A quiet, humble man, who never bragged about all his many accomplishments, Dale Saunders, who this week was unanimously named Canada’s E. P. Taylor Award of Merit winner of 2022, has threatened to retire every fall for about the last 10 years. But he couldn’t pull the trigger and pull himself away. Starting out in the mid 1960s thoroughbred racing was deep in his blood and training these majestic, magnificent animals was the only thing the man known as the ‘Colonel’ really knew.
He was also wildly successful. When Saunders had a horse in a race he was always a threat. You don’t win 2,177 races by accident. But, last fall, with a knee so bad that he constantly cringed in pain, he said he was calling it quits. This time for good.
Maybe. “I shouldn’t say no but I don’t think so,” Saunders said from his farm in Bowden which lies right on the west side of Highway 2 - a pitching wedge away from the Bowden golf course.
“I’ve thought about it. I don’t have any hobbies. Before, I was at the track all the time.” Morning to night. Mostly seven days a week. “It makes it hard with nothing to do.”
What’s changed and what has Saunders, 80, thinking about coming back is that his balking knee is “100 per cent. “Last spring I could hardly walk. They drained my knee and gave me a cortisone shot. They also put me on a list for a knee replacement.
“But on September 2nd I went to a sports clinic in Red Deer. A young doctor injected a new kind of gel - I can’t remember what the name of it is - and it started to get better quick.
“In just about a month it quit bothering me. Completely. So I don’t know. I wouldn’t mind doing something to keep me busy. If I do come back it will be in a minor way.”
The E. P. Taylor award which used to be called ‘Man of the Year’ is a lifetime achievement award honouring those who have made significant contributions to the Thoroughbred Industry in Canada. In the Jockey Club of Canada’s release the honour is also awarded to “accomplished outstanding individual achievements in Canadian thoroughbred racing and breeding.”
It will be presented at the Sovereign Awards in Toronto on April 13. As modest as he is, Saunders was actually seriously thinking about not even attending. “But it’s probably a pretty big deal. It’s nice to get something like that.”
A ‘pretty big deal?’ It’s just the biggest award in Canadian racing. Jockeys Ron Turcotte and Sandy Hawley were honoured with E. P. Taylor Award of Merits/Man of the Year. So have Ernie Samuel, George Frosted and Taylor himself.
“I guess I’m in with some pretty good company,” said Saunders. “I’ll probably go with my wife Barb and my daughter Nicky. It was a complete surprise. The first I heard about it was from a text from Robertino Diodoro,” he said of one of North America’s leading trainers who got his start in Alberta. Saunders absolutely deserved it.
As well as winning those 2,177 races, Saunders horses amassed $17.4 million in earnings. Eight times he has been Alberta’s leading trainer: 1983 (when he won a career high 88 races) 1985, 1987, 1988, 1989, 1996, 1999 and 2013. In 2012 Saunders was also named Horseperson of the Year at the Alberta Thoroughbred Awards.
The victories came from many of the top thoroughbreds in Alberta horse racing history: Dark Hours, Shady Remark, Highland Leader, Fair March, Libby’s Love, Lil ‘ol Gal and Mandalero.
“I won a lot of races with a lot of very nice horses. But Dark Hours was probably the best horse I ever trained,” he said of a horse that was first or second in 26 of 34 starts.
In 1996 alone Dark Hours won six of eight races winning an allowance race, the M.R. Jenkins Memorial, Wild Rose, the Elmbrook, Madamoiselle and the City of Edmonton Distaff - the latter on the same day that Wild Creek, who arguably became Alberta’s best broodmare, won a division of the Bird of Pay.
She was even better in 1995 when Dark Hours was first five times and second four times in just 10 starts. That year she won the Duchess of York, the B.C. Oaks, Sonoma, Rundle Heights, Mount Royal and an allowance race while finishing second in the Ballerina, Buttons and Bows, Junior Miss and Chariot Chaser.
Shady Remark and Highland Leader, who were both foaled in 1995, were also stellar. Shady Remark had 20 wins, 21 seconds and 15 thirds in 118 starts. She won $441,194. Highland Leader, just as consistent, won 26 races, finished second 24 times and third on 30 occasions. He won $459,091.
“It’s too bad that they both raced the same years,” said Saunders. “They ran one-two in five or six races. Shady Remark would win one race and Highland Leader would be second. The next time Highland Leader would win and Shady Remark would be second.
“They both tried real hard; they never gave up. Shady Remark was a very versatile colt. He had good speed and could go short or long. He had a big heart; he didn’t have to be in front. Highland Leader was much the same.”
Libby’s Love had as much talent as any of them winning seven of 15 starts. She won the first six races of her life. She was pretty special.” Then there were Lil ‘ol Gal, who won 16 races; Fair March, who won 26 times in 64 starts while finishing second 13 times and Mandalero, who won 10 of 23 starts. “Lil ‘ol Gal tried hard every time. Fair March won a lot of races; I had him all of his life. He could be a funny horse off the track - he was hard to train - but he was no problem at all when he was running.”
One of the few stakes that escaped Saunders was the Canadian Derby. “I probably should’ve won it with Mandalero in 1989 but the track came up muddy. He had never trained or run in the mud before. Mike McMullen, who rode Mandalero, said Mandalero was just learning to run in the mud,” said Saunders. “He didn’t like all that wet crap that was hitting him in the race. He only ran the last three-eighths of a mile.
“Three weeks later I ran Mandalero against older horses in the Speed To Spare,” he said of the horse who once won the Count Lathum by 15 lengths. “The track was muddy that day too but he still won.”
Mandalero was claimed by Saunders out of the horse’s first race for $18,000 and immediately reeled off three straight wins. But what stands out most for Saunders was his success in The Alberta Fall Classic Day - Alberta’s version of the Breeders’ Cup.
Saunders doesn’t remember how many of those races - seven stakes for Alberta-breds - he has won but an estimate of a dozen is probably pretty accurate. “I got lucky a few times,” said Saunders, in his familiar self-effacing style.
One of Saunders’ horses, Brady’s Tomboy, won three of those races by himself taking the Fall Classic Distaff in 2013, when he won by 12 lengths, and then won the next two editions of the Distaff in 2014 - by a head over Tempered Sky when Brady’s Tomboy was somehow the longest shot in the field - and then again in 2015 when he still wasn’t favoured.
In 2015 Saunders also took two other Fall Classic races: the Alberta Oaks with Blameitontheknight and the Alberta Breeders with Wild Legend. The latter is more of the influence of Wild Creek, owned by Saunders’ wife, Barb. “I claimed Wild Creek’s dam, Selma, off of Marcel Crowe. Wild Creek did very well winning 10 of her 17 starts and then Barb kept her as a broodmare.”
One after another offspring of Wild Creek came rolling in - especially on Alberta Fall Classic Days - horses like Wild Legend, Wild Bender, Wild Crush, Wild Romeo and Go Wild. It was no surprise that Saunders got into horse racing.
His dad, Roy, a mixed farmer, who also raised cattle, owned thoroughbreds. And Roy’s cousin, Les Saunders, raised Whistling Sea, the first horse from Western Canada to win The Queen’s Plate in 1965 for owner Paul Olivier.
First going to the track in the early 1960s, Saunders - passionate and a true horseman - was immediately smitten. “I started out farming but it wasn’t working. My dad and I didn’t have enough land or machinery for the two of us. So, I followed Les’ horses for a while,” said Saunders, who very fast, was a pretty good athlete playing baseball - second base and shortstop - and fastball around Bowden and Red Deer.
“Then, I worked for Neil Cressman, who was an owner and trainer, for five or six years,” he said of Cressman, when he was in Venezuela working in the oil business.
“In 1965 I went to Phoenix in 1965 with two horses and worked for Charlie Jasper. I worked for quite a few different guys and in 1969 I finally went on my own,” said Saunders, who always had a sharp eye for a good horses and did most of his damage at Yearling Sales and in claiming races - again spotting horses he figured he could improve.
“We had a lot of fun back then. It was a lot of work but there were a lot of good times. We travelled on the Western Canada circuit going from Edmonton, to Saskatoon, Regina, Calgary, back to Edmonton and then back to Calgary.
“He is a master of the condition book, a brilliant mind and an instinctual horseman with a gift that many only dream to possess,” wrote Horse Racing Alberta on their web site a few years ago.
Saunders also took advantage of the best riders. Recently his go-to-guy was Rico Walcott, who has been Alberta’s top rider most of the last 10 years. Before that he used leading rider Quincy Welch. Before that it was jockeys Richard Hamel, Ron Hansen, Don Seymour, Stephan Heiler and Rick Hedge.
“When I said I was retiring last fall I kind of gave up. There was my knee but it was also because I was away from home so much. Nicky has a couple of kids and I didn’t get to be around her because I was always busy. And the last few years I didn’t have that many horses.”
And now? We’ll soon find out. The smart money is on Saunders coming back with the E. P. Taylor award tucked in his back pocket.
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Images courtesy Barb Saunders