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Tuesday, 07 May 2019 09:41

Riversedge Racing Stable in it for the long haul

Written by Curtis Stock
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Trooper John in the Ky Alta Trooper John in the Ky Alta Ryan Haynes/Coady Photo

This is all you need to know about Riversedge Racing Stable. They will pick up the Owner of the Year award at Saturday night’s thoroughbred awards dinner which honours the best of the best from 2018. Their horses won 79 races last year along with 39 seconds and 31 thirds. They won just under $900,000 in purse money - their best year ever. And here’s the kicker: they still lost money.

Just how much they lost they aren’t willing to say. “Let’s just say we lost an acceptable amount,” said Norm Castiglione, a general contractor who is partners with Robert Vargo, who used to own a General Motors dealership in Fort McMurray.

“Our goal is to try and break even and we almost did.” But then making money in horse racing has never been the goal of Riversedge.  Instead, it’s all about the passion. All about the sport.

“We’re in it for the long haul,” said Castiglione, who is also president of the Alberta Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association. “We’re in it for the game.” Expensive as that game may be to play.

But then Castiglione and Vargo never do things half way. They’ve been pushing all the chips into the pot for a long time now. “It’s all about the challenge,” said Vargo. “We like to buy and raise babies, watch them grow, watch them run and watch them win.”

Still Vargo would like to even have a chance of breaking even. “The star of the show has to be the horses. You have to have enough money for them to survive. That’s why we have to get the purses up. We have to do more for the horses. Bigger purses bring a better quality of racing.”

It was Vargo who got Castiglione hooked. “We had been friends for some 40 years. Robert had a horse named Knight’s Covenant in 2005 and one day he phoned me to say that he couldn’t make it to the races at Calgary’s Stampede Park; he asked me if I could go down and watch the race,” said Castiglione of the first horse Vargo ever owned and one which he bought for $30,000.

“The horse won so I went into the winner’s circle and got my picture taken. I was pretty excited. A little while later he said he couldn’t make it to the races again when Knight’s Covenant was running again. Sure enough I went and sure enough the horse won again. Now I was really excited.”

But that was nothing. Later that year Vargo put Knight’s Covenant, trained by Monica Russell, into the $150,000 Alberta Derby. “It was a muddy, muddy day. There were about 10 of us who went to Calgary that day.” Knight's Covenant didn’t disappoint. At odds of 27-1 he went wire to wire - the only horse in the race that didn’t come back covered in slop. I remember Robert saying to me ‘How easy is this?’ That was the beginning of the madness. That was the about $3 million ago.”

“My dad used to have thoroughbreds in Lethbridge in the 1960s. And I used to go to the track with him and watch them run,” said Vargo. “It was a lot of fun and I had a lot of fun with Knight’s Covenant.”

So did Castiglione. “After Knight’s Covenant won the Alberta Derby Norm said to me ‘I’m going to buy some horses myself,” said Vargo.

“I was looking for a couple more horses too, so I suggested that we become partners. That’s how it all started. I just didn’t expect to have 60 to 70 horses which we have now.”

Neither did Castiglione. “The fun of Knight’s Covenant took us to the stage of ‘let’s buy a couple of horses’ and have some more fun. “I never felt it would get this far along.”

While Castiglione and Vargo began their partnership in 2006 it wasn’t until 2010 that they jumped into the deep end. “I think we bought about 10 yearlings in 2010; now we’re buying about 20 yearlings a year.”

Tim Rycroft, who is entering his sixth year as Riversedge’s Alberta trainer and who will be feted along with Riversedge on Saturday as last year’s leading trainer, likes the looks of this year’s crop of two-year-olds.

“I took 12 babies to the starting gate the other morning and flat-footed them them in four sets of three. They all handled it very well. All of our babies have all breezed,” said Rycroft, who last year set a Canadian record last year when he entered six horses and won with everyone of them.

“There’s some pretty snappy babies; some very shiny juveniles. But they haven’t shown me enough to tell which ones are going to be special. Right now they all look good.”

Vargo, however, has two babies he particularly likes. One is Head Honcho, a two-year-old by Colonel John, who is the same sire as Trooper John, who was Horse of the Year two years ago, and Dignified Deprado, who was last year’s Alberta Yearling Sales topper at $53,000.

“We’re not just trying to win with the young horses. We’re trying to keep them around so they become good older horses too. If problems develop with the young horses Robert and Norm are more than willing to stop with them.”

While Riversedge won the Canadian Derby in 2015 with Academic that was a filly they owned in partnership with Dany Dion’s Bear Stables. “That’s the race we really want to win on our own,” said Vargo, who watched Riversedge’s Trooper John run second in the 2017 Derby, a race which is still under appeal.

They definitely have the bullets to win this year’s running beginning with Smarty River Pants, a home-bred out of the mare Smarty Jill, who won four of his five races last year - three of them stakes - before losing to stablemate Purple Storm in the Canadian Juvenile.

“Smarty grew stouter over the winter and I’m pretty sure he will go the distance. But it’s so early. Never mind not knowing exactly what we have is one thing, wondering what kind of horses Robertino (Diodoro) is going to bring in for the Derby is another matter.”

On top of that Riversedge also has a bunch of three-year-olds they own that either didn’t start at all last year or only made one or two starts. And they’re still buying more.

“We like to win,” said Vargo. “And when you like to win as much as we do you wind up buying more and more horses. We bought two more the other day. One is a two-year-old and the other is a three-year-old filly that I hope can win the Shirley Vargo,” he said of a race named after his late wife which Robert personally added $25,000 to the pot.

Perhaps fittingly, Riversedge won the first two runnings of the Shirley Vargo with Curlish Figure winning the inaugural and longshot Sail On By, who went off at 17-1, taking last year’s running. “Shirley always like longshots,” said Vargo after last year’s edition. “That’s why she picked me. I’m sure she was looking down and having a good laugh.”

Vargo has no idea how many horses he and Castiglione have owned together since 2006. “Norm said it would be fun to draw up a list of all the horses we’ve had so that’s what he has started doing. He’s up to 2015 and he’s already at 160 horses so that means we’ve probably topped 200.

“Every horse we’ve ever owned has always received the best of care. And when they’re finished racing we still look after them. Norm’s wife, Margi, makes sure of that because she looks after the retirees on the farm we own in Okotoks. “She makes sure they have a good life.”

As well as the farm in Okotoks which has it’s own training track, Riversedge also set up a training centre in Ocala, Florida that also includes a training track which they share with five other owners. “Not surprisingly, we found that the babies in particular like it a lot better in 80-degree temperatures in Florida than 30-below up here.”

Riversedge won one race on each of the first three cards at Century Mile including Stone Carver, who, despite being winter raced in Florida, paid $18 to win on Century Mile’s opening card at the end of April. Neither Castiglione nor Vargo bet a nickel.

“It’s like a goalie in hockey that won’t step on the blue line. We don’t bet on our own horses,” said Castiglione. “We don’t want to jinx them. The win purse is what we care about. We’ve started 12 horses in Alberta this year and we’ve had three wins, two seconds and three thirds so it’s been a pretty decent start.”

“Robert and Norm are good guys, good people and real good for the sport,” said Rycroft. “I like to win and I like to win with good horses and so do they. If I was struggling with seven or eight horses I probably wouldn’t still be training. I’m just not made that way. We really need to thank these guys for stepping up to the plate the way they’ve done.”

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