by Jim Wells
They purchased the land 50 years ago and at various times it teemed with horses, but now when she looks out the back door there is only one. He is lord of a spacious paddock and moves slowly from place to place, grazing as he does, easy-going and amiable as always in retirement.
Every so often that friendly disposition becomes animated at the sound of a truck or car pulling into the driveway, on the off chance a tasty peppermint awaits. On such occasions, he might show a flash of the quickness that once made him a winner at Canterbury Park, a brief glimpse of the swift turn of foot that made him a champion sprinter.
He is Heliskier, a two-time Horse of the Year in Shakopee, a son of Appealing Skier from Plana Dance, bred, raised and broken by Robert Colvin and owned by his wife, Marlene, this Minnesota-bred gelding and dominating sprinter in Shakopee for three seasons plus.
Robert “Bun” Colvin was 73 years of age when he broke Heliskier, still vibrant and the total horseman he had been for 50-plus years. He died suddenly, of an aortic aneurysm, shortly after telling Marlene this particular colt had the intelligence and wherewithal to be the best they had raised in five decades.
Of course, he had told that to her about other yearlings, but this time his insight and horse sense, the acuity acquired from a lifetime as a rider, owner, breeder and trainer, would prove to be spot on.
Now, Marlene, Heliskier and the cats hold down the farm she and Bun purchased a few miles outside of Mitchell a decade after they were married as teenagers in South Dakota.
They followed the racing circuit for many years, throughout Nebraska, Arizona, even Nevada at one time, before heading to the new venue in Minnesota, Canterbury Downs, in 1985. Their presence on the scene is documented on the first day of pari mutuel racing. Their horse, Sultan’s Gold, finished third in the first race run in Shakopee, behind a winner named Faiz. The Colvins were in Shakopee nearly every year thereafter with their horses, and Bun as trainer until the years began demanding he turn over the conditioning to someone else.
Fifty years is a long time in human terms, even longer in the equine equivalent. Generations come and go in the horse world over the span of a human lifetime, and those lineages are documented and spoken of in reverential tones by the men and women who govern them.
Heliskier’s dam, for instance, was Plana Dance, one of only two horses to win the Princess Elaine Stakes twice. And her son Heliskier was named Horse of the Year twice at Canterbury, in 2012 and again the next year. Only one other horse, Hoist Her Flag, has been so honored twice.
Heliskier was by Appealing Skier and retired in 2016 with a career record of 9-2-2 from 19 starts with earnings of $277,918. All but four of those races were at Canterbury Park, where he was 9-2-1 from 15 starts and earned $266,968.
Heliskier won seven consecutive starts to inaugurate his career, five of them stakes races, under Hall of Fame rider Derek Bell, who is reminded daily of him. Bell has a picture of Heliskier in the living room of his home in Indiana. “I think about him every day, how much fun he was to ride” Bell said. “He was a big powerful machine. All he did was run his guts out.”
Trained by Mac Robertson, Heliskier was the king of the barn. “Every trainer has a leader of the stable, and he was that for two years,” Robertson recalled. “That’s a long time for a horse to go undefeated.”
Heliskier’s presence was a boon to attitude in the barn as well. “Whenever there is an undefeated horse in the stable, it’s just fun to walk past and look at him,” Robertson added.
Ultimately, Heliskier, not unlike certain NFL running backs, might have been too good for his own body, too fast for his own limbs. “Sprinters that run that fast are hard to keep around,” Robertson added. “Wish he could have lasted longer, but he had bad knees and could only train so hard.”
The naming process is an important part of connecting horses to their lineage, by choosing names that reflect those of their sires or dams. In Heliskier’s case, it was part bestowal of a moniker that honored his sire, Appealing Skier, and the Colvins’ nephew, Dr William Hemminger, an equine veterinarian from Louisville, Ky., who spent time with his aunt and uncle as a youngster.
Hemminger is taken with a sport known in Canada as helisking. Skiers are transported to the top of a mountain by helicopter; they ski down, and return again. Hence, a name for the best horse in the Colvins’ long history of racing and breeding.
And now a place to honor him and his achievements, in the Canterbury Park Hall of Fame.