Soon it will be over and it will be sad. At 6:55 p.m. Saturday night the last thoroughbred race at Northlands, the $200,000 Canadian Derby, will be run marking an end to 118 years of horse racing at its present location. People will yell. People will cheer. But there will also be sadness and in many corners some warm tears.
Saying good bye is never easy. Especially to a longtime friend. I worked at Northlands. But mostly I wrote about Northlands. Especially horse racing, a sport which I loved writing about - for some 45 years - more than anything else. The horses. The people. The smells. The victories. The defeats. I wrote about the good times and the bad.
I was there when, in the late 1970s and early 1980s, they used to bet $1 million every Saturday and that was when there was no simulcast racing, no off-track betting and no betting on computers or anything else. The million-dollar days were all money bet on track. And that was when a million dollars was really big.
For many years Northlands, in little old Edmonton, used to be the per-capita betting capital in all of North America. In 1981 the average daily betting on thoroughbred racing reached $858,026; harness racing’s average that year was $559,635. Every radio station carried selections and results. The Journal carried selections, full charts and stories six days a week. Some of the best thoroughbreds in Canada would come to Edmonton for the Derby.
Harness racing, not in terms of dollars and cents, was actually even bigger because in those days - under the watchful eye of people like Colin Forbes and Morris Taylor, who have both long since left us - the best standardbreds in North America would come to Northlands for the Stewart Fraser Memorial and a couple of Breeders’ Crown races.
Those were magical days. Northlands was run by a board of directors that were the Who’s Who of Edmonton. Those directors - people like Ernie Smallian, Mickey Awid, Ted Mildon, Walter and Don Sprague, Bob Westbury and Jack Bailey ensured that horse racing stayed vibrant. There were promotions every week. Wallet Day. Men’s Day. Women’s Day. Giveaways.
And now, soon, it will be over. Fade to black.
But enough melancholy. Here’s a look at Saturday’s Derby: In a wonderful video on this site at thehorses.com called ‘Homegrown Heroes,’ Horse Racing Alberta has a feature on the two Alberta-breds in Saturday’s Derby Regal Max and Shimshine.
Regal Max was purchased for just $2,200 at the Alberta Yearling Sales. Shimshine was claimed for just $12,000. Shimshine has since won $183,113; Regal Max has won $139,668. They are both the kind of rags-to-riches stories that horse racing is founded on.
“It’s been my dream for the last 20 years to win the Canadian Derby,” Jason Petruniak, the son of Shimshine’s owner Walter, says in the video. “Not for me. I wanted to win it for my dad.” When Jason says that he immediately chokes up. “It’s David versus Goliath and we are definitely David.”
It’s true. And so is Regal Max.
Shimshine is trained by Elige Bourne, who never had a single stakes winner until this handsome chestnut came along. Rick Hedge has won several stakes - especially the last few years - but, like Bourne, he ran a relatively small operation. Both were jockeys. Bourne won almost 2,000 races - mostly in the bush meets. Hedge won over 2,400 races on the A circuit.
Both work very hard. And both have a fighter’s chance in the Derby.
“We’ve never had a horse anything close to be able to run in the Derby,” said Walter at Wednesday’s post position draw. “It’s basically a dream. Elige had to talk us into claiming Shimshine. At first we weren’t sold. Thank goodness Elige persisted. Twelve thousand dollars was all we had in our horse racing account. If he had cost a penny more we wouldn’t have claimed him.”
But they have the ‘Goliaths’ to topple. Robertino Diodoro, who started training in Alberta, is now one of the leading trainers in North America. He has 140 horses in his care. Diodoro has sent out three horses that crossed the finish line in front in the Derby: Broadway Empire in 2013; Edison in 2014 and then Chief Know It All last year - a race that still isn’t official and now tied up in the courts.
Diodoro sends out two of the favourites in Saturday’s 89th renewal of the Derby: Hyndford, who was bought privately off of trainer Todd Pletcher for $140,000 and Sky Promise, who was claimed for $40,000.
Sky Promise, who won the Manitoba Derby in a spectacular romp in his last start, has run against the likes of Blended Citizen, who won the Peter Pan and then ran in the Belmont. Hyndford ran second - defeated by just two lengths - by Magnum Moon, who won both the Grade I Arkansas Derby and the Grade 2 Rebel Stakes. Hyndford, I believe, is the best horse in the race. But as Diodoro was saying Wednesday the distance could be a question especially for a horse that hasn’t run since June 23.
“He’s not a big horse and he doesn’t put a lot into his training. He’s very laid back. A 12-year-old could ride him. But he and Sky Promise are both happy horses and they have both been training well.”
“There are no question marks about the distance for Sky Promise and I think Hyndford will get the mile and three-eighths too,” said Tim Rollingson, one of the owners of both Sky Promise and Hyndford. “We wouldn’t be here if we didn’t think he could get the distance.”
Sky Promise was the first horse drawn on Wednesday and his connections took post 4. After Shimshine was the second horse drawn and took post 5, Hyndford’s name came up and his owners opted for post 3. If there’s a clue to which horse is the best, Northlands leading jockey Rico Walcott is named on both but his first preference is Sky Promise. Wilmer Galviz, very talented in his own right, will most likely ride Hyndford.
Walcott could also have ridden Shimshine, who he has always been aboard. Hyndford will be forwardly placed in the Derby; Sky Promise will be at the back along with Day Raider, a Vancouver invader who will also be hoping for a good pace to run at.
“He’s a big, strong boy with a good head on his shoulders,” said Day Raider’s trainer, Craig MacPherson. “He’s never been off the board. He always shows up.”
In his last start Day Raider won the Winston Churchill Derby Trial at Vancouver’s Hastings Park going away. One of the horses Day Raider defeated in Vancouver was Apalachee Bay, who defeated the local boys by five lengths in the Count Lathum. Day Raider will arrive in Edmonton on Thursday. “I think he’ll handle the ship well,” said MacPherson.
There are a couple of horses who will go off at relatively generous odds that have a chance: Gem Alta, who took the last post available which, somewhat surprisingly, was the rail, and Pickford, who starts from post 2. “If he runs back to that non-winners of two races lifetime, I think he’ll be tough,” said Gem Alta’s trainer Tim Rycroft, the runaway leading conditioner in Alberta this year.
“I know it was just a non-winners of two race but he was very impressive,” Rycroft said of the race Gem Alta won by an eased-up nine lengths. “We’ll also be able to take off the bar shoe he had been running with to protect an old quarter crack.”
Pickford is an interesting study. He had been running decently enough in allowance company in Kentucky but he flopped badly in his last appearance which was the Count Lathum. Since then Pickford has two solid black-letter works to his name: a four-furlong work in :45 3/5 and five furlongs in :59 4/5. Throw out the Count Lathum and Pickford is definitely a horse with a shot.
STOCK REPORT - The Derby is the last race on a 12-race card that starts at noon; the Derby itself will go at 6:55 p.m. There are two other interesting stakes on the card: the $50,000 Timely Ruckus for aged horses and the $75,000 City of Edmonton Distaff for fillies and mares.