Festival A Memory Maker

BY JIM WELLS

Songs and poetry have used the term ad nauseum, sometimes incorporating it into titles or lyrics: “Memories” are made of this, a trip down “memory” lane.

It might be put to better use in the identification of the annual celebration of Minnesota horses. How about this: Festival of Champions, a Memory Maker.

Gretchen Eaton can support the idea not only with the way she speaks of the annual event, but with her tears, as well. Simply recalling some of the horses, their retirements or deaths, can create a lump in her throat. Not to mention the thought of her late husband, Art, who was at her side for the births of Festival  winners they raced themselves or sold to someone who did.

“The Festival was always our favorite day of the year, better than Christmas,” she said. And then a tearful thought. “It’s like watching your kids in a school play.”

The Eatons are still the leading thoroughbred owners on Minnesota Festival day with ten winners, one more than Curtis Sampson and three in front of Kissoon Thoroughbreds. Although no longer racing, Gretchen still cares for retired race horses, as she and Art always did, and not just her own.

” Ashar is here now (at her farm), a winner of $265,000. We didn’t raise her. She was in a partnership with the Kissoons, Pat O’Groman and Lori Clugg. They retired her here.”

So many others:

” Dot’s Moment, Rickey’s Turn, It’s Truly Obvious. They are all gone now,” she added.

Memories ? Many of them.

”The friendships especially,” she said.  “Bernell Rhone was our first trainer. We’re still friends. The Goebels, amazing people. The Metzens.  Jan and Connie Chumas bought our first Silver Ghost Horse, Silver Me Timbers, who put us on the map as breeders.”

When it comes to the Festival, naturally, there is no way to leave out the name of one Eaton horse in particular: Bella Notte.

She won the Distaff Sprint three consecutive times, and the race now bears her name, leaving some indelible memories.

“Just the honor of having a race named after Bella,” Gretchen said.

There is one Festival that stands out from the others, Gretchen’s birthday in 2010. Bella Notte won the Distaff Sprint that day and Suddenly Silver the Classic.

“That was very special,” she said. “But it’s the people, too. The riders, the people who work on the backside. Everyone.”

Gretchen recalled one incident in particular, involving Scott Stevens. “He and Derek (Bell) were always good riders for us. Scott was amazing.” Stevens pulled up one of the Eatons’ horses on the far turn. “When we asked him why, he told us that the horse felt funny. We thanked him.”

Then there is Suddenly Silver’s win in 2010, and the call of the race by Paul Allen.   “I always remember it,” she said:  “He’s covering more ground than Lewis and Clark.”

ART EATON LEAVES RACING LEGACY

Art and Gretchen Eaton
Art and Gretchen Eaton

BY JIM WELLS

 

Trainers recognized something different about Art Eaton whenever they took over horses belonging to him and his wife, Gretchen.

He was not a typical owner. He grew up with horses, and it was obvious. He was not a typical businessman. His word was his bond, a handshake was all that was needed, and that too was clear. Perhaps most telling about the man was his dedication to the horses. He always put them first, always made decisions in their best interest, many times at his own expense.

There was another side to the man not so obvious, except to Gretchen. Art Eaton did not reveal his innermost joy and affection easily. Not when it came to horse racing at any rate. He kept feelings of joy close to the vest, even when his beloved runners won a race.

But Gretchen knew when he was pleased, when he was moved, when maybe even a tear welled up inside him as one of their horses hit the wire first. “His chin would start to quiver,” she said.

Eaton, 87, died October 28 at Abbott Northwestern Hospital after a lifetime devoted to the equine industry. He grew up with horses at Eaton Ranch in Eagan, a dude ranch that also offered sleigh rides and horse rentals to the public, owned quarter horses before horse racing arrived in Minnesota and within a year of the inauguration of Canterbury Downs was racing horses, at first in partnership, later with those he and Gretchen bred, raised and raced out of their farm in Randolph.

Art Eaton was raised in a family well known throughout Apple Valley, Eagan and beyond. At one time, Gretchen was surprised when she shopped in surrounding communities and produced a credit card for the purchase. Store clerks would invariably ask if there was a connection to Eaton Ranch.

Canterbury Park media relations director Jeff Maday referred to the Eatons as the last of their kind in the industry. Horse racing nationwide has changed. The kind of infrastructure people such as the Eatons need is expensive and there is short supply of the labor needed to maintain such an operation. Land for such enterprises is at a premium.

The Eatons’ first trainer Bernell Rhone concurs. “I think those days of the ranches are gone,” he said. Also gone are the people who know horse racing from the ground up. “They understand the game,” said Rhone of the Eatons. “They are good to their horses. They always gave them the benefit of the doubt.”
Mike Biehler trained for the Eatons as well and recalled Art’s knowledge around horses, unlike many owners “He actually knew how to load a horse onto a trailer,” Biehler recalled. “He knew which end went in first. You could tell he knew what he was doing, that he had been around horses.”

When Art Eaton turned a horse over to a trainer, he stepped back, out of the way and let him do his work. He listened and discussed and trusted the men who trained for him and Gretchen.

“He was easy to train for,” said trainer Mac Robertson. “He put his horses before himself, which most people don’t do. It’s hard not to be selfish in this game, and Art was unselfish.”

And he was trustworthy. “His word was always good,” said Robertson “and that’s not the case with most owners.”

Eaton was a land developer, raised in a family that once owned property in Apple Valley, where its first high school now stands. Horse racing was supposed to have been a hobby but it crept swiftly into the lives of Art and Gretchen and took over, commanding every aspect of their lives. It became their passion and all the motivation necessary for heading to the barn each day, sometimes on little sleep but always with dedication and concern for the animals that resided there.

When horses were no longer competitive on the racetrack or simply didn’t fit there, the Eatons either found good homes for them or pasture space at the farm in Randolph.

Art’s dedication to horses had a truly personal cost. He was kicked in the head by a foal at one point and lost his sense of taste and smell. Another time he lost a finger to a horse that reared up on him. Yet, that seemed nothing more to Art Eaton than the price of working with the animals he loved.

The Eatons had been nurturing their horse hobby for some time when Canterbury Downs opened in 1985. The following year they joined a partnership with the Bensons, Dean and Teresa. Soon thereafter, they were buying yearlings, then broodmares, standing stallions and eventually racing their own horses. Their horses, those they raced or bred or both, are part of the legacy of racing in Minnesota _ horses named Now Playing, Hy Society Guy, Dot’s Moment, Silver Me Timbers, Rookie’s Turn, It’s Truly Obvious, Roustabout, Distinctive Turn, Bella Notte and the broodmare that put them on the map _ Alaskan Oil.

For the Eatons, Canterbury Downs and then Canterbury Park became like a second home. “When we were in the barns of whoever was training for us at a given time, it was like that,” Gretchen said. “We met so many people starting with the Bensons, the Sampsons, those who trained for us, the veterinarians, other owners, who have become lifetime friends,” Gretchen said. Their horse, Dot’s Moment, developed a rivalry with a Curt Sampson runner named Samdanya. “Every time I see him he calls me Dot,” Gretchen added. “We were rivals on the racetrack but always friends afterward.”

Eaton’s wake is scheduled on Friday from 3 to 8 p.m., at Lundberg Funeral Home in Cannon Falls. A reviewal will be held on Saturday at St. Pious the Fifth Catholic Church at 9:30 a.m., with a service to follow at 11 a.m.

In 2003 the Eatons were inducted into the Canterbury Park Hall of Fame as champion breeders, a recognition that Art accepted with pride. His fondest wish in racing never took place and Gretchen pointed out a certain irony attached to the timing of her husband’s final services. “He never wished for or talked about winning a Kentucky Derby,” she said. “But he always wished he could have won a Breeders’ Cup race.”

The 2016 Breeders’ Cup races take place on Friday and Saturday at Santa Anita Park.

Bella Notte
Bella Notte

Guldemann: A Founding Father

Mike Guldemann0001Mike Guldemann was a person many people recognized but few really knew…”Oh,’ yeah, Mike, sure. Saw him all the time.”

He was an unimposing fixture at Canterbury Downs and then Canterbury Park, seldom seen on the frontside but ubiquitously present in the barns and racing office, often with a string of watches on one forearm, ready to show anyone in need of a new timepiece. “I’ve still got one, a Gruen, I bought from him a few years ago,” said trainer Doug Oliver. “I”ve had to replace several bands on it, but the watch is fine, a really good one.”

People saw Guldemann all the time, this knowledgeable horseman who was part of Minnesota horseracing since the 1960s and involved in the game way before that.

“You saw him around the track all the time. He was there when they opened the place,” said HBPA president Tom Metzen. “I remember he was around when we ran horses at the county fairs, out at Lake Elmo. He had a couple of horses with Dave Sorum at one time. He was nice to everyone. A very nice person.”

Guldemann, who would have turned 95 on May 1 was still driving to the stable-area at Canterbury on a daily basis during the meet last summer when he took on a new part-time line of work, selling bridles or colorful lead ropes, any kind of tack a person desired. “Hard to believe he was that old. He was sharp as a tack,” said Oliver.

For many years he sat in in the dining room of the track kitchen with an open briefcase in front of him, watches, pocket knives and other paraphernalia on display, but Guldemann’s true love was racing, horses in particular.

“He tried to get us into a racing partnership several years ago,” said Canterbury Hall of Fame owner/breeder Gretchen Eaton. “He was a very nice person, very knowledgeable about horses.”

Guldemann died on January 18 at St. Joseph’s Hospital after suffering a stroke. Track chaplain Ed Underwood will lead a memorial for him in the stable chapel at 1 p.m. on Wednesday.

Guldemann bred and trained racehorses from 1951 to 1965 in Minot, N.D., and was a key participant in the drive to bring parimutuel racing to North Dakota. He was one of the founders of the Minnesota Thoroughbred Association and its first president, on an interim basis, while bylaws were being written in 1970. Five years later, living in Hampton with 40 broodmares, he won the Minnesota Thoroughbred Breeders Award for Hut Sut Ralston, by Guldemann’s stallion Vapor Whirl. For the next 10 years, Guldemann lived in Mount Vernon, Illinois, on a farm with 27 broodmares, returning to Minnesota when Canterbury Downs arrived in 1985.

“He sat in my tackroom every morning talking about racing,” said trainer Tom McFadden

“He was a nice old fellow, a nice person. I’m going to miss him.”

Guldemann didn’t simply sit there. He had purchased a mare in foal that Harvey Harrison bought from him. They named the foal Hoodwinked Holly after the woman whose Shakopee family took Guldemann in the last couple of years. “I lived closer to Canterbury than he did,” said Holly Bungert. “He kept his apartment in Prior Lake and he’d go there to write letters to the Thoroughbred Times and take care of his business matters, but it was easier for him to get to the track from my place, and cheaper, too, when gas prices were so high.”

Holly’s two daughters, Rachel and Beth, worked in the stables at Canterbury when they first met Guldemann and quickly began referring to him as “grandpa.” Beth is now an assistant trainer to Mike Lauer at Churchill Downs. Rachel is barn foreman for Mac Robertson at Delaware Park. Guldemann simply became “grandpa” to the entire family, including Holly and her husband, Lowell.

“My kids adopted him,” said Holly. “And he’s been a part of our lives ever since. At first he’d stay over on weekends. Then it was another day and then another.”

Guldemann has a daughter, Melissa, and a granddaughter, Mariah, of Glencoe. He was born on May 1, 1918 in Bowman, N.D.

Guldemann frequently communicated with the Thoroughbred Times, which printed this poem by him in 2009:

THE OLD RACEHORSE

The old gray horse looks over the fence
In a weary sort of way
He seems to be saying to all who pass
Well, folks, I’ve had my day

I’m simply watching the world go by
And nobody seems to mind
As they go dashing by in swift cars
An old gray horse who is twice lame and half blind

The old racehorse has a shaggy coat
But once was young, fit and trim
And he used to work on the racetrack
With a jockey who was fond of him

His owner drives by in his super-charged car
And it makes him feel quite sad
When he thinks of the days that used to be
and the stakes wins that they had

Sometimes a friendly soul will stop
Near the fence where the tired old head
Rests wearily on the topmost bar
And a friendly word is said

Then the old racehorse gives a sigh
And he feels the kindly touch
Of a hand on his mane or shaggy coat
and doesn’t mind so much 

So if you pass by the field one day
Just stop for a word or two
Where the old racehorse
Who once was young and full of life as you 

He will love the touch of your hand
And i know he will seem to say
Thank you, friend, for the kindly thought
For a stakes horse who has had his day.

Mike G 50001

This blog was written by Canterbury Staff Writer Jim Wells. Wells was a longtime sportswriter at the Pioneer Press and is a member of the Canterbury Park Hall of Fame.