this group.”
“We’re still awaiting our impact report on the event but as organizers, we were really pleased with the turnout, the setup, and the entertainment,” Packwood Grand executive producer, Tyler Rygus, told me. “We’re already looking forward to next season and continuing to grow both the event and the number of fans for the sport. We’re currently looking at the opportunity to expand a Packwood Grand-esque event in 2019 into the Edmonton area with the opening of Century Mile.”
“The rest of the week promises a number of activities, highlighted by the holiday racing card next Monday afternoon, August 6th at 1:15 PM, said Ryneveld. We have had huge interest in our Libations Fest which will be on Saturday afternoon, so I’m looking forward to that. We haven’t had quite the same level of interest in Industry Day, so we’ll have to see what we can do with that event, going forward. Mid-Summer Classic will be a great day of racing. We’ve got four different stakes events, involving multiple races, scheduled for that day, including the first appearances in added money events for the 2 year olds. That group has already posted some impressive performances, so it’s going to be a terrific day of racing. Peter Lurie from TVG and Sugar Doyle will be on hand all weekend for the live broadcast.”
Mid-Summer Classic Schedule…
Next Monday’s Mid-Summer Classic agenda includes four stakes races: the Gord & Illa Rumpul Memorial for 3 year old fillies, the Ralph Klein Memorial for 3 year old colts and geldings, the Emerald Filly for 2 year old fillies and the Century Bets Pace for 2 year old colts and geldings.
The Rumpel honours a couple who contributed so much to racing in this province as owners and, indeed, to the Standardbred racing scene across North America. Among the most prominent horses in their stable were two of the greats: On the Road Again and Matts Scooter. The Ralph Klein, of course, honours the late Premier of Alberta and salutes his personal enthusiasm for harness racing as well as the steps he took while in office to stabilize the financial fortunes of the racing and breeding industry. It was on his watch that the racing entertainment centre concept was introduced in 1995. The concept brings together machine gaming and horse racing with some of the machine proceeds being used to support jobs in the racing and breeding sector. Alberta was among the early pioneers of this business model. It has now spread to other parts of North America.
Eliminations for the Rumpul final took place on Sunday afternoon. A newcomer to Century Downs, Scardy Cat, owned by JJJ Stables of Prince George, BC, lived up to her resume and came home in 1:54 (last quarter in :28.4). The punters weren’t fooled, despite her debut at Century Downs. They made the daughter of Sportswriter the 4-5 choice on the board. She’s now earned more than $108,000 at the races.
But, based on times, she’s not going to be crowned ahead of time as the Queen of the Rumpul. No Mo Fo Jo equaled that 1:54 clocking in winning the opening elimination, setting a new lifetime mark in the process. She led all the way with Nathan Sobey at the controls.
In addition to the winners, Blue Grotto (trainer Kelly Hoerdt), True Horizon (Gerry Hudon), Roaring Home (Keith Clark), Bearcat Josi (Doug Stout), Hot Kiss (Kelly Hoerdt), and You Talk Too Much (Keith Clark) have qualified for the final. The two 5th place finishers, Pez Dispenser (J-F Gagne) and Ginger Beer (Keith Clark) will draw for the 9th and final post position on Thursday morning. The winner gets the final starting spot while the other horse will be the “also eligible.”
The Ralph Klein will be run as the old Nat Christie used to be conducted with heats and a final on the same day. There are 37 horses nominated for the Klein, and while some of them will not be a part of the field, there is some intrigue to be provided by at least two horses which will likely be supplemented to the race.
Better Watch Out was an $85,000 buy, out of the Lexington sale In October of 2016. Serge Masse picked him up in a private sale in June of this year. Better Watch Out was third in his tuneup on Monday afternoon in 1:56 (:28.2)
Canadian Pharoh is another horse which has shown some promise this year. Owned by Veikko Pajuren of Vancouver and Rod Therres of Surrey, BC, the colt is now 2-5-0 in 8 starts, including a runner-up share in the Keith Linton final at Fraser Downs on April 13th. He won the Monday event in which Better Watch Out was third and he did it in a snappy 1:55.2 (:28.2 last quarter).
Boiling Oar is one of the eligibles which will be a starter on Monday. Owned by JJJ Stables, the gelding is three for three this year including a win in the Linton on April 13th. He’s not raced since, although he turned in a 1:57.4 clocking including a :28.3 last quarter when Jim Marino qualified him on Sunday.
“He’s not eligible for much, so we gave him a rest and got him ready for the Ralph Klein,” Marino told me. This one and the Western Canada Pacing Derby will be his two big events of the summer.”
Cheddar Jack, owned by Lorne Duffield of Edmonton and Diane Hennessy of Falun, AB, won the Brad Gunn final on July 1st and has a 6-2-1 record from 12 starts this season. A $20,000 buy, out of the Harrisburg sale in November, 2016, he’s already earned back that investment and more. His bank account for this season is more than $45,000. He might be the best of the locals. He was a runner-up in his latest start on Monday.
Assuming there are more than nine horses, it will mean eliminations and a final on Monday. None of these horses have raced twice in the same day, so it will be interesting to see how they handle the pace. The strategy will be to get to the final by finishing in the top four in the elimination, and not have to use too much energy to get there.
This is just the 3 year old story. On Sunday afternoon, we watched 28 2-year olds strut their stuff on the matinee card and there were some impressive performances. None better than Lady Neigh Neigh, Chris Lambie and Chris Lancaster’s 2-year old, which was bought out of the London select sale last fall. In just her second lifetime start, the Bettors Delight daughter was a winner in a new mark of 1:56.2.
“We just missed the track record for this class by 2/5th of a second,” noted trainer, Chris Lancaster. “Physically she’s perhaps a little more mature because she was a February foal in 2016. “I was really pleased. She raced like a pro.”
“Another good performance was turned in by Bad Moon Rising, a Don Richarson-owned colt out of the Harold Haining stable. “In his first start last week I got locked in along the rail and couldn’t get out,” driver Paul Davies told me. “We were 9 lengths behind the leaders at the half on Sunday. But this time he came up alongside Rock N Roll Dragon on the final turn and came home in 1:57 (:30 last quarter).”
And I was impressed with Major Winker in the 9th race of the day. The only 2 year old in the field faltered early against older and more experienced competition, but came on strong in the stretch with Dave Hudon at the controls to finish in third spot in 1:56.3 (:28.3). Remember, this is a 2 year old and he didn’t seem to be at all troubled by the pace or by the fact he’s still learning.
Those will be three to watch on Monday in the Emerald Filly and in the Century Bets. Assuming more than nine nominees for each race, the two stakes will be run in divisions. It’ll be a terrific day to be a harness racing fan.
Mentor and Student…
Phil Giesbrecht is a legitimate pro in the driver’s seat in harness racing. In fact, he’s one of the leading drivers at Century Downs this season with 42 wins from 294 starts. But it never hurts to have a little help and someone to talk to about what to do on the racetrack. Giesbrecht can turn to his father-in-law, Gerry Hudon, to get some feedback whenever he likes. Hudon went to the post more than 18,000 times during his own driving career and took horses to the winner’s circle on 2,847 occasions.
“A lot of it is preparation, knowing who you’re in against and what their tendencies are,” Hudon told me. “Like pros in every sport, we watch an awful lot of video. Occasionally, I’ll ask him what he was thinking at a certain point in a race. I don’t tell him he’s wrong. That’s not the way to do it. And he’ll know if he did something that didn’t work out. I’m just an extra set of eyes, watching what’s going on. I always encourage him to pay attention to what’s going on around him during a race. You can’t be pulling tight on the lines and looking down at the track. You have to watch what is going on. Phil’s good at that.”
“The other thing we do is watch the toteboard during warmups. The racing public knows what’s going on and will wager accordingly. Racing fans want to know you’re competing and trying to win. Sometimes a horse won’t respond. They’re animals, not machines. Sometimes it’s just not going to work out.”
For his part, Giesbrecht appreciates the extra set of eyes. “Once the race starts, there’s only one driver and Gerry knows that because he’s been there,” Giesbrecht told me. Communication between us is key. I drive a lot of the horses he trains, so I pay attention to what he has to say. We talk a lot. As well, I shoe most of the horses and you can learn a lot about an animal when you’re taking care of its feet. It helps to learn about the horse and how it will react to things like a tap with the whip. My job is to put the horse in the best position to win. I like the outside so that I have a chance to see how the race develops and to give my horse the opportunity to move up if things go my way. When you’re on the lead, it’s a little easier to be closer to the rail.”
It’s a good partnership. I’ve watched them watch races and talk quietly about what worked and what didn’t. And each race is different. Whether you finish first or worst, there’s always something to learn and something to remember for the next time.
The first of four new barns is rising on the east side of the backstretch. When completed they’ll house 144 horses. They’ll be ready for this fall’s thoroughbred-quarterhorse meet which begins on Sunday, Sept. 2nd. Racing secretary, Tim Lawson, tells me he’s recruited seven trainers from Winnipeg’s Assiniboia Downs, led by Donne Schell. They’ll join the complement moving south from Northlands Park in Edmonton after the close of that meet on August 25th. “I hope I’ll have 500 stalls,” Lawson told me. “I think I’ll need them all judging by the list of stall applications I’ve received.”… eight ladies have signed up for the Pacing Under Saddle race to be held on Saturday, August 11th. Faith Jones, who’s a graduate of the exercise rider program at Olds College and has been galloping horses at Northlands Park this summer, will take Makin My Move around the track. Olivia Rider will be aboard The Big Heist. Clio Chatterton Dickson will guide Hollywood Redneck. Rachel Thompson will be doing her best with Greek Ruler. Jaline Munkholm has drawn Fanchastic. Molly Murphy, who’s about to head back next month to UPEI veterinary school, will ride Chatter Box. Kaylea Richardson-Hepburn is slated to ride Meadowlark Apache. And race organizer, Janice Lea, will ride Premium Stock. “It’s a chance to show that these horses aren’t finished when their racing careers are done,” she told me. “And it’s a lot of fun and we’ve gotten good reaction from the public in previous events. Whatever funds we can raise will go to the backstretch fund.”… the Campbell barn is continuing its strong showing this summer at Century Downs. Sanford Campbell has opened up a 9 win lead atop the trainers’ standings. He’s got 34 victories. Kelly Hoerdt has moved into second spot with 25, one more than Rod Hennessy. Among the drivers, Brandon Campbell has had a good week and moved into a first place tie with Phil Giesbrecht and Jamie Gray, each with 42 wins. Paul Davies is up to 38 and Dave Kelly rounds out the top five with 36 wins…
Rememeber that racing coming up this holiday weekend is at 1:15 PM Saturday, Sunday, and Monday. It will be the biggest weekend of the summer meet. You don’t want to miss it.