Dennis ‘Bear’ Sexton strode purposely to the stage at last week’s thoroughbred awards dinner to accept his Backstretch Appreciation accolades given to grooms and backstretch workers, who toil mostly in obscurity, for their outstanding dedication and diligence.
Nattily attired in a two-tone checkered brown suit he borrowed from his dad, a bow tie, vintage tweed flat cap, suspenders and a pocket watch he bought from Amazon, Sexton was right in seam with the award night’s Roaring 20s theme.
The honour was certainly justified. “It was special. Very, very special,” said Sexton, who turns 66 this week and who has been a groom almost his entire adult life. “To be recognized in that way for what I’ve done for horse racing was very nice. Especially now that I’ve had a chance to think about it and let it all settle in.”
At the track at 6 a.m. every morning and often still there late at night, Sexton said “The hours are long but it’s not a job. It’s a lifestyle. And this is where I’m happy. “Nobody really tells me what to do. I know what I’m supposed to do and I just do it,” said Sexton, who is now in his fifth year with Hall of Fame trainer R.K. ‘Red’ Smith.
First Sexton feeds the horses. Then he gets them ready to send to the track: brushing, saddling and putting on their bridles. When the horses are on the track Sexton cleans out their stalls and gets the next horses ready to gallop or work. “When they come back it’s bridle off, halter on and I take them to the wash rack for their bath. Then I do it all over again,” said Sexton, who can often be found on his knees cleaning the horse’s feet and rubbing their legs with an alcohol-baed solution to take out any soreness.
At night Sexton and Smith’s other groom, Cheryl Friesen, take turns feeding the horse’s their dinner and topping up their water buckets. “I leave them alone,” said Smith. “They know what they’re doing. Bear has been doing this a long time. He’s very good. And very reliable. The award he got was certainly well deserved. He and Cheryl both look after their work really well.”
Sexton first came to the track when he was 15. “I was going to Eastglen High School when my buddy got a job as an usher at Edmonton Oil Kings games at the old Edmonton Gardens. “I wanted to get a job too. The racetrack was right there and one morning I wandered over to see what was going on. Somebody asked me if I was a hot walker. I said ‘A hot walker? What’s a hot walker?’ The guy told me ‘You walk one of these.’ He pointed to a horse and said he’d give me $2 for every horse I walked. I said ‘I can do that.’”
School quickly became an afterthought. “I started missing more classes than I attended. Pretty soon I was at the track all the time. But when I was 33 I went back to school and got my high school diploma.”
Married twice, the first time when he was 23, Sexton spent the better part of 10 years working away from the track helping to raise three daughters. “I worked in a warehouse, worked the yard for Beaver Lumber, filled orders and loaded trucks for Cisco Foods and I was a shipper/receiver for Acklands Grainger. But I couldn’t stay away from the track. I had to come back to the horses,” said Sexton, who, as well as being a groom, worked as a jockey’s agent, on the starting gate, sold mutuel tickets, worked as a bouncer in the old Inner Rail at Northlands and as a barn foreman.
“I came back to the track and I’ve never left. I was always around in some way. I’ve had just about every job except for an owner or a trainer.”
Finding the ‘big horse’ - the horse that wins a bunch of stakes races - is every racetrackers’ dream. Whether you’re a groom, a trainer or an owner, the ‘big horse’ changes everything. “If you are lucky you get one of those horses in a lifetime. I’ve had two of them,” said Sexton proudly. “I had Big Dan and I had Killin Me Smalls.”
Big Dan was the king of Alberta thoroughbred racing in the early 1970s. A few years ago Killin Me Smalls was a multiple champion as well. Sexton thought he had another champion two years ago in Maskwecis, who was pointed to the Canadian Derby. But, just days before the 2020 Canadian Derby, Maskwecis - owned and trained by Smith - developed a quarter crack in one of his hooves and had to be scratched. Only getting to start two times last year Smith and Sexton thought they had Maskwecis ready this year. But, entered on this past Saturday’s card, Maskwecis developed another injury and had to be scratched again. “Everything was looking good. It’s a shame because he’s a great horse. He’s just had a lot of really bad luck.”
When asked how many trainers he has worked for Sexton said “Many. Many. Many. Many. Too many. “The first trainer I worked for was Freddy Melynchuk. What a great guy he was. Then I worked for guys like Gene White, Craig Smith and Ernie Keller, who trained Killin Me Smalls and who sadly passed away this winter. “Now I’m with Smitty.”
Asked why he has stayed around so long, Sexton had a ready answer. “The horses,” he quickly replied. “It’s not about the gambling. Not about the betting. It’s about looking after horses. And the people. They’re like family. But definitely the horses are first. I love them. Always have.”
Follow me on Twitter at CurtisJStock