BY JIM WELLS
Sometime in the coming days, perhaps next week, maybe not until closing day, he will decide. The date might not be determined until it’s clear there are no more races to fit his horses, the three still in the barn.
Hall of Fame trainer Doug Oliver, a fixture at every Canterbury Downs/Park meet since the track opened in 1985 — even the Minnesota-bred races conducted at Arlington National Park and AkSarBen when the Shakopee facility was closed — will pack his tack and truck one last time in next few days.
He has made his last trip from Turf Paradise in Phoenix to Shakopee for Canterbury’s spring/summer meet. He loves Minnesota and everything about the racing here, but it has come time to call it quits.
It has become too far and too expensive to ship horses 1,700 miles each spring without getting a commensurate share of purse money to pay the bills. He is not giving up the game altogether, just the Minnesota end of it. He will continue to run some horses in Phoenix, but his days as a trainer in Shakopee are counting down. Basically, he’s playing it by ear, could be next couple of days, or a week or more.
The years have evaporated like dew in the rising sun. Owners and their horses have come and gone. He has had very good years, good years and some easily left behind.
Some of those names were on the tip of his tongue and required no thought whatsoever. He was the leading trainer in Shakopee three times and conditioned two horses, Thasusintheolbean and Bleu Victoriate, both Canterbury horses of the year.
There were others of nearly equal stature, Honor the Hero and Valid Leader. “Our best one lately is Speed Is Life,” he added. “A nice horse.”
A native of Norwood, Colo., Oliver got his trainer’s license in the 1960s in his home state. He had grown up in the Colorado mountains, riding quarter horses for his father, Stanley.
His plans on race riding lasted a short while, only until it became clear he was not destined to remain small enough to ride. He shifted ambitions and began assisting his father with the training. The Olivers were racing primarily then at Centennial Race Track in Denver. “We’d go to California to buy our horses,” Oliver recalled.
One of those horses stood out, a filly named Cherry River, fourth fastest in the nation in 1970. The horse was the champion sprinter in California for several years, won several stakes and was fourth on the experimental list one season. She carried 128 pounds, more than any previous horse, at the Governor’s Handicap in Pomona one year. Cherry River won 33 of 96 starts and earned more than $500,000, a tidy sum at the time.
Oliver won three consecutive training titles, from 1999 through 2001, with Thatsusintheolbean Horse of the Year that first year and Bleu Victoriate the next.
But he won’t be back again. “We love it up here,” he said of himself and his son, Brian. “We love the racing, but it gets to the point where it doesn’t make sense if you don’t do well. And I like winning races.”
Oliver has basically spent autumn and winter in Phoenix and spring and summer in Shakopee every season since 1985. He has started 37 horses in Shakopee this summer, producing two winners, five seconds and five thirds. His horses have earned $84,000.
“I think it’s tougher here now with the bigger purses,” he said. “The top end horses are a lot better.”
His future summers might include trips with Brian hither and yon in a motor home. Expect even to see him in Shakopee at some future date.
But he doesn’t want anyone making a big deal of his departure, no fanfare, no sendoffs, just wants to depart quietly.
“I just want to ride off into the sunset,” he said. “Like in the old cowboy movies. That’s what I’d like.”