Perhaps it was fate. Jockey Dane Nelson, a three-time riding champion in Jamaica, moved his tack to Winnipeg in 2015. That summer he came to Edmonton’s Northlands Park to ride Witt Six in the Canadian Derby. Witt Six was no match for the filly Academic that day but still ran a very credible, albeit well-beaten second in the fastest Derby in 14 years.
But Nelson, a very personable man who always seems to smile anyway, still left Edmonton grinning. He won two other stakes races that day - taking the Sonoma with Hero’s Amor and the Sun Sprint with Clear the Runway. Both horses were trained by Tim Rycroft, who also saddled the Derby winner.
“That was the first time I had ever ridden in Alberta,” said Nelson, who is Century Mile’s leading rider this meet. “It was a great day. I met a lot of great people. The next year I came to Edmonton and never left.”
Nelson, who won two races last Saturday - along with three seconds and a third - and another win and a second on Sunday, has 20 wins from 61 mounts. That’s three more than accomplished jockeys Wilmer Galviz and seven more than Rigo Sarmiento.
“This is the best start I’ve had,” said Nelson, a very, good aggressive gate rider who can really finish on a horse. “I’m trying to make everyone happy - owners, trainers and the fans. I’m trying to win as many races as I can,” said Nelson, who was the leading rider in Jamaica in 2012, 2013 and 2014.
In 2016, his first full year in Alberta, he finished second to perennial leading rider Rico Walcott, who is currently battling back from surgery to remove a brain tumour. In 2017 he was third.
“I love my job. I love what I do,” said Nelson, 34. “It’s the only job I do so I have to do it well. I love horses so much. And I love the sport so much. I enjoy every moment. Win. Lose. I enjoy it. Fortunately I’ve been injury free. And I keep fit.”
Nelson said he isn’t surprised to be leading the jockey standings at Century Mile. “I’m feeling more and more confident and I’m getting good horses to ride. I know I have the talent.”
There wasn’t much doubt about what career path Nelson was going to take. “My father is a trainer,” said Nelson. “He won six races in one day back home. I also have eight uncles and cousins who are jockeys. I used to go to the track before I started riding in 2002. And my grandfather was a jockey. I was the perfect size with he perfect body to be a jockey. I’m 5’4” and weigh 115 pounds. There was no way I was going to be a football player,” he laughed.
Nelson said ‘focus’ is what he concentrates on the most. “Every second counts out there. In a race you have to think and know what you are going to do every moment. You have to always be thinking. It takes talent. But you have to be smart. You have to know when to move because every horse runs differently and every race is different as well. It’s a very technical job. You get instructions from the trainer but sometimes you have to change the game plan. And that happens in seconds. You’re never alone because you always have competitors with different talents that are trying to do the same thing as you are - win the race.”
Getting good position early in the race is also key. “Everybody wants that. You can’t ride the same way in traffic that you can when you are in the clear. This track is speed biased so you don’t want to get too far from the lead. But, at the same time, you have to be a good judge of pace. There’s a very long stretch at (Century Mile).”
While Century Mile is a mile in circumference - the only one mile track west of Toronto - Northlands was a five-eighths of a mile track. But Nelson is used to riding at larger tracks. He said the track in Jamaica, Caymanas Park, where he used to ride was a mile and three-quarters with a nine-furlong chute. “I feel more at home at a big track than I do on a smaller track. I have more time to do what I have to do.”
Nelson also has a big key in his corner: agent Bob Fowlis. “He’s the man,” said Nelson. “Whatever Bob says I ride. We make a good team."
“He knows the horses. He knows every horse on the grounds. He knows everything. He’s the one who does all the work. I just ride; I just try and deliver,” Nelson said of Fowlis, who remains Walcott’s agent, and also had the book for jockeys like Quincy Welch - “I've won more races with Quincy than any other rider,” - Jamie Santos, Real Simard, Shannon Beauregard and Keishan Balgobin.
“I’ve been fortunate to represent a lot of good riders and work with a lot of good trainers,” said Fowlis, who also represents Rey Williams and Prayven Badrie, the latter who is just returning from a broken collar bone incurred in a spill on Century Mile’s opening day card. Badrie, who is also from Winnipeg’s Assiniboia Downs, rode the brilliant Escape Clause to victory in one of his wins last year.
“The key to being a good agent is good riders and good horses,” said Fowlis. “I remember a former agent, Garth Tobin, once saying to me ‘You sell Coke and I sell 7-Up.’ This year has been different with the situation with Rico. But Dane can ride. He’s a very good jockey. He’s also very good to work with. And he keeps himself in shape. Right from the beginning he would go for long jogs which was a good sign."
“He was second fiddle in a lot of barns in the past but this year he is getting better horses and is able to show his natural ability. I noticed him when I was watching the simulcast races from Winnipeg in 2015. Even before he came here to ride in the Derby,” said Fowlis, 61 who has been an agent for 24 years. “I knew then that he had ability. If the horses he was riding had a chance to win he would get them home.”
Fowlis said the hardest part of his job is when you have to make decisions with horses entered by different stables. “You can only ride one horse in a race. Turning someone down can be tough. Some of the trainers I deal with are my friends. I kind of feel like I’m disappointing them. The bigger barns win a lot of races at all racetracks; the majority of races are won by the big barns. I try and establish a good rapport with the trainers that win races.”
One of the big barns Nelson has been riding for is Greg Tracy. “I knew Dane could ride when he came over from Winnipeg in 2015 for the Derby and won those two stakes. I knew then that he had talent. He listens. He's easy to talk to,” said Tracy. “He’s been working with me all spring. He’s got a clock. He knows when horses are going too fast or too slow. He understands the race. And he’s been around. He’s no kid.”
Tracy, Nelson and Fowlis have some choices to make for this Sunday’s pair of stakes races: the $50,000 Chariot Chaser for three-year-old fillies and the $50,000 Western Canada Handicap for three-year-old colts, the latter being the first prep race for the Aug. 18 $250,000 Canadian Derby.
"Greg has three horses nominated for both the Chariot Chaser and the Western Canada. If he runs just one horse then we’ll ride that one. If he runs two or three then we’ve got a decision to make,” said Fowlis.
The three horses Tracy has nominated to the Western Canada are Coco Tiger, who was stakes placed last year in the Birdcatcher and who won an allowance race on May 9 by two and a half lengths; Hawkwood, who Nelson rode to a six-length win in an open maiden race on May 19 and Thatsafactjack, who Nelson was also aboard for a seven-and-a-quarter length win in a maiden claimer on May 4.
“Quincy will probably ride Coco Tiger. The decision is between Hawkwood and Thatsafactjack,” said Fowlis.
For the Chariot Chaser Tracy has nominated Im Evin Im Leavin, who was second in last year’s Freedom of the City and who has won her last two starts - both very handily - at Sunland Park in New Mexico; Miss McFad, who Nelson has ridden the last two times including an easy four-and-a-quarter length victory on May 18 and Samurai Girl, who had Nelson aboard on May 19 when she won an allowance race by almost four lengths.
There’s also a fourth horse to throw into the equation: Exactly, who ran to her sizzling workouts just this past Saturday with Nelson aboard in a most impressive debut. Nelson, who won the recent JetSet Handicap with Ruffenuff, said he doesn't have a preference. “It’s up to Bob. Whatever he decides is fine with me.”
Fowlis said Rico Walcott is battling his brain cancer very well. “Rico has another MRI in early June. If the doctor is happy with the results then maybe he can resume his life. He’s hoping to return in June. “They got the majority of his brain tumour out. They’ve taken him off the stronger medication. He feels great.”
As well as Exactly’s wonderful opener, another top performance from this past weekend was turned in by Stone Carver, who won a five-and-a-half furlong allowance race by six-and-a-half lengths over veteran Killin Me Smalls in a track record 1:03 flat. A winter-raced four-year-old, it was Stone Carver’s second consecutive win at Century Mile.
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