BY JIM WELLS
The Festival of Champions abounds with stories of heartbreak and elation and more will be added to the growing canon of tales about Minnesota-bred horses, their owners, trainers and riders, with the 24th staging of the event on Sunday.
Only in horse racing do the stars align as they sometimes do to produce heart-rending stories, with connections to the past in a family heritage recognized daily in some way or another on the track.
This edition of the event restricted to Minnesota-bred horses already has its first tale of past glory, heartbreak and redemption, as it played out Saturday in the moments before and after race two.
Owner/breeder Scott Rake stood in the paddock and choked back the emotion as Alex Canchari was given a leg up on Rake’s horse
Unbridled Mayhem, the last foal of Lady Tapestry, had more than Canchari and expectation on her back. Owned by Mary Green and a Festival winner in grand fashion in 2000, Lady Tapestry died the day before.
“With all the ups and downs in this business, you ask yourself why you do it,” Rake said. “Then you consider getting out and you say ‘no way.’ ”
There was more emotion to come, after Unbridled Mayhem hit the wire 1 ¼ lengths in front of Java Chick, as Green and Rake acknowledged the winner together.
“It says it all right there,” Rake said. “Right there.”
Moments later, former rider Mark Irving appeared, recalling Lady Tapestry’s dramatic win in the 2000 Festival of Champions Distaff, a race in which she came from 12 lengths back to claim the wire by a neck.
“I can see it as if it were yesterday,” Irving said. “We got stopped twice in that race.”
Rake’s only entry on Sunday’s card is Bourbon County, a two-time winner of the Crocrock Sprint, who was beaten by Hold for More last year. Both will run in that race again on Sunday.
Eleven races on the Festival card offer purses worth $585,800, reason enough for excitement on a day surrounded by a party atmosphere.
Hall of Fame trainer Mac Robertson leads all conditioners in Festival wins with 28, nine more than Hall of Fame trainer Bernell Rhone.
“You always worry a little more (on Festival day) because we’re running the best Minnesota breds and obviously they have been very good to me,” said Robertson. “It’s fun and a big party to me but obviously a competitive party.”
Robertson will saddle Shaboom and Honey’s Sox Appeal in the $60,000 Bella Notte Distaff Sprint, Sioux Appeal in the $60,000 Glitter Star Distaff Classic, Bourbon County and perhaps the Hot Shot Kid in the $60,000 Sprint and three horses _ A P Is Loose, True West and Teddy Time in the $60,000 Wally’s Choice Classic Championship.
Rhone describes his participation “as pretty light this year because of injuries or horses that didn’t quite develop the way we thought they would.” He will saddle Blues Edge in the Distaff Classic, Arnold’s Patsy in the $85,000 Northern Lights Debutante and Dexter’s Miracle in the $85,000 Northern Lights Futurity.
Trainer Valorie Lund has only one horse entered in a stakes race, a highly touted two-year-old named Mr. Jagermeister in the $85,000 Northern Lights Futurity. With a first and a second in two starts and a bullet work to go with it, this two-year-old is being heralded as a star in the making.
“He’s a very nice two-year-old and at this point could be just about any kind of horse,” Lund said, adding that the way this race looks to her is a bit frightening.
“I am very seldom nervous before a race, but this one is scary,” she said. “He looks overwhelmingly the best, like there isn’t a horse that can close to him, but this is exactly the time you think something could go wrong.”
The horse has done his homework. “I took the blinkers off for this race to help settle him,” Lund said.
She made that decision after he went way too fast in a race at Prairie Meadows, ran out of gas and finished second.
All of that will be part of the Mr. Jagermeister Festival of Champions story if he is a winner, part of a much different story if he isn’t.