Butzows Have Been In For The Long Run

We’ve  heard this one before:

A guy buys a horse with friends. It wins easily. First time out. He ventures into new parternerships. Those horses win maiden starts, too.

Notions take over: Horse racing is a piece of cake. A walk in the park. Like printing money.

The hook is set.  Reality will set in slowly, over time.

A chuckle rises in Barry Butzow’s throat as he recalls just such a start to horse racing, what seems like a lifetime ago, in 1985. Canterbury Downs had made its debut. Racing had arrived in Minnesota.

Those early years typically included ownership in horses with multiple partners, some hard to recall.  “Kathy Walsh trained for us,” he said, “and then at the end, her brother, Jim, took over.”

He laughs about it today, now that he’s buried hip deep in the sport and sees clearly through the mirage under which it all began.

Yet, he and his wife, Joni, are committed at a level not imaginable back then, deeper than ever,  owning, breeding, racing.  They might be at the races on a Saturday night in Shakopee, and on a plane the next morning, headed for a track in Kentucky or to check on their breeding operation there. Their commitment extends further.

They have been active in money raising efforts for injured riders at Canterbury Park, the Leg Up Fund, and previously in the Don MacBeth Memorial Jockey Fund, as well as Doc Bowman’s program to repurpose racehorses after their careers are finished at Canterbury Park, in addition to another effort in Louisiana for retired horses there. They have made numerous donations to causes aligned with racing.

You are either in the sport or you or not is the way they see it.

“It’s not just the horses but the people,” Joni said. “The people on the backside, the jockeys, the trainers, the whole community. We’re tried to get involved with all of them. It’s a community.”

Their love of racing as a couple started with a devotion to one another after meeting 22 years ago. “Our first date was at the track,” Joni said. The hook was set.

Today they own some 60 horses, 11 of them racing at Canterbury this summer and others at any of several tracks, their mares at a broodmare farm in Paris, Kentucky.

The racing season starts for them at the Fair Grounds in New Orleans, shifts to Oaklawn in Arkansas, then to Kentucky and Canterbury They have horses at Canterbury, Saratoga and three places in Kentucky, shipping some of the out-of-state runners to Shakopee at times for stakes races.

Another chuckle.

Sometimes Butzow says he has to check his trucking bills to determine where this or that horse is located at a given time.  A suggestion is offered that someday, perhaps, horses will be shipped from here to there by Amazon, by drones. Outlandish, of course, but not moreso some days than this all-consuming sport itself.

None of this was on the horizon in 1992 when Butzow got out of the sport altogether. Canterbury went dark in 1992, and for the next two years there was nothing.  “I rode with it through the peak and then the Ladbroke era, and got out entirely,” he said.

Then, in 1995, Canterbury Park arose, like a Phoenix from the ashes of the Downs, and Butzow was interested once more. He credits Kathy and Dion Kissoon for rekindling his interest. “They got us back into it,” he said.

Their were partnerships with the Kissoons in a number of successful thoroughbreds, Nidari, Balin, Tez Tarak, and Balin among them.

Kathy Kissoon recalls an instance in which Joni put her skills as a nurse anesthetist to use in the equine field.

“Balin had gotten kicked and was hurt,” she said. “The walkers were too close together and another horse kicked him.”

When Balin’s owners came to see him, they discovered that there was puss running out of a shoulder and he hadn’t been treated. They took him home.

“Joni showed up with a pump so we could flush the wound and then clean it and applied some antibiotics.”

Barry added to the memory list. “I remember Joni and Kathy jumping in the truck and taking a horse in a trailer to Hawthorne Park in Chicago,” he said.

There was a slight pause as he considered that specific situation, two women from Minnesota driving to Hawthorne in Cicero, Ill., on the edge of the Windy City.

The partners celebrated together in the winner’s circle  several times, as well as on another more personal occasion.

“We went to their wedding in 2003,” Kathy added.

They bought horses together, attended sales and the Butzows began learning about the industry, the business of buying, owning and racing.

“The Kissoons were wonderful mentors,” Joni said. “They taught us so much about racing.”’

Eventually, the inevitable occurred.

The Butzows’ interest in the game began to conflict at times with the interests of their partners.

“What happened is that they just outgrew us,” Kathy said. “Those things happen in this business.”

As partners, they had used several trainers, Bernell Rhone, Justin Evans, Jaime Ness among them. On their own, the Butzows were with the most consistent champion trainer in Canterbury history for 14 years, Mac Robertson. “Now, we’re mostly with Joe Sharp, ” Barry added.

The list of names continues to grow, but foremost in the Butzows’ memories are Sir Tricky, Picko’s Pride, Bryan’s Jewel, Hamazing Destiny, Firstmate.  There are others, of course, and, as the Butzows continue to demonstrate, there are more to come.

On Saturday evening they will be inducted into the Canterbury Park Hall of Fame

by Jim Wells

Bell Still the Leading Festival Rider

By Jim Wells

Nobody has ridden more Festival of Champions winners than Derek Bell, the Canterbury Park Hall of Fame rider who has been to the winner’s circle 24 times on this annual day of tribute to Minnesota horses.

That total is six more than Dean Butler and 13 in front of Scott Stevens.

Bell has won every race in the thoroughbred lineup but one, the Glitter Star Distaff Classic, and has ridden multiple winners in the other six, including seven in the Bella Notte Distaff Sprint. He was on Bella Notte herself for two of her three wins, in 2009 and 2011, before the race was renamed in her honor.

Bella won a third time in 2010 when Bell was taken off her and two other winners by trainer Mac Robertson. “I should have 27 winners,” he said Friday, while perusing the list of previous champions. He also lost mounts on Suddenly Silver and Sir Tricky that year. “They were all easy winners, too,” he said.

Bell’s Festival winners actually should total 28, if the 2013 Sprint champion, Heliskier, is included. Bell’s knee was broken the morning of the race when a horse he was working flipped on him. Instead, Justin Shepherd rode Heliskier, that year’s Horse of the Year.

Bell scanned the list of previous Festival winners, commenting on some of those he rode: He won the 2011 Turf championship on Tubby Time in 2012. “He was nice, a real runner,” he recalled. “A push-button horse.”

He won the 2002 Minnesota Classic on J.P. Jett for trainer Dave Van Winkle. “He was a big, black horse,” Bell recalled. “More like a quarter horse. I won the Derby on him and the Festival race that year.”

Bell rode Bizet, owned by Olaf Strand, only once and that was a winning ride in the 2009 Minnesota Sprint. “That was it, just that one time,” he said. “He was a big chestnut.”

Bell rode Nidari for Kissoon Thoroughbreds to consecutive wins, 2000 and 2001, in the Distaff. He won aboard Madam Speaker for Almar Farms in 2004, Bleu’s Apparition for Jeff Hilger in 2005, and Sentimental Charm for James Peltier in 2007.


Bell and Prime Step

Bell won six riding titles in Shakopee and holds career records in earnings and wins. He is second all time in win percentage. His best day at Canterbury, was on June 14, 2002 when he rode six winners. He arrived late in the current meet during a summer when Canterbury has been overrun with good riders, including four former riding champs, five upon his arrival.

He has only an allowance mount on Sunday for the annual running of the Festival that began under inauspicious circumstances in 1992, when racing was in dire straits.

Horsemen put together the inaugural Festival to prove a point to Ladbroke Racing Corporation’s local executives, who had all but proclaimed live racing a thing of the past in Minnesota.

The Ladbroke Racing Corp. was on its way out as owner of the Shakopee race track after a refusal by the Minnesota Racing Commission to renew the British firm’s racing license for the 1993 season. Before that took place, horsemen wanted to demonstrate that Minnesotans would indeed show up for quality racing. They did just that, on a bright sunny afternoon in 1992 that was the last live card in Minnesota until racing resumed in 1995. The Festival has been a part of the summer racing program every year since.

Bravo Worked His Way Up, Tirelessly

He was three days past his eighteenth birthday, having grown up in a country bordered on one side by a great ocean, on the other by the longest mountain range in the world, a country filled with diverse landscape and ecosystems. Yet, here he was, in the lush farmland of western Wisconsin, in a small college town dominated by English speaking people.

A freshman at the University of Wisconsin-River Falls, with only a brother, Boris, nearly two years older, to rely upon for trusted information and directions in a new land and strikingly different culture.  He watched television, picking up words here and there, gaining understanding of a new language in bits and pieces, little by little.

Francisco Bravo had arrived in the United States of America, in a culture full of surprises, good and bad, and time revealed it a rewarding place.

“I had been to Wisconsin before, as an exchange student,” Bravo recalled. “I had a girlfriend there and that made it a little easier to accept.” Three months in Baldwin, Wisconsin, had given him a small taste of what was to come.

“But it was very scary, leaving home,” he said. “I didn’t know if I would ever see my family again.  There was a lot of uncertainty.”

Under those conditions, Bravo left Chile and started a new life, in Los Estados Unidos.

“My dad gave me a one-way ticket to the U.S. and a thousand dollars,” Bravo recalled.  And a foundation for survival in the world.

“He taught us to work, and he was tough on us,” Bravo added. “He wanted us to get a good education, told us that would open opportunities.”

That instruction began in a private, Catholic school in Chile, in suburban Santiago, with strict guidelines, a base for what was to come later in the U.S., working as a bus boy in a supper club, later as a bartender, and during the summer months as a lineman for the local phone company, all of it alongside his university studies.

Hard work. The kind demanded on the farm by his father. Cleaning the barn. Minding the horses.

For the young man from South America, that background helped produce a degree in Animal Science from UW-River Falls, opening the door to a variety of opportunities in the horse world.

Bravo, 64, has become a well-known, successful and respected horseman in Shakopee since his arrival in 1988.  He had broken thoroughbreds and was familiar with racing as a boy in Chile, but his father had prohibited his sons from attending the racetrack. “We match-raced in the neighborhood, but we couldn’t go to the racetrack,” Bravo said. “It was the wrong environment.”

Shortly after graduating college, he began handling show horses. “I got a job on a farm in North Dakota,” he said. “My intention was to stay three or four months and go back to Chile. I stayed for ten years.”

He met the woman he would marry, Lori.  They later bought a farm in Cannon Falls, Minnesota. “We were doing very well,” he said. Despite a fast start with seven or eight state champion show horses, the business included an element Bravo disliked, the politics of competition. “You basically had to sell your soul to the devil,” he said.

In the aftermath of one particular show, he discovered one of his riders distraught over her placement. “She was crying, the stall girl was crying, my wife was crying.”

The show horse rat race was over, then and there. Bravo informed his owners he was done, sold off the horses and considered filing bankruptcy. Reality set in quickly. “I didn’t go the barn the next day. My wife wouldn’t talk to me. I thought ‘what the hell have I done.’  I thought I might be having a nervous breakdown.”

The doubt was short-lived. He quickly acquired a second wind, hooked up a trailer, headed to Canterbury Downs and talked his way into the stable area. “I went from barn to barn, looking for horses that needed to be broken,” he said.

Within days, he had all he could handle at the farm in Cannon Falls, swiftly ran out of room and began searching for more. The hunt led to a man named Dale Schenian, a few years later a Canterbury Park investor and board vice chairman. . “I ended up renting his whole farm,” Bravo said. He began handling Schenian’s broodmare operation. They acquired the stallion Prince Forli.

When Canterbury Downs went dark in 1992, one of Bravo’s owners, Mike Grossman, advised him to become a trainer if he wanted to stay in racing, to make it financially. In the time since he has turned out some outstanding runners, Crocrock, Hold For More, Argenti, Smooth Chiraz, and Hidden Gold among them. He soon bought a horse ranch in Texas and later relocated outside Sulphur, Oklahoma, where he is yet today.

Bravo has been among the top five trainers in Shakopee the last four years, the best of those in 2015 and 2016 when he finished third in the standings. All these years later, he still trains for Schenian and Grossman.  Relationships between owners and trainers of such duration are an anomaly in the racing business.

“I consider both of them my closest friends, Bravo said.

“I guess we like each other. How about that,” said Schenian. “He’s a man of integrity, a hard worker and a good person.”

Bravo tries to visit remaining family in Chile every other year. It was nine years after his arrival in River Falls before he returned, to visit his terminally ill father, and he returned four months later for the funeral.

Chile, understandably, has a special place in his heart, for many reasons, one in particular.  It is where he and his wife adopted a little girl during a visit in 1992, a year of change, dominated by career and life-altering choices.  None of them equaled the one that brought Natalie, now 27, into their lives.

“Best thing we’ve ever done,” he said.

On Saturday Bravo will be inducted into the Canterbury Park Hall of Fame.

by Jim Wells

Strangis Racing’s Man For All Seasons

Ralph Strangis generally operated behind the scenes, as an attorney, businessman, racing commissioner, horse owner or fan, yet when he died last August he left a mark on just about any enterprise he had undertaken.

He was valued and respected for his expertise in a variety of endeavors, and it became apparent upon his death that he would not easily be replaced, if at all.

He was highly effective as an attorney at settling disputes. Instead of taking sides or trying to resolve matters on his own, he often directed the parties to settle differences on their own, with remarkable success.

As a horse  owner, he had success in the early years of Minnesota racing in a partnership with businessmen and high profile sports executives. As a fan, he simply enjoyed racing, and introduced the sport to his children on racing vacations.

He also handled legal matters for the construction of two stadiums for Minnesota sports teams, and was an avid sports fan himself.

On Saturday evening he will be inducted into the Canterbury Park Hall of Fame.

Strangis always conducted business in a setting that he controlled from the outset by establishing guidelines and then holding the parties involved to those expectations. He was an efficient and fair arbiter and helped guide two major decisions beneficial to racing in both cases. He was a dominant factor in the ouster of the Ladbroke Racing Corp., that led to the closure of the track as Canterbury Downs in 1992, a decision that ultimately saved the sport. Later, as chairman of the Minnesota Racing Commission, he helped direct an agreement between the racetrack and the Mdewakanton Sioux Community at Mystic Lake that stabilized purses and racing over a ten-year period.

“Really one of his remarkable accomplishments as a regulator was the leadership and ability he provided to back down Ladbroke,” said Canterbury Park CEO Randy Sampson. “It took a strong leader to take them on and let them know that the Racing Commission was not going to bend the rules and allow simulcasting without a commitment to live racing.”

Strangis’ unique style in a meeting was lauded by almost anyone in attendance and by the participants themselves. Time was of the essence to orderly discussion, and he demonstrated that repeatedly by preventing distractions from obtaining a foothold.

“I really liked that about him,” Sampson added. “I’ve never seen a guy run a meeting more efficiently than he did. It was remarkable how he could keep a meeting on track and keep it moving.”

Among Strangis’ survivors are his wife, Grace; children, Ralph, Jr., Paul, Jason and Anthea and his stepchildren, Sara Grace and Nathan, several grandchildren and countless friends and business associates.

Strangis had been a racing fan much of his life when the sport was ushered in for Minnesotans with the arrival of Canterbury Downs in 1985, and he was among the early horse owners who frequented the new facility to cheer on the stars of their stables.

Cachuma was a fan favorite in the 1980s, owned by Thoroughbreds, Inc., which included Minnesota Vikings general manager Mike Lynn, automobile dealer Jim Lupient and Strangis.

Cachuma ran with his head down, a distinguishing feature fans came to recognize and appreciate, particularly in the final sixteenth when his unique style was all the more on display.

“We all made money on Cachuma,” said Paul Strangis. “Win after win.”

Later, Ralph Strangis was involved as an owner with a Tom Metzen partnership.

Paul is still involved in racing as an owner, his love for the sport nurtured at the Southern California tracks as a youngster during trips there with his father and siblings.

“He was uniquely qualified (as a commissioner and later chairman) with his love of the sport,” said Sampson. “He always did what was right for the backside people and the horse. He made a unique contribution to horse racing, as chairman, and as an owner.”

Strangis was prohibited from owning horses while serving on the commission, but quickly reengaged when his terms expired, having helped regulate the sport with a participant’s understanding.

Jim Lane III, the acting chairman of the commission, got to know Strangis before serving on the commission with him. Lane, an attorney himself, was working at the time with North Ridge Farm and the late Franklin Groves, an Eclipse Award winning breeder, and trainer Carl Nafzger.

“I knew him (Strangis) as a horse owner and active participant along with Tom Metzen,” Lane said. “Ralph knew the racing business and liked it and was therefore a better informed regulator than perhaps people not exposed to racing.”

Strangis had other strengths that Lane says directed decisions in which he participated. “He was very interested in the two tracks (Canterbury Park and  Running Aces) and their financial strength,” Lane added.  “He was a wonderful businessman and attorney.”

Strangis, in fact, was described in certain accounts as the “legal architect” of Target Field for the Minnesota Twins and Allianz Field, home to the Minnesota United soccer team.

Strangis designated Lane as first vice chairman of the racing commission after becoming chairman and he continued in that role until Strangis died last year. Lane has been the acting chairman since.

Lane recalls two “big” problems “percolating” when Strangis rejoined the commission five or six years ago. “The purse underpayment at Running Aces and the dispute between that track and the Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association regarding the financial agreement with the Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux Community,” he said. “Ralph was instrumental in solving both problems,” said Lane. “Those things tend to be forgotten.”

Commissioner Alan Gingold first met Strangis in 1973. “He was representing the company I worked for (Piper Jaffrey and Hopwood),” Gingold said.

“He was an extraordinary man, 70 percent lawyer, 70 percent businessman and 70 percent community activist.”

Gingold grew to know Strangis in new ways upon serving with him on the Commission. “He had a natural love for racing, the beauty of racing and the horses, which is true of most of the commissioners. They love horses,” Gingold said.

Gingold also cited Strangis’ ability to get people together, talking and solving their problems.

His appreciation for Strangis, having known him four and one-half decades might best be summed up in these comments:

“I think about him every day,” Gingold said. “He was larger than life, and I don’t expect to meet anybody like him.”

by Jim Wells


by Jim Wells

When you ask him a question, be prepared for an answer that is not black and white or yes or no, that is somewhat involved and complex yet easy to track nonetheless.

Then again, portraying a lifetime in the horse business is not a simple task, and it might help to know that Jack Walsh was first and foremost a highly respected defense attorney during a long and distinguished career. When is the last time you got a simple answer from an attorney?

Walsh comes closer than any, although there are plenty of detours and excursions along the way that prevent an absolutely clean, straight story line. Still, the motives in his life narrative are of the purest and simplest form, beginning with the love of his children Laura, Julie, Jackie, and Kathy, his grandchildren, and of the equine world itself.

The start was basic, a Shetland pony in 1965 for three-year-old Laura, the first of the four daughters. By the time she turned eleven, their farm between Stillwater and Somerset included an indoor riding arena, 180 by 60 feet in size, a fixture still standing on the property, and Laura was riding in quarter horse shows.

Let’s skip ahead a few years to when twenty or more quarter horse broodmares occupied the premises _ a spendy venture, Walsh called it, and an enterprise that ended in 1979, when he sold the mares and auctioned sixty head of quarter horses he bred.

He also lectured on Equine Law at the University of Wisconsin-River Falls for some seventeen years. Somewhere along that timeline a fellow named D. Wayne Lukas, who once trained quarter horses near Rochester while teaching in LaCrosse, gave a talk at the University and paid a visit to the Walsh farm afterward. Walsh’s enterprise was well known to the serious practitioners of quarter horse racing in the area. Lukas was also in the midst of making the switch to thoroughbreds around that time, and Walsh would follow suit with the opening of Canterbury Downs in 1985, running a horse named Una’s Friend, his first thoroughbred, trained by Dave Crandall of White Bear Lake.

“The first time we ran, I got a check,” Walsh, 86, recalled, “and I remember thinking, how easy is this?”

Time would disabuse him of such notions but not deter him from the business of racing or his whole-hearted involvement in the industry. He tried cases before the American Quarter Horse Racing Association in Amarillo, Texas, and represented more than 100 horsemen before the Minnesota Racing Commission.

The best thoroughbred he bred? “Maybe Shot of Somerset,” he said. “A pretty nice horse.”

The thoroughbreds he bred all carried the name of Somerset, homage, of course, to the nearby Wisconsin village. “There was a period of time when Jeff Hilger, Curt Sampson, Dennis Strohkirch and myself were some of the biggest breeders in the state, but not anymore,” he said.

Times change and people change, but Walsh has stayed involved from the start, in many ways. He served on the board of the Minnesota Thoroughbred Association for several years and the local chapter of the HBPA as well, a body of which he is currently serving out his term as president.

Hilger, a retired breeder, HBPA president and member of Canterbury Park’s Hall of Fame, attests to the respect Walsh has in the legal field with the following story:

Hilger was on jury duty in Washington County in the early 1990s and overheard two men debating a point when one of them bellowed, ‘who do you think you are, Jack Walsh?’

Walsh’s easy-going style during conversation betrays the hypnotic effect he must have had on the men and women in the jury box with his sonorous, baritone voice. Yet the more salient point is that he comes across as a good-natured, honorable person seeking only justice, and people who know him well say he is absolutely that. “In the thirty years I’ve known Jack, I have not heard a person say a bad word about him,” Hilger added.

Raised on the East Side of St. Paul, he attended Cretin High School, the College of St. Thomas and then the William Mitchell College of Law.

He was also a skater, for the St Paul, Minneapolis and University Club figure skating organizations from 1951 to 1954.

Walsh, at one time, had a pasture full of cattle at his farm, too, but it is his annual bison feed the Saturday after Thanksgiving for which he is noted, with more than 100 invitees often attending.

He was absolutely dumbstruck upon hearing he would be included as one of this year’s Canterbury Hall of Fame inductees. “It was the furthest thing from my mind,” he said, “to be included alongside people like the Sampsons, and the Schenians and so many others.”

Then again, if more supporting evidence is necessary, there is this comment Hilger once made to Walsh: “I’ve never known anyone who spent more money in horse racing and made less than you.”



by Jim Wells

It is called the graveyard of champions, but Saratoga Race Track is also the birthplace of hope, where a boy’s dream flashed across his mind in vivid technicolor on his numerous visits there as a youngster.

His father sold programs there as a youngster himself, buying them for ten cents, selling them for a nickel more. Years later, the boy accompanied the father to Saratoga every day of the summer meet, absorbing the sights and sounds, the smells and wonders of the racetrack.

Just two miles from their home on North Broadway, Saratoga was a splendid place for a youngster during those magical days of the race meet each summer.

The jockeys, the colors, the horses. A boy’s paradise and the delivery of a dream that one day he, too, would get a leg up in this colorful world, ride into the winner’s circle and have his picture taken while smiling broadly aboard a handsome, glistening thoroughbred.

Dean Butler knew what he wanted to do even then. From a large Irish Catholic family in Saratoga Springs, he was the catcher on the high school baseball team whose compact size, at 72 pounds, required him to bounce his throws to second base. Yet, he was built perfectly to ride racehorses. An older brother Denis had a similar desire but outgrew his wish, and his father warned it could happen to Dean too.

Is it possible that if you want something badly enough, you can make it happen by an act of will? Maybe so. Size was never an issue. Not even now, at 5-foot-3 and 108 pounds.

The Butler children were eight: Denis, Danny, Debbie, Dawn, Donna, David, Deidre and Dean, in that order.

Their home in Saratoga Springs was just a few doors removed on North Broadway from the stately residences of Ogden Phipps, Penny Chenery, Ralph Wilson and others. Two of Dean’s sisters, Debbie and Dawn, brought Chenery flowers the night before the 1973 Whitney Stakes, but it did not help her Secretariat, whose defeat the next day by Onion added one more illustrious name to the cemetery register.

Daily summer visits to Saratoga as a youngster proved productive later for Butler, opening doors that lead to other doors that opened also. He met riders, trainers and owners, digesting all they had to say, and when the time was right he went to work on the farm for Hall of Fame trainer Jack Van Berg.  Butler’s parents, John and Ellen, asked one thing of him. Finish high school first.  Upon graduation he bolted to California where Van Berg taught him the horse business from the ground up.

“I cleaned stalls, built fencing, mowed the lawn and learned about the horse. Then he started putting me on horses,” Butler said.

An early experience stands out. “He put me in a round pen with a two-year-old filly and said ‘good luck, kid.’ The two of us, horse and rider, learned together.”

As he learned, he got advice from trainers and riders, Mike Smith and Richard Migliore among many others. Shug McGaughey trained for Phipps and gave Butler, now 47, a few chances in New York. He rode his first races at Aqueduct. Smith and Migliore encouraged him to give Suffolk Downs a try, and he rode his first winner there in 1993, a horse named Rexson’s Empress.

His first stakes race was also a win….the Trenton Handicap at Garden State Park, on a horse named Poorbuthonest.  He rode another race with Poorbuthonest and, carrying 107 pounds, finished second to the immortal Cigar, carrying 127 that day, in the Massachussets Handicap.

Butler went on to win four riding titles in Philadelphia and one at Atlantic City. He has won five at Canterbury Park, where he started the 2018 meet second in all-time earnings ($12,617,738), third in all time wins (740) and third for in the money percentage (52.31 percent).

He has ridden for numerous trainers at Canterbury since arriving in 2007; Bernell Rhone, Mac Robertson, Francisco Bravo among them.

“He has a good sense of pace,” said Rhone. “He knows when to speed up a horse or slow it down. And he stays strong because weight is never a problem with him.”

“A lot of people have helped me,” Butler said. “I’ve ridden for good trainers and been very fortunate to have done as well as I have.”

A vital component in his success, he says, has been his agent of nine years, Pete Antonucci, with whom he has more than a business relationship. “We have a friendship, a good one,” Butler said. “It’s almost like family, just a great team.”

And there is actual family, of course. “My parents and everyone else have been so supportive through the years,” he said. “My daughters, Kayleigh and Kendall, and for the last two and one-half years, Danielle Leroux and her daughter Isabella. “They are part of this honor, too,” he said.

The honor, of course, is his place in the Canterbury Park Hall of Fame.


Someone tells you that if you take the plunge, you’ll win a $200,000 stakes race nearly off the bat, you’ll have success wherever you go and you just generally won’t believe your good luck, would you do it?

Would you hop in the vehicle one day and leave rural Alpha, Minnesota, for rural Oklahoma City, approach a random farm house and ask the occupant if he has any broodmares for sale?

Would you?

“That’s pretty much what they did,” Neal Von Ohlen said of his parents,   Rodney and Sylvia.


Not really.

The years were passing swiftly and a nagging item on the bucket list kept gnawing at them for attention. “I wasn’t getting any younger. I was in my early fifties,” Rodney recalled. “We decided if we were going to do it, we’d better do it then.”

It did not transpire that fluidly, of course, although there were times in the first year or two when it seemed that horse racing was a tree with money growing on it. Everything happened so easily; the pieces seemed to fall in place by themselves.

They were the owners/breeders of a horse named Fols Bunka, who put them on the quarter horse map in 1987 by winning the $200,000 Black Gold Futurity at Blue Ribbons Downs.

The mare they bought at that random farm house was Bunch of Money and she was in foal. They hauled her back to Minnesota and she gave birth to Redi to Par. A subsequent trip to Oklahoma and mating with Six Fols resulted in Fols Bunka.

Rodney’s recollection of those days is one filled with errors he made during the learning curve that took place, yet lots of good luck to balance it off and some head-shaking occurrences at times too.

There were more than 400 entries in the Blue Ribbon Futurity when they sent out that first horse of theirs, Redi to Par, who won his heat by an amazing five lengths, but whose time was 11th on the list of 10 qualifiers.

A head-shaker for certain.

Von Ohlen did not receive much encouragement either when Fols Bunka  won the Black Gold Futurity after going seven-for-seven previously. He was approached afterward by a horseman who told him: “I feel bad for you. Here you are almost brand new in the business, and your big day is already behind you.”

The Von Ohlens found success at Canterbury Downs, too, when they showed up there in 1987.

“For a while there, I was really hopping,” he said. “Everything was going so good it was almost embarrassing. But I found out then that things can change, and change in a hurry.”

Yet the vicissitudes of the horse business did not stop the Von Ohlens from pursuing their dream. “They ran those Minnesota-breds at tracks all over the place with success,” said Ed Ross Hardy, who has trained for them some 15 years.

“Sylvia always stayed in the background,” said Sharon Wilmes, mother-in-law to Hardy. “But she was a big part of the operation. Rodney always told us how he couldn’t do without her, and we saw that for ourselves.”

Sylvia cared for the barns in the summer, and Rodney took over in the winter months, and they made regular trips to Oklahoma to breed their mares to quarter horse stallions.

“The first 20 to 25 years they’d haul three or four mares down there every season, breed them and haul them back. They made a lot of trips to Oklahoma,” Neal added.

During one of those trips Rodney ran into a well-known quarter horse trainer named Bob Baffert. “He had a stall near us,” he recalled. “He was just making the change to thoroughbreds. Very nice guy.”

Starting the 2018 season, the Von Ohlens had sent out winners of six different quarter horse stakes races at Canterbury over the years, the best of them undoubtedly First Class Smarty, winner of the Canterbury Derby, the Northlands Futurity and the Bob Morehouse twice. They had winners in the Minnesota Derby and the Minnesota Futurity three times each.  In 2006, First Class Smarty set the record (:17.735) that stands in the Northlands Futurity.


They are the second-leading quarter horse owners all time in the Minnesota Festival with six winners. They started the season as second-leading owners in earnings at Canterbury, third in career winners.

Rodney lost Syliva last May after a battle with cancer, and says in three years he’ll retire. “We have a mare in the barn in foal,” he said. “After that I’ll be done.”  Yet, the Von Ohlens have already accomplished all they need and more for a place in Canterbury Park’s Hall of Fame.


Heliskier Rose To The Top

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.

Canterbury Park Hall of Fame to Add Four Members

The Canterbury Park Hall of Fame Committee today announced the Class of 2018 inductees. The four newest members, who will be honored in a Sept. 1 ceremony, include jockey Dean Butler; Minnesota HBPA President and racehorse owner and breeder Jack Walsh; quarter horse breeders Rodney and Sylvia Von Ohlen; and retired Minnesota-bred racehorse Heliskier. These inductees join a group of more than 40 individuals and horses that comprise the best of Minnesota racing.

Butler is a five-time champion jockey at Canterbury Park and is the third winningest jockey at the Shakopee, Minn. racetrack. Growing up just two miles from Saratoga Race Course in Saratoga Springs, NY, Butler got his start in the industry attending races with his father. After high school he went on to work for Hall of Fame trainer Jack Van Berg.  As he learned, he received advice from other trainers and riders like Mike Smith and Richard Migliore. Butler began riding at Canterbury Park in 2007.  He has ridden for numerous trainers over the years, accumulating 790 wins and earning purses in excess of $13.8 million for his connections at Canterbury.  “A lot of people have helped me,” Butler said. “I’ve ridden for good trainers and been very fortunate to have done as well as I have.”

Walsh has been associated with Minnesota racing for decades as both an owner and breeder. He was breeding quarter horses in the 70s and 80s but switched to thoroughbreds when Canterbury opened in 1985. Also an astute attorney, Walsh taught Equine Law for years. He has been a Minnesota Thoroughbred Association board member, Minnesota Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association vice president, and is now HBPA president. Walsh has tried cases before the American Quarter Horse Racing Association in Amarillo, Texas, and represented more than 100 horsemen before the Minnesota Racing Commission.

The Von Ohlens are accomplished quarter horse owners and breeders. Rodney and his wife Sylvia, who passed away last May, built a successful breeding operation in Alpha, Minn. prior to Canterbury opening. The Von Ohlens are the second-leading quarter horse owners in Minnesota Festival of Champions history with six winners.  They started the season as second-leading owners in earnings and third in career winners at Canterbury.

Heliskier is a retired thoroughbred that earned many accolades during his racing career including champion two-year-old in 2011; two-time champion sprinter; champion three-year-old colt; and champion older horse. Heliskier is one of only two horses to be named Horse of the Year twice at Canterbury Park, earning that title in 2012 and again in 2013.  The gelding was bred and raised in Minnesota by the late Robert Colvin and is owned by his wife Marlene Colvin. Heliskier retired in 2016 with a career record of 9-2-2 from 19 starts with earnings of $277,918.

The Canterbury Park Hall of Fame was founded in 1995 to recognize people and horses that have made important and lasting contributions to the racing industry within the state. The selection committee consists of representatives of local horsemen organizations, local media, and Canterbury Park.