by JIM WELLS
Rod and Sylvia Von Ohlen were picking up a load of sawdust Friday afternoon in Courtland, Minn., when she got a call on her cell phone.
Rod wasn’t available. He was busy flattening out and packing down the purchase so he could get a cover over it for the trip home. Ever try to haul a pickup full of sawdust without a cover on it? “We wouldn’t have much left when we got home,” Sylvia said.
Unlike Pithia, their two-year-old filly, who had plenty left after her heat in the trails on Wednesday for the Firecracker Futurity at Delta Downs.
“The jockey (Danny Lavergne) said another jump and we’d have won it,” Slyvia said. “Her ears weren’t pasted back; they were standing straight up at the finish,” Sylvia said. The implication was that Pithia, who finished second by a diminishing neck, had plenty left after nearly beating all the boys in her trial heat for the race on July 3. Her time in the 350-yard event was :17.797.
The exciting thing for the Von Ohlens was not simply that Pithia qualified for the $100,000-added Grade II race on July 3, but that she was the first Minnesota-bred to accomplish that task. “I’ve never heard of a horse from the Upper Midwest qualifying for that race,” said Josh Von Oort, Canterbury’s quarter horse racing secretary. “It’s a real honor.”
The Von Olens were gratified watching the race on the internet after investing one qualifying payment after the next on trainer Ed Ross Hardy’s belief that their filly belonged in this race. “I kept thinking that I must be nuts,” Sylvia said.
No, maybe a bit skeptical, but not any more.
“She’s a pretty nice Minnesota-bred,” Hardy said. “We liked her all spring. I told the Von Olens she was worth giving a shot to in this race and it worked out.”
Pithia got a bad break from the gate in her first career start and was out of the race before she got a chance to run. It was another matter in race two, on Wednesday.
“She broke OK this time,” Hardy said. “But she ran a little green until about half way through the race. Then she figured it out.”
The Von Ohlens have been in the racing business for 26 years and have operated the last 15 from their farm in Alpha, Minn. They bought 40 acres, put up a horse barn and refurbished the original house, built in 1914, to their tastes.
Sylvia grew up in Jackson. Years ago, she had a friend who described it as a poke and plumb town. “By the time you poked your head out the car window, the town was plumb gone,” she said.
In any event, Sylvia was raised on the edge of town. Her father kept a couple of cows and told her after she came of age that she needed to learn how to milk a cow. “I never did get the hang of it,” she said. “I never could milk a cow. But I can milk a mare. I know how to do that now, whenever I need to.”
The Von Ohlens began racing 26 years ago at Blue Ribbon Downs. The two of them have always had a fondness for horses. Rod grew up on a farm and rode horses. Sylvia had always wanted one.
That opportunity came one day, 26 years ago.
“Rod came to me and said ‘pack your things, we’re going on a trip to buy a racehorse,’/” Sylvia said.
As she recalls, they went from farm to farm until they came to place owned by B.S. Reese. “It was near Oklahoma City,” she said. “He told us he would sell us his best mare. Later he said that his wife almost killed him for that.”
The mare was Bunch of Money and she was in foal to Break Par. She gave birth to a colt, and the Von Olens named him Redi to Par. That baby went on to win $26,000. “We thought we knew it all,” Sylvia said.
Time and the horse business straightened them out, although they have other successes. The Von Ohlens, who raced off and on in Shakopee until making it a frequent summertime location the last few years, were Canterbury’s champion owners one year and started the 2010 meet in third place for all-time earnings, fourth for all-time wins. They currently have three mares _ Miss Eyewear, Bryan’s Showgirl (Miss Eyewear’s dam) and Eyezane.
And they have their racehorses.
“We usually have two or three racing at Canterbury every meet,” Sylvia added.
They have one in the Northland Futurity trials on Saturday, a colt named Vos Nicotine. They plan to be present in Shakopee. The trip to Louisiana for the July 3 is another matter. “I don’t think Rod could take it,” Sylvia said with a chuckle.
Certainly not if they have to contend with some of the sights their trainer has witnessed. “I’ve seen all sorts of road kill in my travels. More than most men,” Hardy said. What he saw on Thursday night was another matter.
“There were three dead alligators on the road when I drove in,” he said. “I don’t think you’ll see a single one of those things in Minnesota, unless it’s in a zoo.”
There wasn’t any need to take nominees for the spots on the HBPA board open to a trainer and an owner this week. There were enough volunteers to take care of the matter.
The spots are for three-year terms. Jeff Hilger and Rod Miller will run for the owner’s spot on the board, as will incumbent Jack Walsh.
Dave Van Winkle is the incumbent in the trainer’s spot and is open to another term.
Larry Donlin and Phil Fauchald also volunteered, although Fauchald has since reconsidered.