by JIM WELLS
The event has changed in some ways since it debuted in 1992, but the Festival of Champions is a special day nonetheless for the owners of Minnesota-bred horses, their trainers and the men and women who will jockey these animals in the nine divisional races on Sunday’s card.
“It determines our champions, the best in each category,” said Bernell Rhone, who has saddled 12 Festival winners, more than any other trainer.
“It’s the biggest day of the year for us, a chance to make some money,” said jockey Derek Bell, who has ridden 17 Festival winners, more than any other jockey.
It is a day of remembrance and renewal, a time to recall old victories and, if talent and luck prevail, an opportunity to add new hardware to the mantle-place and create new stories for the future.
Stories such as those of Now Playing, Belle of the Night, Crocrock, Dot’s Moment, Plana Dance, Glitter Star or Wally’s Choice among many others.
For Art and Gretchen Eaton, who have won six trophies on Festival Day, Now Playing was a horse to remember.
“He was easy going, had the first stall in Bernell’s barn,” Gretchen recalled. “He was so laid-back, you wouldn’t have thought he could run a lick. But when he got on the track, he went all out.”
He was good enough to win three Festival races, the Northern Lights Futurity in 2000 and the Minnesota Turf Championship in 2003 and 2004.
Many of the Festival races in years past pitted horses who had battled all summer against one another for a divisional title at year’s end. The races were frequently tough to handicap and many times produced surprise winners.
“In the old days, there wasn’t much difference between the best and the worst in the divisions,” Rhone recalled. “Now they are mostly three-horse races, probably not as equal as they were in the early days when all of the horses stood a chance.”
Other aspects of the day have changed, too. Four races on previous Festival cards _ the Turf Sprint, Turf Marathon, Turf Distaff and Turf Route _ are no longer run.
Rhone will saddle five horses in four Festival races on Sunday, with a chance at winning two of them. He thinks that Perfect Bull will like going long on the dirt in the $50,000 1 1/16-mile Minnesota classic. “And Rustic Road in the Northern Lights should be a second or third choice and hopefully the winner,” he added.
Rhone’s 12 Festival winners lead Mike Biehler by one and Todd Hoffrogge by four, but it is Mac Robertson _ the winner of a fifth consecutive training title this meet _ who might make the biggest move on Festival Day. Robertson, who has six Festival wins, saddled four of them last year and could have that many winners again.
Among the Robertson trainees are Sir Tricky, defending champion in the $50,000 Minnesota Sprint; Thanks for the Tip, defending champion in the $50,000 Distaff Sprint; Chick Fight, the winner of the Debutante last year who is entered in the $50,000 Distaff Classic on Sunday, and Suddenly Silver, defending champion in the $50,000 Minnesota Classic.
Curtis Sampson leads all owners with seven Festival wins, one more than Almar Farm, Kisson Thoroughbreds and the Eatons. He has opportunities to increase that total with Rustic Road in the $50,000 Futurity. Wally’s Choice, a two-time winner in the Minnesota Classic, is trying the grass this time in the $35,000 Minnesota Turf. There is also Wasson Island in the $50,000 Distaff Sprint.
Ed Ross Hardy, who won his eighth straight training title this meet _ ninth overall _ leads all quarter horse trainers in the Festival with 10 wins and will saddle two horses in the $20,000 Minnesota Quarter Horse Futurity and three in the $20,000 Derby.
Gretchen Eaton perhaps summed up the Festival for other owners with this statement:
“This (racing) is our business life and social life. They have become mixed,” she said. “We see our friends at the track, so you are racing against friends not competitors.”
On the day itself, Eaton hopes for several things.
“This is the goal of the racing season,” she said, “to see if these horses can run on Festival Day. You hope for good luck and that they come home safe.”