Wednesday, 16 August 2023 07:24

From Chance Encounter to Derby Glory: The Unlikely Journey of Trainer Jerry Gourneau and Owner Henry Witt Jr. with Manitoba Derby Winner Mano Dura

Antonio Whitehall on Mano Dura wins the Manitoba Derby at Assiniboia Downs on Monday, August 7, 2023. Antonio Whitehall on Mano Dura wins the Manitoba Derby at Assiniboia Downs on Monday, August 7, 2023. JASON HALSTEAD PHOTO

First there was ‘The Meeting’ more than a dozen years ago.

Thoroughbred trainer Jerry Gourneau and owner Henry Witt Jr., who will be sending out impressive Manitoba Derby winner Mano Dura for the August 26th, $200,000 Canadian Derby at Century Mile first crossed paths at Fonner Park, Nebraska.

It was purely by chance. Purely by accident.

“We just clicked,” said Gourneau, who has been Winnipeg’s Assiniboia Downs top trainer three years in a row and is leading the standings again this year. No trainer has ever won four straight training titles at Assiniboia Downs.

Last year - with 73 victories and winning at a lofty 24 per cent - Gourneau won twice as many races as his closest pursuer, Tom Gardipy, Jr.

“Henry was running a couple of horses and we got to talking,” said Gourneau, a First Nations Chippewa from Turtle Mountain Reserve in Belcourt, N.D. who was just inducted into the North American Indigenous Hall of Fame.

“Henry said he was unhappy with the way his horses had been running.

“I told him to send them to Winnipeg. I told him ‘I’m a horseman. Send them to me and we’ll see if we can get them running better.’

“I told him to come to Canada. I said ‘I think you’ll like it.’”

It took a full five years but Witt, 63, who first got involved in thoroughbred racing in 2006, finally decided to roll the dice. He got back in touch with Gourneau and sent him five cheap horses, who weren’t doing well.

Gourneau won with every one of them. One of them even won twice.

“I was impressed,” said Witt, who lives 35 kilometres east of Waco, Texas on an 800-acre ranch but has been Winnipeg’s leading owner seven years in a row. “Jerry was a good trainer and he seemed like a real good guy.

“I had my weaker horses in Nebraska. My tougher ones ran in Lone Star in Texas. So I sent him a horse from Lone Star called Witt Six in 2015,” said Witt, who had basketball, baseball and rodeo scholarships - he earned all-state honours in football and basketball - and now owns a very successful auto glass business.

Witt Six had been doing alright south of the border. But nothing like what Gourneau turned the horse into in Winnipeg.

Witt Six immediately won his first three starts at Assiniboia Downs - all stakes.

Then he ran second in both the Manitoba Derby and the Canadian Derby.

The following year Witt Six won the Manitoba Mile, the R.J. Speers and the Gold Cup.

In total Witt Six finished first in nine of his races and in the top three in 23 of his 37 outings.

“Best horse I ever had,” said Witt, a former race car driver who won 258 feature races, eight straight regional championships and one national championship before retiring from racing in 2007 and who grew up on a dairy farm.

“Until now.”

Until now is Mano Dura, who didn’t just win last week’s Manitoba Derby he crushed them. Sitting third early behind the hot 2-5 favourite Heroic Move, who set the early fractions and is also expected to come to Edmonton for the Canadian Derby, Mano Dura briefly looked Heroic Move in the eye at the sixteenth pole and then exploded - running away to a four and a quarter length victory.

“He really took off running down the stretch,” said Gourneau, who trains 45 horses in Winnipeg. “He won so easily.

“It looked like he can handle a mile and a quarter. The way he was training I’m not really surprised he won the Manitoba Derby. I run my horses to win. Not run up the track. He’s really been on the muscle. Bucking and playing. He’s acting like a really happy horse. It’s so nice to have a horse like him in your barn.”

“If he gets a clean trip he’ll be tough in Edmonton,” said Witt, who has 16 broodmares, a couple of stud horses and 250 Angus cattle.

“He will be up there. The extra distance going a mile and a quarter is only going to help him,” Witt said of the Canadian Derby which is an eighth of a mile farther than the Manitoba Derby.

Witt claimed Mano Dura, a horse he had been following, for $50,000 out of a race at Lone Star on June 16 from the historic Calumet Farm and Hall of Fame trainer Steve Asmussen, who has won over 10,000 races and more than $420 million in earnings.

“I claimed him with one thought in mind: winning the Manitoba Derby,” said Witt, who has won 625 races as an owner for earnings of $7.2 million. Many times he has raced over 400 horses in a season.

“And if we won that then the plan was always to go to the Canadian Derby.

“Now that he won the Manitoba Derby he’s the only horse that can win the Western Canadian Triple Crown,” he said of the $550,000 three-race series that culminates with the Sept. 16 B.C. Derby and a $100,000 bonus to any horse that wins all three Derbies. “That’s amazing.”

Witt liked Mano Dura, who somehow paid $32.80 to win despite now winning four of his 10 races this year and only being out of the top three once, for several reasons.

“I knew he could go further than a mile. His whole family liked to go farther than a mile. You just have to look at him and it’s wow, man,” Witt said of the chestnut three-year-old.

“He’s ripping with muscles. There’s no fat on him at all,” who looks like he was chiseled by Michelangelo. He’s as solid as a rock. And he’s got a big heart. I’ll take any horse with a big heart over anything else. I also liked his start before I claimed him.”

Witt said he also liked Mano Dura’s bloodlines he said of the colt who is by Keen Ice out of a lightly raced mare.

Keen Ice won the Grade 1 Travers stakes in 2015 defeating American Triple Crown champion American Pharaoh. Last year Keen Ice was the leading sire of three-year-olds by number of wins including Kentucky Derby winner Rich Strike at odds of 80-1.

“His dam is Bene Pista. She’s by 2006 Champion Bernardini and Mano Dura is just her second foal. Bene Pista didn’t do much but her dam, Carriage Trail sure did,” Witt said of the 2003 foal who won six times including the Grade 1 Juddmonte Spinster Stakes.

“I hope we win. I know there will be tough horses in the Canadian Derby. It would sure be nice to win that. It’s always nice to win. Whether it’s race-car driving or winning horse races. Whether it’s the Kentucky Derby or the Canadian Derby.

“But you have to be lucky.”

Gourneau will van Mano Dura to Edmonton just two days before the Derby.

“There’s two schools of thought. Either you ship a long time before the race or a short time. We’re going with the short trip.

“Hopefully it’s the short trip that works. I got to tell you. I’m pumped.”

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