Wednesday, 28 June 2023 07:00

Wacky Weekend of Thoroughbred Racing at Century Mile Delivers Surprises, Upsets, and Unlikely Victories

Mine Me at 18-1 winning by a length over Plum Blue in the Shirley Vargo Handicap with Keihton Natera aboard Mine Me at 18-1 winning by a length over Plum Blue in the Shirley Vargo Handicap with Keihton Natera aboard Photo by Coady Photo/Ryan Haynes

It was a wacky weekend of thoroughbred racing at Century Mile. About the only thing that didn’t happen was an Edmonton Elks victory. Which, of course, seems impossible.

Almost everything else was bizarre. Where to start?

In no particular order trainer Rick Hedge finished one-two in the seven furlong $50,000 Shirley Vargo Handicap with the two longest shots in the field: Mine Me at 18-1 winning by a length over Plum Blue, who went off at 27-1.

The all Hedge $2 exactor paid $142.50. In a six-horse field.

And, Hedge wasn’t even going to run Mine Me, a horse he claimed a year and a half ago in Phoenix for $20,000.

“I didn’t think I had a chance against those horses,” he said of a field that included last year’s Horse of the Year Dance Shoes; Floral, who defeated Dance Shoes in their last meeting, the RedTail Landing stakes, and the consistent Tone It Up.

“I was thinking of taking Mine Me to Winnipeg to run in a stakes race. But the way Big Hug disappointedly ran in Winnipeg last week - she was bothered by all the black flies - and with 10 horses in the stake in Winnipeg and just six here, I decided to stay home.

“Boy am I glad I didn’t go. Sometimes things just work out for the better.”

As for Plum Blue, Hedge said the mare he got by accident in Winnipeg two years ago, “Is just warming up at seven furlongs. She wants to go longer.

“She’s the queen of seconds,” Hedge said of the five-year-old mare, who has 10 seconds in 26 career starts - many of them in stakes races.

“I was in Winnipeg for a stakes race and Plum Blue’s owner, Sheldon Walker, asked me if I had room on my trailer to bring her to Alberta.

“I said ‘Sure.’ Then he asked me if I would train her and I said ‘Sure,’ again. I didn’t know what to expect of her. She had only won a $5,000 claiming race.”

Back to Mine Me, owned by Hedge and Glen Stouffer, whom Hedge said had a healthy exactor.

“She’s a better mare than she was before,” said Hedge, 75, who keeps threatening to shoot his age on the golf course and who is having another solid year.

“She had run two years straight without a layoff. I gave her the winter off and she came in from the farm in super shape. She put on some weight; she just looks really good now,” said the former champion jockey of Mine Me, who had only one start this year prior to the Shirley Vargo - finishing a game second in an optional $25,000 claiming race.

But we’re still not done with that race.

The jockey Hedge used for Mine Me was Keihton Natera. If you’re wondering who is that you’re not alone.

From Venezuela, Natera rode in Alberta four years ago and did pretty good winning 36 of his 249 starts in 2019.

But for the next three years - mostly because of Covid-19 - he couldn’t get his Visa to come back to Alberta and kept riding in Venezuela.

Friday’s Shirley Vargo was only his eighth mount of the year at Century Mile.

“He’ll probably get a lot more mounts now. You win a stake and everybody notices you a little more,” said Hedge.

“He gave Mine Me a very good ride,” said Hedge, who used his No. 1 rider Rafael Zenteno Jr., on Plum Blue.

Natera’s agent Ken Gilkyson couldn’t agree more. “He can ride. He can really ride,” said Gilkyson. “This should get him more mounts.”

“He doesn’t speak much English. After the race all he said was ‘Thank you Kenny.’ And he said it with a big smile. He was vibrating he was so happy,” said Gilkyson, who has represented a lot of very good riders like Perry Winters, who should be in the Canadian Hall of Fame, Richard Ziegler, Rick Stevens and Bobby Noda.

Another guy who should be in the Hall of Fame is trainer Robert ‘Red’ McKenzie.

At 96 years of age, McKenzie blew up the tote board on Friday when Entitled Star rallied smartly to win at 25-1 odds. When Wheelsupinthirty, at 13-1, finished second the exactor paid $832.

Entitled Star’s jockey was Meagan Fraser, a graduate of the Olds College Exercise Rider Program.

Fraser got her first win last year when she rode now 10-year-old Entitled Star at odds of 47-1.

Now she has three career wins. All with Entitled Star, who, after her huge upset score last year won her next start as well. Maybe Entitled Star will win again in her next start again.

McKenzie is now the second oldest trainer in the long history of horse racing to win at a recognized racetrack in North America. Only Jerry Bozzo, who won a race five years ago at the age of 97 at Gulfstream Park in Florida has been older.

“I guess that means Red has to come back and win a race next year too,” said Hedge, who said he got a text from longtime former chart caller Buzz Burke, who said “First McKenzie, now you. It must be rookie day.”

Mckenzie had been tied for second with Noble Threewitt, who, at the age of 95, won a race in Santa Anita in 2006.

Starting out as a trainer in 1945, McKenzie has won over 1,600 races. And that doesn’t include the 300 races he won as a jockey which began when he was only 13 years old.

When he was 17 he was Alberta’s B circuit leading rider winning 87 races. But the next year he got too heavy and was finished as a jockey.

Over the years McKenzie has trained many outstanding horses like Chariot Chaser, who won the Canadian, Saskatchewan and Alberta Derbies in 1965, So Long Fellas, Chop Stick, Bonnie Brier Magic, Avec Plaisir, Klondike Lil and Dobbington.

But the best horse he ever trained was Grandin Park, who won 29 races between 1972 and 1980.

Crazy. Amazing. But we’re still not finished. On Saturday afternoon at Century Mile Greek Geek, who had run just a week ago, won the 60th running of the Spangled Jimmy stakes.

“I usually don’t run a horse back seven days later but he came back out of the last race so good that I thought ‘Why not?’” said trainer Tim Rycroft, who has been Alberta’s top trainer the last five years.

“He just bounced back,” he said of Greek Geek, a former Horse of the Year who got up in the final strides to nip Maskwecis, who ran a winning race making just his second start in two years after being sidelined with injuries but was patiently nursed back to health.

Profiled in last week’s edition of Horse Racing Alberta’s website the horses.com, Maskwecis somehow went off at 15-1 despite trainer Red Smith saying Maskwecis was “100 per cent” and that he had “no excuses” if the horse lost.

In one of the best races of the year, Drinking Again was third another neck back. Drinking Again was ridden by Natera.

“Give Red Smith a lot of credit,” said Rycroft. “A lot of trainers would have given up on him.”

As for Greek Geek, who went off at 9-2 and was running wide throughout, Rycroft said the victory was no surprise to him. Nothing like Mine Me, Plum Blue, Hedge, Natera, Fraser and Red McKenzie anyway.

“He’s a nice horse. He’s been a nice horse for a long time,” he said of the six-year-old. “He’s better than he was last year. We had trouble with his feet but we just just took our time with him, let his feet grow out and gave him the winter off. I jogged him Sunday morning and he was real sharp.”

The win was Greek Geek’s 10th in 31 career starts and gave him earnings of $345,000 for owners Riversedge Racing Stable, whom Rycroft credited with taking such good care of him over the winter.

Missing from the seven-furlong Spangled Jimmy field was another Riversedge horse - Stone Carver. The current six-furlong track record holder is running in a six-furlong stake in Winnipeg on Wednesday.

It was quite the weekend.

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Read 1904 times Last modified on Tuesday, 27 June 2023 21:10