I thought today, I would write about renewal. Any industry that has hopes of moving forward has to provide opportunities for young people to learn, to practice, and ultimately to succeed. Harness racing is no different. Keith Clark, Rod Hennessy, Gerry Hudon, and others of that generation won’t be around forever. They have set the bar high in terms of professionalism, care for their horses, and achievement on the track. And they have served as useful mentors to those who are coming up the ladder behind them, and who aspire to write their own stories in both the sport and the business.
Take Justin Currie as one example. Just 27, he is building a good resume with a group of solid horses. He’s had a quieter summer at Century Downs after a career year in 2017, highlighted by the performance of the 3 year old star, Mateo. He started off well in Edmonton in January, with a 7-3-2 record from his first 13 starters. Currently, he’s just inside the top 30 among trainers in Balzac. But he keeps working at it, moving horses in and out of his barn and looking for the next star to appear.
And he’s helped by the return to good health of his partner, Christine Cutting, who suffered a head injury during a mishap at a nearby farm back in June. Christine is just about ready for a full return to barn duties. And she and their son, Jackson, celebrated birthdays on Sunday. The little guy turned one. “She’s getting better and it’s nice to have her back and able to help,” Currie told me. “She’s a big part of everything we do here.”
Currie qualified Jewels Dragon, a 2 year old son of Custard the Dragon on Sunday. Christine owns part of the animal, along with Paul Sanders of Surrey. “Maybe he’ll be the next one,” says Currie. “He paced the last quarter in :28.1 and he’s still learning.”
Another of the under-30 crowd who’s making his mark is driver-trainer, Paul Davies. Nobody was surprised that he steered home three winners last Monday afternoon as part of the Mid-Summer Classic. Among his winners was the 2 year old colt, Outlawgrabbingears, which Davies co-owns, trains and drove to a new track record for the class, in 1:55.2. Davies bought the son of Smart Shark from breeder, Connie Kolthammer, earlier in the spring. He’ll be pointing the colt toward the start of the Alberta Sire Stakes for the 2 year olds. That series begins on Saturday with divisions of the Alberta Rising Star for the boys and of the Alberta Starlet for the girls.
Davies is #3 among the Century Downs pilots with 43 wins from 249 drives this season. He’s 15th in the trainers’ standings at the moment with 11 wins from 51 starters. His focus at this point has been building his driving skills, but clearly, he’s able to recognize a good horse when he finds one and he knows what to do to get it to be better.
Then there’s Chris Lancaster. Like many of the younger crowd, Chris can trace his own lineage and interest in the sport back two or three generations. At 23, he’s showing signs that he too can be a force in the industry in the years ahead. He’s working for Rod Hennessy while starting to build a modest stable of his own. And his work ethic and sharp eye for horses have caught the attention of Chris and Tara Lambie, who are new to the sport of harness racing but who have been breeding Hanoverians for two decades.
“Good owners are the most important part of a successful stable,” says Lancaster. “A good owner will watch the budget but he or she will want to be part of the business because of a love for the animal. You can’t replace that. We talk about a lot of things and we have a plan to move forward primarily with fillies and mares which we will use in the future in the breeding business. And I’ve learned from Chris and Tara about things like animal nutrition. Even with the limited experience I have in this area, I can already see some good results (more on that in a moment).
Nathan Sobey is 26, Preston Shaw is 23. Both of them are building stables and learning what it takes to win consistently on the track when at the controls of a racehorse. Sobey is 6th in the drivers’ standings with 38 wins from 250 starters. He’s 5th on the trainers’ list. Shaw is 12th among the drivers and 18th among the trainers, although his stable has just a fraction of the number of outings by the bigger stables.
“I’m learning,” says Shaw, who can trace his lineage in the sport back through his trainer, father, Doug, to his grandmother, Marie Stone, who was still driving in races into her late sixties. “I’ve got 8 horses at the moment and I’m lucky to have my girlfriend, Emily Leak, and Mike Raymond, helping me in the barn. Mike was ASHA groom of the year last year and worked for my dad for many years before that. I don’t have any stars in my stable. I’ve had to work hard for everything I’ve gotten, and that’s the way it’s been since I started working for my dad when I was a kid.”
“But I’m lucky to have some good owners. Les Bell has had horses with my dad since before I was born. He’s carried on with me. Cam and Thallia Martin own half of Run & Tell with me and we’ve been top three in each of its last seven starts. Not bad for a $3,000 investment. Darlene Wheatley is another owner who’s come back to racing.”
One of Shaw’s other strengths is shoeing. “You learn a lot about a horse when you’re taking care of its feet,” he told me. “I shoe for Kelly Hoerdt’s stable, among others. I think it helps when I catch-drive for guys like Gord Abbott. I know the horse and I know what I need to do to get it around the track and give it a chance to win.”
As for Sobey, he’s a competitor. “I didn’t know a lot about my family’s involvement in the sport back in the Maritimes,” he told me. “I just love to compete. I was like that when I played hockey. I’ve never lost that enthusiasm for winning even though now it’s focused on harness racing. You’re always looking for the next star, and you’re always trying to make the stock you have, better.”
Sobey’s also taken on the role of driver representative on the Alberta Standardbred board. Anyone who has ever held one of those positions knows that it is not easy. You rarely get credit for things that are done well, and you invariably become a target when something breaks down. But you learn, and you contribute – and if you’re lucky, you leave the sport in better shape than you found it when you took on the role.
Finally, 19 year old Kaitlyn Haining is another member of the youth movement at Century Downs. She’s worked in the shed row of her father, Harold, almost since she learned to walk. She got her trainer’s license last November and already has a couple of winners on her resume. She’s preparing Hf Shadow Racer for possible inclusion in the Alberta Starlet eliminations on Saturday. And she’ll be helping her dad who has eight colts and fillies which are eligible for the Starlet and the Rising Star.
These are just samples of the under-30 crowd which is making its presence felt this summer at Century Downs. There are some others too. It gives hope that as the sport and the business continue to grow, the people who are a part of it will continue to grow as well.
I had an interesting conversation the other day with Amanda Kroeker, who, with her husband, run ARK Nutrition in Didsbury. Trained at the University of Saskatchewan, she’s been working in the area of equine nutrition for the past seventeen years. She was introduced to Chris and Tara Lambie and has been working with their Hanoverian program. Through them, she has been brought in to advise on the standardbred stable co-owned by the Lambies with Chris Lancaster.
“I physically assess the animals and study things like manure and what they are eating,” she told me. “Horses are like humans. They’re all different in terms of what they like, how they handle their food, and how it’s metabolized. They’re unique as athletes. I work with the trainers and veterinarians and assemble the data into a program. Then I can decide on a meal program that the best suits the animal.”
“Lissoy is one animal with which we’re having some success. She was tying up badly in races. The vets weren’t having much success despite their best efforts. Tara suggested that I should be asked to examine the mare. We hooked her up to monitors to track her heart rate. It allowed us to study how the muscle was reacting to the effort of racing. That data was part of what helped us design a more effective diet.”
It must be working. Both Lissoy and Big Shir were winners on the Sunday program at Century Downs. “The change in her is remarkable,” Lancaster told me. “We’ve extended Amanda’s work to our other racehorses and it seems to be paying off.”
“I knew I would see a difference but the change in her is amazing,” said Amanda. I’ve only been working with her since May, and to see this change in her this quickly is really something. There’s no medications that I use. Everything I do is holistic or organic. We have to be diligent and mindful of the rules of racing.”
She’s probably saved a life and she’s certainly saved a racing career.
Pacing Under Saddle
By all accounts, a very successful Pacing Under Saddle Event was held Saturday at Century Downs. Seven retired racehorses and their riders lined up behind the starting gate for the exhibition. For the second straight year, Kayley Richardson-Hepburn and Meadowlark Apache came home first. The duo was followed by Rachel Thompson and Greek Ruler. Janice Lea, one of the organizers of the event, and one of the parade marshalls on race day, was third with Premium Stock. Funds raised when to the backstretch fund. The program reminds us all that there is still a role for retired racehorses. Many of them are used in a variety of riding programs.
The Track on 2
Just another couple of weekends of harness racing before the spring-summer meet comes to a close on August 25th. After that, there’s a three week lull until the fall meet begins at Northlands Park in Edmonton on Sept. 14th. In the interim, there will be racing at The Track on 2 in Lacombe. Jason Teague, racing secretary at Northlands, will assemble the cards for the Lacombe track with racing to take place Saturday, Sunday and the holiday Monday, Sept. 1-3. Racing will continue each Sunday through to the end of October while Northlands will concentrate on a Friday-Saturday program.
It’ll be a good test for the renewed facility in which its new owners have made a considerable investment in improvements. Former Northlands track superintendent, Ron Grift, has been making visits to Lacombe to work on the racing surface. And the new owners are reaching out to the community to invite people to come and see a renewed Track on 2. I’ve seen evidence of their efforts during a visit in May. But it’ll be interesting to see how it looks with an event going on, and with fans who have turned out to see what’s new in their midst.
good to see a small stable like Dan Sifert’s have a good day on Sunday. Screen Test and Sudden Storm were both winners… Dan Leblonc had a good day as well. At the moment he has five horses in his own stable. Until Sunday afternoon, they were all maidens. That changed when Outlawdancwthedevl won the third race in 1:58 flat (:29.1 last quarter). The 3 year old gelding is a full brother to 2 year old track record holder, Outlawgrabbingears. Later on the card, Cooltobeamach led a field of seven to the finish in 1:59.1. “He came home in :28.1 and I was really pleased about that,” Leblonc told me… I missed a couple of track records from two weeks ago. On July 29th, Scardy Cat and No Mo Fo Jo each won eliminations of the Gord & Illa Rumpul Memorial in 1:54. Both times were better than the previous mark of 1:56, held by Wedding Dance and set August 20th, 2016… Northern Titan has been the star of the Century Downs Racing Stable this summer. The 4 year old has a couple of wins to keep the photographers busy and has piled up about $8,000 in earnings since coming to Century Downs from Ontario. There are just over 90 folks in the Racing Club, although they haven’t all shown up at the same time on those two occasions when Northern Tuck has won… The Campbell barn has taken the lead in both the trainers and drivers standings. Trainer Sanford Campbell added another win from three starters on Monday to give him 36 victories for the meet. He’s eight ahead of Rod Hennessy. Driver Brandon Campbell has been hot the past couple of weeks and now leads all drivers in wins with 49 from 242 trips around the track. Jamie Gray picked up three wins on Monday and is back in second spot with 46 wins. The next four drivers are separated by 6 wins so it’ll be a tight race to the finish line over the final two weeks of the Century Downs meet… sympathies go out to family and friends on the passing of longtime thoroughbred owner and breeder, Ted Davis, whom we lost on August 1st. Ted was 79.