Killin Me Smalls’ career was dangling on a frayed string. Inarguably one of the greatest thoroughbreds to ever race in Alberta, the eight-year-old came into this past Saturday’s Fred Jones with his future pending on the outcome - the cruel chiming of the clock ticking solemnly in the background.
“If he ran another bad race then we were going to take him home,” said Ed Welsh, who owns Killin Me Smalls with Dennis Dale. We didn’t want to embarrass him. He’s just been too good to us.”
A two-time Horse of the Year and a three-time Aged Champion, Killin Me Smalls was not only winless in his last six starts he looked spent. There was no sizzle. Just fizzle. Time seemed to have firmly wrapped itself around his heaving chest and said no more.
After winning the Speed to Spare last September - his fourth consecutive victory including nine length romps in both the Don Getty and the Westerner - Killin Me Smalls finished ahead of just three horses in his last three starts of 2017. He was seventh in an allowance race at Century Downs, eighth in the Premiers Handicap and eighth again in the Harvest Gold, the latter also at Century Downs. It was like someone had drawn a moustache on the Mona Lisa.
This year started off just slightly better. He finished third in an allowance race and third again in The Journal. Not bad but hardly like the ‘old’ Killin Me Smalls who entered every race like he was a heavy weight champion - fighting and clawing for all he was worth. In neither of those two third-place efforts was he ever a contender.
And then there was his last appearance, the June 9 Spangled Jimmy. Killin Me Smalls took off after Double Bear but after only half of the one-mile race Killin Me Smalls called it a day and ended up seventh and last - defeated by a staggering and sobering 17 lengths. It was so unlike Killin Me Smalls, who had previously never heard of the word ‘quit.’ Six straight appearances with only a couple of lukewarm thirds.
With all that hanging in the balance, Killin Me Smalls entered the Fred Jones, named after not only one of Alberta’s all-time leading trainers but a tremendous human being who fought his own battle with inoperable stomach cancer with dignity and courage before passing almost two decades ago.
In the grandstand, Welsh stood anxious, nervously shifting from side to side. On the tarmac, trainer Ernie Keller didn’t know what to think. Relentlessly working on what he described as ‘little nagging problems’, Keller could only hope. “I’m not going to tell you what those problems were but I didn’t think they were serious. My son Mark found a couple of things that were hard to detect and I thought we had him good again. I also really thought that one of the reasons why he ran so poorly last time was the track. It was heavy, tiring surface and Killin Me Smalls likes it fast. But it was up to Killin Me Smalls to prove us wrong or right.”
With a minute to post, five of the six contestants were amazingly all showing 4-1 odds on the tote board in a race that no one could seem to decipher. Late money went on the tenacious Double Bear making him a tepid 2-1 favourite followed closely by Sir Bronx, who was exiting a powerful seven length allowance victory. Killin Me Smalls stayed at 4-1 - bettors either somehow believing he could turn it around or naysayers figuring he was done.
Then the starting gate clanged open and the field was sent on their way. Sir Bronx went quickly to the top getting the opening quarter in :23 4/5 seconds. But after half a mile, Double Bear engaged him and the pair went head to head through a half in :47 1/5. Meanwhile, Killin Me Smalls got away third under jockey Larry Munoz, who replaced regular rider Keishan Balgobin in an attempt, Keller said “Just to shake things up.
“Larry is Killin Me Smalls regular exercise and gallop rider. He gets on him every morning. And he’s the one who works him. Nobody knows Killin Me Smalls like Larry so we decided to give him a shot and see if that would make a difference.”
As the field head down the backstretch for the final time, Sir Bronx and Double Bear continued to duel while Killin Me Smalls sat third three lengths behind the pace setters. “At that point I was wondering if that was the best Killin Me Smalls had or if Larry was still sitting on him,” said Keller. The answer, with three-eighths of a mile left to run, came in a heart beat.
Munoz shook the reins and Killin Me Smalls, picking up the bit the way he used to, pounced three wide. “He moved and I said ‘Holy crap,’” said Keller. “When he moved he moved good.”
“I knew I had the race won right there,” Munoz would say later of the powerful surging kick Killin Me Smalls gave him. He relaxed beautifully and when I asked him he exploded. It was a pleasure to ride him in a race and not just in the mornings.”
Moving past the leaders with aplomb, nothing was going to stop Killin Me Smalls, who cruised on to a two-and-a-half length victory over Double Bear. The old boy was back. And how. “I knew he didn’t need the front end to win,” said Keller. “He can come from off the pace too which he obviously showed today. And, he won pretty easily too,” said Keller.
Did he ever. Getting the mile and a sixteenth in 1:43 flat, the time was just two-fifths of a second off the track record which belongs to Chilcoton Blaze and has stood since 1984. “Wow,” said Mark. “Wow,” echoed Welsh. “I guess he’s not going home after all. Not yet anyway.”
“It was a relief,” admitted Keller. “Finally. Maybe he remembered that he had won this race last year too. “It didn’t hurt that Trooper John wasn’t in the field,” Keller said of last year’s Horse of the Year who is nursing a minor injury. Nor did it hurt his chances that Born In a Breeze, winner of the June 9 Spangled Jimmy is sidelined after having surgery to remove a knee chip.
Still… Saturday’s spell-binding riches to rags to riches victory was the 21st in 49 career starts for Killin Me Smalls, who was astutely claimed four years ago for $25,000 which was even less than the $29,400 first-place cheque Killin Me Smalls earned in the Fred Jones. “How much has he won now?” inquired Keller about an answer that is a resounding $690,435.
One of the first people to congratulate Keller was longtime jockey’s agent John Heath. “I was talking to Ernie the other morning and he was saying he had forgotten how to find the winner’s circle,” said Heath. “I said ‘Ernie, don’t worry. When the wins come they’ll come in bunches. Friday he won two races now he wins again with Killin Me Smalls.”
“He’s a momentum horse,” said Welsh. “Once he gets rolling… Last year he had two fourth-place finishes in a row and then he won four in a row. Going into the race we thought maybe this was the end of the road. If he had run a bad one we would have turned him out and let the mosquitos eat him. I really didn’t want to see that. Now… Who knows?”
“Maybe he can get on a roll again,” said Keller. “Wouldn’t that be something.” No, Ernie. ‘Something’ has already happened. And that resurrection in the Fred Jones really was something.
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