It was a cold, damp Sunday at Century Downs, but the weather did little to stifle the enthusiasm of a crowd that turned out to celebrate the best of Alberta bred thoroughbreds on Alberta Breeders Fall Classic Day. It’s the first time in the 22 year history of the event that it has been celebrated in the metro Calgary market.
I spent a good part of the afternoon meeting some of the owners and breeders, for whom this is a special day on the racing calendar. These are the folks whose investments in animals as a business make it possible for the rest of us to enjoy racing as a sport.
Take, for example, Gerald and Tina Stone from Madden AB. They’ve been breeding thoroughbreds now for 48 years. They used to have a table at Stampede Park from the time the grandstand first opened in 1974 until the racetrack shut down after the 2008 season. They are a great example of the perseverance a lot of owners and breeders have shown in staying involved in the business through a very difficult decade.
“Twelve years ago we bought Max Forever at the age of 6 and made him our resident stallion,” Tina told me. “He paid a dividend for us this year, siring Regal Max, which won a sterling battle with Shimshine in the Alberta Premiers to lead off the Fall Classic program. Four years ago we added Declassify which won the Gr. 1 Triple Bend Stake as a 4 year old. We try to buy mares in foal to good sires in Kentucky in the fall. We bring them back to Alberta and sell the offspring through the CTHS Sale. We’ve got four in this year’s catalogue including one by our own stallion, Declassify.”
“We both love that Regal Max,” chimed in Gerald. “I remember when he was offered at sale two years ago and there wasn’t very much interest. I recall saying to (trainer) Rick Hedge….”Ricky this is a great horse. You should buy him.” Well, Hedge did for the Almac Racing Stable and for Kerredge Farm. Regal Max has gone on to win four times in 14 lifetime starts and piled up nearly $150,000 in career earnings.
“We love the horses we produce,” continued Tina. “We want to see them with good owners and trainers who will take good care of them and develop them.”
Stone Ranches had six horses scattered across the seven stakes events. Water Wagon finished second in the Alberta Breeders, Parcam Cowgirl was second in the Fall Classic Distaff, and Madam Bullet finished third in the Alberta Oaks. So, a good day for the Stones as the Alberta breeders bonus and the stallion bonus programs will contribute some revenue.
“Those programs are really important to us,” says Tina. “They’re not where they need to be at this point and we’re hoping the opening of Century Mile next year and an anticipated jump in purses at some point, will mean that more money can be put into those programs.”
A few hundred kilometres northwest of Calgary, Al and Barbara Side were at Evergreen Park in Grande Prairie with family and friends, watching the races on a television monitor. The day finished strongly for them when Miss Hesi captured the Sturgeon River Stakes for 2 year old fillies and Instant Wyn finished second to I Miss Back When in the Alberta Oaks.
“We won the Canadian Derby in 2010 with No Hesitation,” Barb told me. “We bought him out of a sale of about 80 horses in Pomona California. He was great for us as a race horse and he sired Miss Hesi. She was great (today), going 4-wide on the final turn and getting up to win by half a length. And we have more coming from him, although we don’t have anything for this year’s sale.”
The I Miss Back When story is interesting as well. The horse became available last February and trainer, Tim Rycroft made a call to Doug and Cheryl Allen, who live in Troy Montana, on the west side of the state.
“We used to have horses with Lori Going, who’s married to Tim,” Cheryl told me. When Lori retired from training we left the business and haven’t been involved for about a decade. Then Tim called in February and said he had this 3 year old filly and would we like to buy it. Doug told him to go ahead and make the deal. And she’s been great. We love to see her race. (she has a 3-2-2 log from 7 starts this year and earnings of just about $90,000). The only problem is that when we got her, we had 37,000 miles on our truck. Now we’re up to about 57,000. But she certainly doesn’t owe us anything and we’ve had the joy of watching her compete.”
The biggest winners on the day, at least among the breeders, was Bar None Ranches of De Winton. They bred three winners. Zippity Zap won the Alberta Breeders, in a photo finish with Water Wagon and Black Magic River. Irish Gold took the Red Diamond Express. And one of their own, Our Sammi, came through to win the Fall Classic Distaff.
“A good day,” said Shaun Rathy, who has managed the breeding program at Bar None for the past eight years. “I’m especially proud of Our Sammi, who had some problems early in her career and missed all of her 3 year old season. She’s by Schramsberg out of Ensnare. We usually make decisions on breeding after a discussion among the staff, but this was one that I made on my own. So I’m really happy with how it’s turned out. Again, we’ve had to be patient with her but that patience has paid off.”
This year’s top Alberta stable, Riversedge of Okotoks, captured the Premiers Futurity with Smarty River Pants. The 2 year old gelding is a homebred. He’s now 4 for 4 lifetime and left no doubt that when the chatter begins for the Derby in 2019, his name should be in the conversation.
“We started out in 2005 by getting Knight’s Covenant,” co-owner, Robert Vargo, told me. “Now we’re up to about 70 horses that are racing. We have ten or fifteen retired horses, including Knight’s Covenant. And we’ve got some breeding stock which we are working to upgrade. I’m not sure how much money we’ve spent (he probably doesn’t want to know!) but we’ve built a good operation.”
His business partner, Norm Castiglione, agrees. “I’m excited about racing moving into Century Mile next year,” he told me. “I think it’ll make a big difference in getting the business model for horse racing in Alberta strengthened. We need to improve incentives for owners and breeders to be involved in the business in Alberta.”
That feeling is echoed by Bob Kramer, head of the fledgling Alberta Thoroughbred Owners and Breeders Association. That group has had a hand in raising dollars for the Founders Distaff and for the Harvest Plate, both of which will be run at Century Downs on Thanksgiving Monday, Oct. 8th.
“We simply must rebuild our ownership and breeder base in southern Alberta, and part of that is strengthening the racing program to be offered at Century Downs,” Bob told me. “(Today) was a tough day weather-wise, but we still had 150 people join us at our infield tent party. I hope at least a few of those people will renew their commitment to the sport now that we are back in the metro Calgary market. We’ve got six years left on our financial deal with the province and we need to strengthen our industry to ensure that the province will want to keep that deal going.”
“We also need to strengthen our breeding program. Right now, we’re looking for yearlings. I’d like to have a 2 year olds in training sale next spring when Century Mile opens. My goal is to add up to 150 racing horses to the mix over the next six years to demonstrate that we are serious about improving breeding and building up that side of the industry. That’s what the government wants us to do to maintain the sport as part of the strong agricultural tradition in the province. We need to show the government that we are capable of meeting that objective.”
Meanwhile, among riders and trainers, there was a pretty good distribution of earnings. The riders, in particular, deserve a tip o’ the toque (yes, that would have been appropriate headgear) for competing in the cold. Shamaree Muir won two stakes, the Beaufort with Regal Max and the Sturgeon River with Miss Hesi. Rey Williams also made it to the winner’s circle on two occasions, with Zippity Zap in the Alberta Breeders and with Irish Gold in the Red Diamond Express. Wilmer Galvez won the Premiers with Smarty River Pants. Shannon Beauregard booted home Our Sammi in the Fall Classic Distaff and Rico Sarmiento got the job done in the Alberta Oaks with I Miss Back When.
Among the trainers, Tim Rycroft won twice with Smarty River Pants and with I Miss Back When. Rick Hedge trains the Beaufort winner, Regal Max. Craig Smith handles Zippity Zap which won the Alberta Breeders. Jerri Robertson scored with Irish Gold in the Red Diamond. Ron Grieves trains Our Sammi, winner of the Fall Classic Distaff. And veteran conditioner, Ernie Keller, made it to the winner’s circle after Miss Hesi won the Sturgeon River Stakes for 2 year old fillies.
The seven stakes races plus three supporting overnight races made it a strong card and provided some funds to a broad cross section of owners. Hopefully, now, it will inspire a little shopping trip to Olds on Wednesday afternoon where the CTHS Sale takes place at the Megadome. The auction begins at 2 PM.