Festival Day. It means different things to different people, has enduring memories for some, forgettable ones for others.

Correctly put, it is the Minnesota Festival of Champions, a day on which Minnesota owners and breeders trot out their best to determine how they stand up to others bred here, in the land of 10,000 Lakes.

Several state-bred kings and queens were crowned on this particular day and knighthood bestowed on the men and women, the trainers and riders, who put the time and conditioning into those winners.

Does it come as any surprise that the leading trainer on Festival Day is the leading trainer of every meet in recent years, Mac Robertson? If it does, you simply haven’t paying attention or are not a racing fan.

You are excused if you miss on leading rider because he was not present last summer, but has been again for the second half of the 2014 meet, none other than Derek Bell who (with Scott Stevens rehabilitating a broken hand in Phoenix) is the only current Canterbury Hall of Fame rider in Shakopee.

Aforementioned trainer and rider, in fact, have hooked up for some big wins on Festival Day in previous meets. There was Heliskier in the 2011 Northern Lights Futurity. There was Chick Flight in the Northern Lights Debutante in 2008, and Bella Notte, three-time winner of the Distaff Sprint, in 2011 and before that in 2009.

Sir Tricky and Bizet, Suddenly Silver, Tubby Time and Sarah’s Son are others.

Robertson has 23 wins to his credit, seven more than Bernell Rhone, heading into the 2014 Festival on Sunday. Bell has 24 wins, 14 more than reigning riding champ Dean Butler.

So, how does a win on Festival Day stack up against wins on other days, everything being equal.

“It’s always fun to run in stakes races,” said Robertson. “Most of my owners have bred and raised their horses so it means a little more. It doesn’t mean as much to the guys who claim horses and get a little lucky.”

Robertson will saddle 14 horses in all on today’s card, including three in the $60,000 guaranteed Bella Notte Distaff Sprint.

One of those is two-time Canterbury Horse of the Year Heliskier, who has the No. 10 hole in the $60,000 Crocrock Minnesota Sprint and returned recently from fresh surroundings at Arlington Park in Illinois.

“He wasn’t training well here,” said Robertson. “He ran at Arlington and got a big work there. He came here, schooled and stood in the gate. I like the post (here). He can take it right to them.”

Festival Day, admittedly, takes an emotional toll on the human connections to the runners. As for Robertson, he tries as much as possible to treat it as another day.

“I try to stay on an even keel, just get the day over with and hope something stumbles across. The horses are easy to deal with. It’s the egos of some individuals that are trying, hard to deal with. For the most part, they are good people who understand that most of the time the fastest horse wins.”

Sometimes owners and breeders will wait for what seems a lifetime to get that first Festival win.

It wasn’t quite that way for Cheryl Sprick and Richard Bremer. They’ve been racing since oh, about 1990. “Something like that,” Cheryl said. Their first Festival winner as owners didn’t come until 2009, however, with Bet Your Boots in the Northern Lights Futurity.

However, they did breed a winner a year earlier, the inimitable Ice Rocket who at the longest winning odds in Festival history set all sorts of pari-mutuel records for his owner, the Astar Lindquist Stable. Ice Rocket won the Futurity that year paying $105.20 to win and $42.20 to place, both Festival records, as was his exacta payoff with Supreme Warrior, a payback of $1,087.20. The trifecta with those two and First Captain returned a hefty $8,924.20 and the superfecta with the trifecta trio and Zack Cape a whopping $35,705.80.

So, Sprick and Bremer have their stake in Festival history as well, with more to come perhaps in future years.

They began breeding two years ago for the Iowa market when purses there exceeded those in Minnesota. Since the Canterbury deal with the Mystic Lake Community, things have changed.

“Our best two-year-olds are Iowa-breds this year,” Cheryl said. “We have only one for Minnesota, but that will change next year.”

The agreement with Mystic Lake which adds another $5.84 million to the Canterbury purse fund this year has bankrolled those changes for Sprick/Bremer and many others.

“That inspired us,” Sprick said. “Now we can raise a horse, put it through its Minnesota conditions and have it pay its own way. Your stable can earn its keep.”

The inspiration Sprick referred to comes in the form of an additional $229,000 for today’s purses from the Mystic Lake enhancement fund.

Enough to create some additional 2014 Festival memories for anyone who cashes in.

by Jim Wells

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