Norval Honey hasn’t missed thoroughbred racing’s opening day in over 50 years. This Saturday’s opening day will mark about the 40th straight curtain opener for Tim Rosnau. Rick Herchek has missed only two thoroughbred openers over the same span. So, the best bet for May 5 is that all three will be at Northlands again this weekend.
“Wouldn’t miss it for anything,” said Honey. “Come hell or high water I’ll be there. When I first started going to the races I couldn’t wait for the opening of the thoroughbred season. I couldn’t sleep. There was that much anticipation for me. It’s not quite the same as it used to be but I still get excited to this day.”
Growing up on 95 street, Honey said he and his teenage buddy Al Cameron would ride their bikes to Northlands Park. “We used to live at the track,” said Honey. “We went all the time. We weren’t old enough to bet so we would get somebody else to make our bets for us.”
Even when Calgary’s old Victoria Park used to stage the opening day of the season Honey would still make the trek. “My wife Linda and I would go to Calgary just about every weekend. I first took her to the track in 1970. It was Derby Day and Swinging Apache won. She’s been going with me ever since. We stayed in every motel and hotel around the track in Calgary. It was a lot of fun and it still is. My daughter, Shannon is 34. We took her to the track when she was six months old. She hasn’t missed too many days since then either. She probably loves horse racing even more than I do. She owns a piece of two young three-year-old thoroughbreds - one with Craig Smith and another with Curtis Landry - and it looks like they can both run."
“I consider myself to be a pretty good handicapper but Shannon is even better than I am. If you need a winner don’t ask me, ask Shannon. Horse racing is something we can do as a family. It’s been a big part of all of our lives. We even plan our vacations around horse racing. When the thoroughbreds are in Edmonton that’s where we are too,” said Honey, who was ‘deathly’ sick last fall with an ailment that had doctors baffled. I was sick for three months. It started on Derby Day last year. I woke up the next day and my legs were the size of an elephant.
“I ended up weighing over 300 pounds. I couldn’t walk; I couldn’t do anything,” said Honey, who attended his first Canadian Derby in 1960 - when Count Lathum won - and has only missed one Derby since then. It was finally diagnosed as a liver problem. I had non-alcoholic fatty liver disease. They drained 17 litres of fluid from my stomach and now I’m down to 223 pounds and I finally feel great again. I’m just glad I can bet on a race again. I used to get upset when I would lose a photo but, after being so sick, I probably won’t get as mad anymore. Getting sick put everything in perspective.”
Retired after working 35 years at the Alberta Motor Association (AMA) Honey said while he loves the people at the track, it’s the handicapping that has always attracted him. “It’s the challenge of picking a winner that I like best,” who can be found almost every morning at the track watching the work outs.”
Trying to find winners is also what attracts Rosnau to the sport. “When you bet a horse it’s like you own that horse for a couple of minutes. That horse becomes your horse.” Like Honey, Rosnau is a very astute handicapper. He said watching the horses in the paddock and then on post parade is how he has come up with plenty of longshot winners. “You can learn a lot watching the horses that way. Sometimes when you are at the paddock you can even hear the trainers giving he jockey instructions. But most I’m looking for horses that are behaving the way they are supposed to behave. A good horse will act like they know what’s going on. They are looking around as if they are saying to themselves ‘Hey, I can beat these slugs.’"
“I’ve cashed a lot of good bets down at the paddock and then watching them on post parade. I remember one time - and Rick Herchek can attest to this - that he and I were down at the paddock. Nothing stood out in the program and nothing stood out in the paddock either. But when the horses went onto the track and were finished the post parade there was one horse that suddenly caught my eye. After the post parade the horses turn and gallop back in front of the grandstand before heading to the backstretch. I turned to Rick and said ‘There’s your winner; the No. 6 horse.’"
“Rick looked at his Racing Form and then he looked at the odds board where the horse was 20-1. There was a moment when I thought Rick was going to reach for his phone, call 911 and tell them that he was standing next to a guy who must have escaped from a mental institute. But this horse looked different from the rest of them. He broke into a nice trot and then galloped easily. That’s what you want to see. You don’t want to see the jockey having to ask the horse to gallop. You want to see the horse do it all by himself and this horse was doing just that.”
Sure enough the horse won. “He wound up paying $132 and Rick and I both filled our pockets.” That was hardly the only big-priced longshot that Rosnau has picked out. “I don’t bet on simulcast racing very often - usually only when there is a big race I want to watch - but I was at Billy Budds off-track betting restaurant and lounge with another friend of mine, George Smith, a few years ago."
“George is a breeding consultant; he knows breeding like nobody else. And he’s always been high on Rubiano mares. There aren’t too many of them left. But there was one running that day. I turned to George and said ‘Here’s a good bet. Her form was pretty reasonable and she had finished third in his previous race. She was running seven furlongs which I thought was just right for her.”
Sure enough… “She paid $120 to win. When the race was over George and I went outside for a smoke and we saw longtime trainer Red McKenzie coming out shaking his head. He was mad at himself for not betting her. All I can say is if you see a Rubiano mare don’t ask questions; just bet.”
Rosnau was 12 when he first went to the track. “My sister was dating a guy who used to go to the track all the time. He took me one time and I just loved it. Those were the days when they had a live bugler and I thought this is pretty neat.”
Rosnau was hooked. “I saw my first Canadian Derby in 1971 - Kim’s Kid won it - and I haven’t missed a derby day since. Rosnau hasn’t missed thoroughbred racing’s opening day at Northlands either since he was 17 years old. “It’s not like the old days when the grandstand was packed all the time but opening day still always draws a good crowd and I’m sure I’ll see a lot of familiar faces that I haven’t seen in a while. Going to the track is almost like an escape. For three hours you don’t care abut the outside world. It’s like going to a concert. You hook up with friends, have a few laughs and shoot the breeze.”
Herchek, 70, has been confined to a wheelchair for the last 45 years but it hasn’t stopped him from going to the track all the time either. “I still look forward to opening day. When the thoroughbreds start running it’s when you know that spring has finally arrived. And with the winter we had it couldn’t come soon enough.”
Like Honey and Rosnau, Herchek has been a regular fixture at Northlands. Herchek first started going to the track when he was about 14. “My parents took me and I fell in love with it. I’ve been going to the races pretty steadily for 50 years - especially the last 40 years or so. The first Derby I saw was 1966 when Klondike Prince won. I bet the runner-up, Strayed Inn. He was 20-1 and missed by a head. That’s pretty much the story of my life - finishing second."
“With simulcast betting, you can now bet year round. When I first started going the only thing you could bet on was the live product. So, opening day isn’t as special as it used to be. But it’s still something I look forward to. The game has really changed. I remember the first time they brought in simulcast racing from southern California. I remember there was a $100,000 claiming race that day and I remember thinking ‘Wow.’"
“This year the Kentucky Derby is on Saturday too so that makes it even more special. My right arm has been giving me a lot of problems so it’s not as easy getting around in my wheelchair. But my plan is to get a cortisone shot this week so I’ll be ready for Saturday.”
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