It was a beautiful crisp autumn afternoon as the Alberta standardbred community turned out to celebrate the Super Finals at Century Downs in Balzac. The day was an important day for owners, breeders, drivers and trainers because it celebrates the Alberta-bred. And it pays tribute to the hard work and careful scrutiny that horsemen lavish on their horses to keep them fit through a long season and to have them ready for a championship Saturday. The horses that made either the championship or consolation finales did so by building their racing resumes over a period of five months, in the case of the 3 year olds, and about 3 months in the case of the sophomores. That can be a long time to keep a horse in racing trim.
Exit Smiling is a pretty good example of that. He emerged as the 3-5 favourite in the 3 year old colt stake and rolled to a career best 1:54 mile to claim top spot in his class. He’s probably nailed down the top Alberta 3 year old colt award for the season in the process.
“Jamie’s done a terrific job with him this year,” co-owner Fred Gillis, told me in the winner’s circle. “Natasha (Peisker) and Geoff (Smith) and I have pretty much left things in Jamie’s hands and he’s done a masterful job. It was a slow first quarter today and Jamie decided the horse needed to be on the lead. It turned out to be the right strategy.”
As I strolled toward the winner’s circle, I saw Century Downs general manager, Paul Ryneveld, on the phone. “I presume that’s your wife, Natasha calling,” I said to him. “She’s in tears,” Ryneveld responded. “She had to be at this convention in Banff on the weekend and was really upset that she couldn’t be here. But she was able to watch the race on her computer and she was on the phone by the time the horse crossed the finish line.”
Exit Smiling, which missed the Western Canada Pacing Derby this summer, still managed to win seven of 12 races this season and earned a little more than $105,000. He’ll get a little time off now before Gray looks at what’s next. “There’s a 4 year old stake at Fraser Downs in February, the Cloverdale Pace, that we might look at,” says Gray, who is also a co-owner of the colt.
Gray also gets a share of the 4th place prize earned by Yankee Up which he co-owns with High River veterinarian, Dr. Jim Rhodes. So the 3 year old colt Super Final is the latest gold star on what has been a very strong season for the hard working horseman from Morinville.
“The 3 year old filly Super Final is going to be maybe the best race on the program today,” racing secretary, Jackson Wittup, told me as the pacers moved toward the gate. Well, it turned out to be a great race but perhaps not the winner the punters expected. Brandon Campbell turned in a masterful drive behind Maid in Alberta to finish in front of the field in a snappy 1:55, more than two full seconds ahead of her career best time. The Harold Haining trainee has been a handful to manage until about six weeks ago when she started to show signs of reaching her potential.
Owner Don Richardson of Cochrane wasn’t on hand either. He’s in California. He wasn’t in tears, as far as I know, and he didn’t call anybody in the winner’s circle after the filly won. But I have no doubt he was pleased. A $16,000 buy at the ASHA yearling sale two years ago, Maid in Alberta has now earned just over $105,000 in her racing career.
Campbell was the only double winner among drivers as far as the championship races were concerned. He also came through with Rockin Mystery in the 2 year old filly final. The daughter of Mystery Chase – Can’t Stop Rockin – Rocknroll Hanover rolled to an 8 length win in 1:57.1 and was much the best on this day.
“She’s learning how to finish,” Campbell told the audience after the race. “Chris (trainer, Lancaster) has done a great job with her by getting her to pay attention to horses around her. When she can see who she’s competing against, she seems to settle down and concentrate on her job a lot better.”
Another star on the day belongs to the fine 2 year old colt, Outlawgrabbingears. Driver Paul Davies has brought him along since acquiring him last spring from Outlaw Stables, Connie Kolthammer. He’s left the colt in the hands of Rod and Jackie Starkewski this fall while he’s concentrated his time driving horses at Fraser Downs. But Davies came in to drive in the Super Finals. Ironically, it was the Starkewski’s own colt, Crackle N Burn, which provided the stiffest challenge in the stretch before Outlawgrabbingears prevailed in 1:55.4. Better than $91,000 earned in his first season at the races, he’ll be hard to beat for Alberta-bred 2 year old colt of the year. And his time on this day was just two-fifths of a second off his own track record for 2 year old colts.
“He’s one of the nicest horses I’ve had a chance to train and drive,” Davies said afterward. “Six wins and two seconds in eight starts this season…..I’ll take that. Rod and Jackie have done a terrific job with him this fall.”
We need to salute the consolation finals winners as well. Thunder Alley won the 2 year old colt/gelding race in 1:59 with Phil Giesbrecht at the controls for owners Jim Wilson, Richard Remillard, and Valerie Emerson. J-F Gagne co-owns Outlaw Hawaiifiveo with Peter Van Seggelen, Carl Warnaar and Tapron Holdings. Gagne followed his usual pattern by closing from behind on the outside to take the 2 year old filly consolation final in 2:01.1. Gagne, who has re-settled in Ontario for the winter season, has often used the same strategy with his older mares, Tajmeallover, Watch My Luck and Outlaw Fireball. A glance at their respective records will show that it is a strategy that works.
Paperback Thriller won the 3 year old filly consolation final for owners Lorne Duffield and Rod Hennessy. Not long after the result was declared official, Duffield sent word that he was contributing $1,000 towards the veterans food bank initiative that is going on at Century Downs this month. Duffield called on other horsemen to join in.
And, while I didn’t see Keith Clark at the track Saturday, the Hall of Fame horseman is always represented at Super Finals. Snap Test, which Clark owns in partnership with Doris McDougall and Archie Benekos , earned the 3 year old colt consolation award in 1:56.
Odds ‘n ends from Saturday…
Meridian Farms of High River led all breeders with 22 horses taking part in Super Finals. Exit Smiling is one of theirs…..So are Thunder Alley and Snap Test. But there was a good representation of other breeders on the day and that’s what I think is good for the sport……now that Super Finals are in the books, more horsemen are considering their options. Kelly Hoerdt has some horses headed to Fraser Downs and both Ryan Grundy and Nathan Sobey are likely headed to California. Their departure might be a bit delayed, however. Cal-Expo in Sacramento cancelled its weekend of harness racing because of the affects of the fires that are blanketing northern California.
The winter racing calendar continues at Century Downs on weekends through Dec. 16th. There’s also single days of racing on Dec. 29th and Dec. 31st and then three Sunday afternoon cards in January. Post time will be 12:45 PM.