By Jim Wells
Nobody has ridden more Festival of Champions winners than Derek Bell, the Canterbury Park Hall of Fame rider who has been to the winner’s circle 24 times on this annual day of tribute to Minnesota horses.
That total is six more than Dean Butler and 13 in front of Scott Stevens.
Bell has won every race in the thoroughbred lineup but one, the Glitter Star Distaff Classic, and has ridden multiple winners in the other six, including seven in the Bella Notte Distaff Sprint. He was on Bella Notte herself for two of her three wins, in 2009 and 2011, before the race was renamed in her honor.
Bella won a third time in 2010 when Bell was taken off her and two other winners by trainer Mac Robertson. “I should have 27 winners,” he said Friday, while perusing the list of previous champions. He also lost mounts on Suddenly Silver and Sir Tricky that year. “They were all easy winners, too,” he said.
Bell’s Festival winners actually should total 28, if the 2013 Sprint champion, Heliskier, is included. Bell’s knee was broken the morning of the race when a horse he was working flipped on him. Instead, Justin Shepherd rode Heliskier, that year’s Horse of the Year.
Bell scanned the list of previous Festival winners, commenting on some of those he rode: He won the 2011 Turf championship on Tubby Time in 2012. “He was nice, a real runner,” he recalled. “A push-button horse.”
He won the 2002 Minnesota Classic on J.P. Jett for trainer Dave Van Winkle. “He was a big, black horse,” Bell recalled. “More like a quarter horse. I won the Derby on him and the Festival race that year.”
Bell rode Bizet, owned by Olaf Strand, only once and that was a winning ride in the 2009 Minnesota Sprint. “That was it, just that one time,” he said. “He was a big chestnut.”
Bell rode Nidari for Kissoon Thoroughbreds to consecutive wins, 2000 and 2001, in the Distaff. He won aboard Madam Speaker for Almar Farms in 2004, Bleu’s Apparition for Jeff Hilger in 2005, and Sentimental Charm for James Peltier in 2007.
Bell won six riding titles in Shakopee and holds career records in earnings and wins. He is second all time in win percentage. His best day at Canterbury, was on June 14, 2002 when he rode six winners. He arrived late in the current meet during a summer when Canterbury has been overrun with good riders, including four former riding champs, five upon his arrival.
He has only an allowance mount on Sunday for the annual running of the Festival that began under inauspicious circumstances in 1992, when racing was in dire straits.
Horsemen put together the inaugural Festival to prove a point to Ladbroke Racing Corporation’s local executives, who had all but proclaimed live racing a thing of the past in Minnesota.
The Ladbroke Racing Corp. was on its way out as owner of the Shakopee race track after a refusal by the Minnesota Racing Commission to renew the British firm’s racing license for the 1993 season. Before that took place, horsemen wanted to demonstrate that Minnesotans would indeed show up for quality racing. They did just that, on a bright sunny afternoon in 1992 that was the last live card in Minnesota until racing resumed in 1995. The Festival has been a part of the summer racing program every year since.