Robert ‘Pinky' MacDonald didn't have a clue how to train thoroughbred horses when he and his uncle Lee Haynes decided — on a far-fetched whim — to buy a couple of race horses some 60 years ago. "I had no idea he was even buying them," recalled MacDonald, who is off to a very hot start at Edmonton's Century Mile with three wins from just seven starts.
"I had never seen a thoroughbred before. It was 1969. I was only about 19 years old at the time," said MacDonald, now 79. "Lee knew horses; he was a cowboy that rodeoed. I tried high school rodeo - calf roping and I tried - and the operative word is 'tried' to ride bucking horses. And a few years later I became a jockey. But I couldn't make the weight. But at that time I'd never seen a horse race. Never seen a starting gate. We were farmers in Taber."
Also an accomplished play-making hockey player - a centre he played senior A hockey in Medicine Hat for three years including one year when both of his Tigers' wingers had played in the NHL - MacDonald said "I always felt I was too small to be a hockey player and too big to be a jockey."
But here he was with a couple of thoroughbreds Lee had bought out of Lethbridge. So Lee, whose son Rod became a solid jockey, and Pinky started training them. Sixty years later, MacDonald has 540 career wins including a plethora of stakes winners mostly owned by the late Cam Richardson.
"I remember going up to Marcel Crowe, who would become a top trainer in Alberta, and asking him to teach me how to put bandages on a horse's legs. I didn't have any idea what to do. Lee and I both could ride but that was about all."
A year later MacDonald went to Toronto to try and buy some better horses than the two cheap claimers that Lee had purchased. "I picked Lou Cavalaris' brain all the time. He was the head trainer for Gardiner Farms. Gardiner Farms were the leading owners in Canada; Cavalaris was the nation's top trainer. "Ask from the best — isn't that the way to go?"
MacDonald learned quickly. But he also got a big break when Neil Cressman, who campaigned horses like Wild Deuces - one of the top horses in Alberta - retired as a trainer and convinced some of his owners to give some of their horses to MacDonald. "I got really lucky. Neil's owners gave me 15 horses to train."
Pinky never looked back especially after hooking up with Richardson, who would become the Senior Vice-President Finance and Chief Financial Officer of ATCO Ltd., and Nancy Southern, now ATCO's president and CEO as well as the Executive Vice President of Spruce Meadows' famous equestrian centre that was owned by her parents, Ron and Margaret. "We had a lot of fun together," said MacDonald. "And we had a lot of really nice horses. You couldn't meet two better people than Cam and Nancy."
Those ‘nice horses' is a long list. They include Northern Avalanche, who beat the boys as a two year old in the Stampede Futurity and whose mother was stakes winner Avalanche Express. Then there was Kelly's Guest, who was bought at the Alberta Yearling Sale. A nervous horse, Kelly's Guest wore a blanket into the starting gate to settler her down. She won a couple of stakes. Other top horses include -Jay, who was bought in Toronto that broke the track record at both Calgary's Stampede Park and Edmonton Northlands, Diamond Officer, who was second in the Alberta Derby and stakes winners Fiddle Five, Try Gentry, Mongo May and Sea Jay.
The last stakes winner that Richardson owned with Nancy Southern was King of Tides, a splashy chestnut who was purchased out of Toronto for the princely sum of $50,000 in 1997. "He didn't even make qualifying time in his first workout at Stampede Park," MacDonald said. "I was sick."
But King of Tides figured it out and rallied from seventh place to win a stake in Calgary on April 19, 1998. Sadly, Cam wasn't around to see it. He died just two and a half months earlier after a long battle with cancer on January 28, 1998 at the age of 65.
"He was Cam's dream horse," said Richardson's wife, Dale, one of more than 20 family members and friends who assembled in the winner's circle all with tears in their eyes. "There was an angel riding on King Of Tides shoulder when he started closing," she said that day. "He told everybody in the hospital: 'You be down there the first time this horse runs and you take your two dollars (to bet) with you.'"
"They broke the mould when we lost him," said MacDonald, who trained 25 seasons for Richardson, who was also a director of the Calgary Stampeders' football team and the Horsemen's Benevolent and Protective Association. "He was my best friend."
Another stakes winner MacDonald campaigned was King of the Rockies. "He won six or seven races in a row," said MacDonald. "Five of us claimed him for $10,000 and he went from winning a $12,000 claimer to winning a stake." MacDonald, who only trains a stable of six horses - which he says is all he wants - said he wasn't overly surprised by any of his three wins this year which is marked by Can't Touch This, who has won for $4,000 and again for $8,000 and Edge of Okotoks, who took a claiming/allowance race.
"Both of them had trained really well," said MacDonald. "But this is horse racing; there are no guarantees. I thought they would run OK but they ran better than I thought they would. You could say they ran as well as I hoped they would."
All three wins were wire-to-wire. "I claimed Can't Touch This for $6,250 last fall. She might be a better filly than I thought; a guy hopes but you never know," said MacDonald after Can't Touch This made it two-for-two this year last Sunday vying for the lead last Sunday and drawing away by 3 1/4 lengths.
Edge of Okotoks, who MacDonald also claimed last fall - for $12,500 - won impressively on May 28 by 2 1/2 lengths. "She tested the best as a two-year-old. I think she's going to be pretty handy. It's better to be lucky than smart don't you think? Both horses ran very well. But I'm holding my breath. At the races you don't know how long it is going to last."
STOCK REPORT - Good news for horse racing comes with the news that casinos like Century Mile will open on Thursday June 10. Off-track simulcast wagering will also restart on Thursday.
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