by Jim Wells
A stiff wind greeted horsemen on the backside Tuesday morning. Riders, trainers and grooms alike had their collars turned up in self defense.
“That wind is just vicious this morning,” a horsemen remarked as he strode through the racing office. “‘It’s not cold, but it’s constant and it hits you right in the ear.”
There were opinions of various sorts depending on the source and location. “It’s a good thing it’s a south wind and not a north wind,” said trainer Todd Hoffrogge as he departed the horsemen’s viewing stand en route to the barn. “”All you Arkansas guys say that,” responded Dave Astar, Hoffrogge’s companion from Astar Thoroughbreds.There were smiles, handshakes and good wishes wherever one ventured on this particular day, leading up to the season’s first draw in the racing office.
“You wintered good, did ya?” one fellow asked of an acquaintance he hadn’t seen in months.
Canterbury president/CEO Randy Sampson took note of the prevailing attitude on the backside. “The mood seems very upbeat,” he said. “Most of the trainers and jockeys are back and looking forward to the meet.”Despite the positive glow that generally surrounds opening week at the race track, there were minor complaints and concerns.
Revenues are down 20 percent for the first quarter and that creates numerous questions for the 2009 meet. Horsemen had their problems on this windy day as well.
A mounted rider exited the track wearing tennis shoes. “Last time I do that,” he said. “The jockey didn’t show up this morning.” Clearly, this fellow had been pressed into service at the last minute and wasn’t happy about it. Some horsemen expressed mild disappointment at the late start this season, but attempted to be understanding of the economic forces that shaped this year’s meet. “I suppose somebody had to make a decision,” one fellow said.Jockey Paul Nolan had a tale of missed opportunity. He had been at Prairie Meadows the day before to ride a single horse. His mount spooked during the post parade, dumped him and ran off. The horse was scratched and Nolan returned to Minnesota with nothing to show for his investment of time, energy and gasoline expense, which served as a good analogy for his winter to hear him tell it. Nolan departed Canterbury last autumn as the track’s second-leading rider. He rode at Hawthorne Park until January, wound up at Fonner Park and is glad “to be home.” Fonner’s bull ring did not suit him.
Trainer Bernell Rhone, the North Dakotan turned Minnesotan turned Floridian, spent the winter at Tampa Bay Downs. “I didn’t work too hard,” he said. “I was good at eating and drinking and living the good life.”
Claiming Crown boss Nat Wess was greeted in the racing office with shouts of “happy birthday” that soon turned into a roast of sorts. There was concern from some folks that Nat had his pants pulled up too high. Age? One wag suggested that Wess was revered for his reports on the Civil War during his newspaper days.
Canterbury’s preeminent trainer Mac Robertson nearly had a Kentucky Derby starter this year but scratched Win Wiley on Wednesday of Derby week because of concern following an x-ray. Nonetheless he was at Churchill Downs and got plenty of attention from the media.
“Some of it was even good,” Canterbury’s four-time training champ quipped.
Stall superintendent Mark Stancato is annually approached for his travel reviews upon the return of horsemen. He generally departs Canterbury Park in the fall, embarks on a European trip with his elderly mother and then heads to Mexico by himself for a monastic winter of pina coladas, yoga and deep thought.
Last winter was more travel-filled than usual for Canterbury’s nomadic stall boss. He began with a trip to Russia with his 85-year-old mother, later hiked into the Grand Canyon and back and then departed for his idyllic beach in Mexico.
Here then is Stancato’s report on his travels in the land of the czars and in the ancestral canyon home of the Havasupai: The Moscow subways are something to behold. “They are clean with beautiful artwork and mosaic tile everywhere,” said Stancato. “The subways are well lighted and on time. There is no graffiti. The rest of Moscow is just a big dirty European city.”St. Petersburg is something altogether different. “It’s a pedestrian city. Everyone walks…everywhere,” Stancato said. “In Amsterdam, you might get run over by a bicycle, but St. Petersburg is a wonderful walking city, although quite expensive.”
Examples: $7 for a cup of coffee; $25 for a glass of average wine.
“The food isn’t very good, either,” he said. “Except for the borscht, and you get tired of that after a while.”Stancato did plenty of walking during his St. Petersburg visit and that got him in shape for an October trek to the bottom of the Grand Canyon, with an overnight stay at the historic Phantom Ranch at canyon’s bottom. There was some concern about getting a meal at the ranch because Stancato had not made reservations, but the cooks there wrangled up a steak dinner so he had plenty of fuel for the hike to the top the following day.
Now, you will find him where he has been the last many years _ at his desk in the racing office, dispensing keys for dorm rooms, assignments for stalls and advice for anyone who cares to listen.