Tuesday, 20 June 2023 19:15

Maskwecis Makes Triumphant Return to Racing After Overcoming Career-Threatening Injuries

Maskwecis in the stretch at Century Mile May 30, 2021 (Rico Walcott) Maskwecis in the stretch at Century Mile May 30, 2021 (Rico Walcott) Photo by Coady Photo/Ryan Haynes

It was late September in 2020 just days before the Canadian Derby, Alberta’s most prestigious and richest thoroughbred race of the year.

Expectations around trainer R.K. ‘Red’ Smith’s barn were high. After all, Smith and co-owners Jim and Carole Barker had the expected favourite, Maskwecis.

The horse had been training and running fabulously. The dark bay three-year-old had won his first start that year most impressively romping home by open lengths. Then he won the first local prep to the Derby - the Western Canada Handicap - in similar fashion with the odds-on favourite pulling away to a length and a quarter triumph.

Maskwecis ran third in the Count Lathum in the mid-August Count Lathum. But that was fine. Maskwecis had endured a wide trip losing a lot of ground. Hope still ran high.

Anticipation then grew even more when, in his last start before the Derby, Maskwecis charged down the stretch in the mile and a sixteenth Beaufort to win again.

"The further he works in the mornings the more he wants to keep running,” Smith, a native of Vancouver, told Horse Racing Alberta in 2020. “Rico (jockey Walcott) has always had trouble pulling him up after a work. He wants to keep going. He wants to run at everything. Even in the mornings. He sees another horse in front of him and he wants to catch it. He picks up the bit and wants to run that horse down. He's a very determined horse. He's also really smart and he was that way as soon as we started training him. He does everything right. You don't have to holler at him or anything.”

Then it turned. Painfully. When Smith took Maskwecis out of his stable stall, the horse was patently lame. He had developed a quarter crack in his right front foot.

Blacksmith John McKenzie worked feverishly cleaning out the infection and wiring the split in his hoof together.

“John is one of the best there is but even he couldn’t do enough,” said Smith, who was elected to the Canadian Horse Racing Hall of Fame in 2004. “It wasn’t bad but it was bad enough.”

Maskwecis had to be scratched. Glee quickly turned into despair.

“It was tough to stomach,” said Smith, now 84, who has 2,649 lifetime wins - 54th best in the history of the sport in North America - more than even fellow Hall of Famer Charlie Whittingham, whom many will say is the greatest trainer ever in California.

“I was really disappointed. Very deflating. One of the biggest disappointments of my career. He was meant to be a real good horse. Until then he had never taken a sore step in his life."

The quarter crack healed, Smith ran Maskwecis one more time in 2020. But after running fifth Smith turned Maskwecis out for the year.

Maskwecis came back strong in 2021 winning first time out and then running second to Stone Carver in what remains the fastest six-furlong race ever run at Century Mile - 1:07.51 in the Journal Handicap.

But then another problem developed - a tendon in his left front leg. “I quit on him right away. There’s no way I was taking any chances.”

That injury took Maskwecis out of racing for two full years. He never ran at all last year.

But now Maskwecis is back and, following a good fourth-place effort in the June 3 Journal Handicap, will run in Saturday’s Spangled Jimmy where he will meet the likes of Asyoubelieve, who won the Journal and was last year’s Three-Year-Old Champion; Glava, who comes off a most impressive win in an allowance race in his last appearance and Phoenix invader Race Home.

“Maskwecis is 100 per cent now,” said Smith, who has had health problems of his own with two triple by-passes - 40 years apart - and prostate cancer but was given a clear bill of health this week.

“He’s been at Westana Equine Training and Rehab Centre,” Smith said of the world-class class facility in Redwater. “We started him slowly on their equisizer swimming. Then it was a lot of long, slow works. So he’s got a good bottom on him.

“He looks good. Mentally and physically. But this will be a test. He came back from the Journal very, very good. He’s happy. He really needed that race. For some reason he was really bad in the paddock before the race. I couldn’t get a saddle on him. It took three guys to saddle him. But I’ve schooled him a few times since then and he seems good now. If he doesn’t win I’ll have no excuses.”

Prior to the injuries, Smith said Maskwecis is one of the best horses he has ever trained. And he’s had a lot of very good ones.

“Fancy As, who won the Derby in 2001, was the best I ever trained,” said Smith of the horse who won 16 of his 27 starts including 10 of his first 11 races including the Canadian Derby for earnings of $670,092.

“But Maskwecis reminds me a lot of Sea Reason,” Smith said of another of his many, many champions, who won just about every stake he was eligible for except the Canadian Derby and the Speed to Spare.

“They’re different horses to train but they both really wanted to run.”

A big, strong horse Sea Reason was one of five two-year-olds he trained that won the Stampede Futurity over a period of just six years.

Trochu Joe won it in 1972; Sea Reason in 1973; Western Dangler in 1974; Careless Word in 1975 and then Tojero in 1977.

“They were all Elmbrook horses,” Smith said of the dominating farm owned by Bory Margolus that ruled horse racing in Alberta for years.

Four of the five were also bred by Elmbrook; Careless Word, who was bought privately, was the only exception. The other four were products of Elmbrook’s own mares and their three foundation sires: Reasonably Fair, Dangblastit and Indefatigable.

“And they all started for a claiming price,” smile Smith, who twice - in 2001 and 2004 went over $1-million in purse earnings. In 2003 he came close with his horses winning $962,661.

With other stars like Ky Alta, Two Ticky, Fustukian, Edie’s Prize, Scottish Time, Inposition and Tillano, in total Smith-trained horses have won over $20-million.

More than a dozen times he was Alberta’s leading trainer. In 1977 he won a Sovereign Award as Canada’s leading trainer. For seven years in the 1970s he ran the money-winning stable in Alberta.

Smith has talked about retiring many times. But, with a pair of promising two-year-olds in his barn - Moon Mullins and Dare to Compare - it won’t be anytime soon.

“They both look good. But this may be my last kick of the can. If they don’t pan out I probably won’t be hanging around much longer.

“If it wasn’t for Maskwecis I probably wouldn’t have come back to the track. I’ve been doing this for a long time,” said Smith, who started training horses on his own in 1961.

“I’ve had lots of fun. I’m not crying. But I’d like to go out with a half-decent horse. It’s fun to have a good one. But they’re hard to find.”

STOCK REPORT - Friday’s feature at Century Mile is the Shirley Vargo for aged mares. On paper it looks like a two-horse race: last year’s Horse of the Year Dance Shoes, owned by Mohamad Khan, and Dallas Nelson’s Floral.

The pair just finished one-two - Floral winning by three-quarters of a length - in the RedTail Landing.

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