HILGERS, STEVENS HOOK UP ONE LAST TIME

BY JIM WELLS

What does a Hall of Fame breeder do when he wants the best available to ride his horse?

He calls a Hall of Fame rider.

Jeff Hilger picked up his phone a couple of weeks ago and contacted Scott Stevens, hoping the veteran rider was available for Sunday’s Festival of Champions.

Hilger, his wife, Deb, and Rockin the Bleu’s are retiring from racing, and he wanted someone to ride her one last time, someone he trusted on a mare of her sort, someone with whom he had a long association, a relationship spanning four decades, to the late 1980s.

“I need some help, someone to ride Rockin the Blue’s for me in her final race. Can you come up and ride her for me?” Hilger asked.

“I’d be happy to,” Stevens said.

That simple exchange covered a lot of ground and included the unspoken history of a long relationship, about trust and understanding.

“Scott was our first jockey,” Hilger said. “He rode a lot of races for us in Phoenix, too.” There was more than mere sentiment associated with Hilger’s request, however. He wanted someone familiar with his horse, someone who understood the horse’s pedigree.

“Nothing against other riders,” Hilger said, “but Scott is the only rider I know who really understands the Blue Turquoise bloodline. You don’t tell these horses to do anything. You get on them, ride, and let them make the decisions. You let her do her thing and Scott knows that.”

Now six, Rockin the Bleu’s is entered in the Bella Notte Distaff Sprint, a race she won two years ago and finished as runnerup in 2016.

Hilger said nostalgia was indeed a factor in his decision to use Stevens. “I came into racing with him and I wanted to go out with him,” he said.

Yet the practicality of the business applied its weight as well.

“I think he has a shot on her,” he said. “If anybody is going to win with her, he can,” Hilger said.

Hilger and his wife, Deb, own Bleu Valley Farm in Grant Township and were inducted into the Canterbury Hall of Fame in 2011. As champion breeders in Minnesota, winning a final stakes race written for Minnesota-bred fillies and mares would be a perfect closing note.

And Stevens would be an ideal rider to share the distinction with them. The leading rider at Canterbury Downs three times, in 1990, 1991 and 1992, he is the winner of 991 races and more than $9.5 million in Shakopee.

There is a chance he might finish the meet at Canterbury this summer, as he did last year, although he has not made that decision. He has three mounts on Sunday’s Festival card will and return home to Phoenix on Monday.

Stevens will ride The Great Casby for trainer Dave Van Winkle in an allowance race and Shooters Alley in the Minnesota Classic for trainer Nevada Liftin.

Stevens rides regularly during the autumn and winter months at Turf Paradise and then picks and chooses his spots during the summer months. He finished out the last few cards of the meet in Shakopee last year, but has restricted himself to primarily stakes races in California, Colorado, Iowa and Canada this summer, running his own book.

Having long since established himself as a sought-after rider, just how good has he been as an agent, representing only himself?

“Darn good,” he said. “Very good.”

Although he has not ridden regularly at Canterbury for the last few years, Stevens’ mark on local racing is very much part of the track’s record books. He is the leading rider in all time starts and twice for most starts in a season. He is second all time in most wins in a season with 151, third in all time earnings and second in all time wins. A stakes win on Sunday would fit quite nicely into what he has done this summer. “I think he’s won eight of the last 10 stakes he has ridden,” Hilger said.

Which is all part of the carefully thought out plan, as Stevens put it, of a good agent, then excusing himself during a conversation to seek out information in answer to a question. “A good agent should have this stuff available,” he said.

The Hilgers have not abandoned horses altogether. They have converted their thoroughbred farm into a riding stable, with access to numerous trails in the area and now have someone to help out in the barn.

Yet, at the conclusion of their racing career, there is nothing that that would wrap it up any better than one last trip to the winner’s circle on Sunday. Hilger said he will know how good their chances are in the paddock before the race when he greets Stevens.

“Scott always tells me how he feels by saying ‘we’re going to get our picture taken today,’ ” Hilger said.

Under any circumstances, Rockin the Bleu’s will get another opportunity in the racing business. Win or not on Sunday, Hilger plans to send her to Kentucky with the hope of producing one more Minnesota bred.

It’s Official

The skies were leaden most of the day and into the evening, giving way from time to time to a thunderstorm that drenched the racetrack and reduced attendance on the first Thursday night racing of the meet.

Dollar night, as some patrons call it, produced a lot of leftovers, or as press box impresario Jeff Maday sized it up: “We’ll be eating hot-dog casseroles for the next week.”

The skies were not the only leaden feature of the day. The footing on the racetrack was, too. The racing started with sloppy going that gradually turned to muddy.

The one thing impossible to dampen on this day was the spirit of the horsemen, who were buoyant from start to finish, win or run second in some instances. There is always another day in such cases, something that was uncertain until the deal with Mystic Lake.

There was a real bounce to their steps on Thursday, one day after the Minnesota Racing Commission voted 5-3 to approve a marketing partnership with Mystic Lake that will pump $75 million into purses at Canterbury Park over the next 10 years, including $2.6 million this season.

Jeff Hilger, who spearheaded a horsemen’s Racino drive at the legislature that eventually led to the Mystic Lake agreement, watched with his wife, Deb, as their 3-year-old Quote To Cash broke his maiden in commanding fashion under Tanner Riggs.

“This is a good day, too,” said Deb. The other, of course, was Wednesday and the Racing Commission approval.

The purse increases are retroactive to the first day of the meet, but Thursday’s program included official recognition of those payments for the first time.

Quote To Cash, for example, was running for a winner’s share of a $17,920 purse, which included $4,000 from the agreement, referred to in the race program as the “Mystic Lake Purse Enhancement Fund.”

“This makes it almost worthwhile,” Jeff Hilger said, grinning.

Hilger spent the first 15 minutes after the race answering calls on his cell phone, several of them congratulatory wishes. One of the calls came from trainer Mac Robertson who had assured Hilger of a win.

Bobble Doit won the fourth race on the card, a 5 ½ furlong event for maidens that included an additional $5,500 from the Mystic Lake fund. That produced knowing smiles from trainer Bernell Rhone and the winning rider, his son-in-law, Dean Butler.

Trainer Doug Oliver, in semi-retirement, was offered a look at the purse enhancement on a race and shook his head in amazement. Does the agreement have him second-guessing a bit?

“I’m not sure what to do,” he said, clearly enticed by the windfall that will breathe new life into the Minnesota horse industry.

The winner of the seventh race was a four-year-old filly, Mighty Tizzy, trained by Miguel Angel Silva. That race was enhanced by $3,000.

“Beautiful, beautiful,” Silva said, smiling. “I’m just waiting for it (the win) to become official.”

Well, the agreement now is, and so, too, was Silva’s win moments later.

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.

The New Deal Brings Optimism

Many horsemen are convinced that the deal between Canterbury Park and Mystic Lake announced this week will turn out better than the casino gaming chased for so long by Minnesota’s only racetrack for thoroughbreds and quarter horses.

The agreement will pump $75 million into Canterbury’s purse fund over the next 10 years, a deal with stability and certainty and attractive to trainers, owners and breeders throughout the state and elsewhere as they make their plans for the coming summers.

Tom Metzen, president of the local HBPA, likes the agreement for several reasons.

“The focus stays on racing,” he said. “The track has made racing their No. 1 priority. There is no relationship between horsemen and a track like the one we have here anyplace else in the country, not Churchill Downs not anyplace. ”

Mac Robertson, Canterbury Park’s Hall of Fame leading trainer for the past six seasons is among those enthused by the new agreement. He has had to ship many of his top horses in recent meets to his father, Hugh, at Arlington Park or to Delaware Park, to compete for more lucrative purses.

“I’ll be able to start bringing some of the better horses back here,” he said Friday. “I can bring some of my horses home.”

Call it the New Deal and it has changed dispositions, outlooks and future plans.

Hall of Fame breeder/owner Jeff Hilger is among those with renewed hope. “I had my place surveyed and was going to put it up for sale,” he said. Instead, Hilger was on his way to have a mare bred Friday, the fourth one in the last month, all accomplished while details of the agreement were still being negotiated. His wife, Deb, is already making plans to expand their farm.

The Hilgers aren’t alone.

“I heard trainers talking this morning about buying broodmares and foaling them out here,” said jockey Scott Stevens. “This is going to be a big boost to the whole industry.”

Stevens, like many others in the business, likes this agreement better than a racino. “I think it will be better,” he said. “Go to a track with a racino and it’s all about the slot machines and there aren’t many people watching the races. This should have an immediate impact on getting more horses here, from Chicago, Prairie Meadows or wherever. This is a very positive thing for racing.”

Horsemen Steve Erban is part of a syndication of the stallion Kela, the second place horse in the 2004 Breeders Cup Sprint. The horse stands at the Stillwater Veterinary Clinic and covered 30 mares this season. Erban expects that number to increase to” 40 or maybe 50” next season now that purses are destined to increase by 40 percent or more.

Trainer Francisco Bravo welcomed the agreement enthusiastically. “I think it’s phenomenal,” he said. “This shows tremendous leadership on (Canterbury CEO/president) Randy Sampson’s part.”

Bravo is more impressed with Sampson’s willingness to forge an agreement entirely on behalf of the horse industry. “It’s very unselfish of management to do a deal like this. How can anyone possibly question it. It has to be the first and only time it’s happened in the horse industry.”

Bravo, incidentally, made his statements en route to Canterbury from Oklahoma, hauling more horses to the Shakopee stables.

Trainer Percy Scherbenske has operated a farm near Farmington for years, shuttling horses between Shakopee and Chicago on a weekly basis to take advantage of purse situations. “Nothing has been happening at my farm for some time,” he said Friday night. “But that’s going to change now. This is even better I think than getting slots.”

Trainer Bernell Rhone likes the deal for similar reasons. He has been part of Canterbury since Day One and is among the top five trainers yearly. “This will help purses a lot and the industry here overall,” he said.

The Rhone family will benefit overall, as well. He, his wife, Cindy, daughter, Leann and son-in-law Dean Butler are a true family operation in Shakopee each summer.

Still, there are horsemen who would have preferred a racino with all it has to offer. One of them is Canterbury’s perennial quarter horse Hall of Fame champ Ed Ross Hardy.

“A racino would have been a home run,” he said, “but this is definitely a triple, at the very least a double,” he said. “It’s a positive thing.”

Robertson likes the agreement for a number of other reasons. “It’s nice to see the Sampson family get rewarded for all of their hard work. They’ve always been real racing friendly, a lot tracks suffering aren’t. I hope that continues.”

The real beneficiary will be the horse, according to Robertson.

“You can give them the time to heal or rest with better purses,” he explained. “You don’t have to push them.”

Better purses might simply be a tasty frosting on a cake that Robertson already likes. “I like the weather in Minnesota, the environment, the clean air, and racing surface,” he said. “I was at Saratoga the other day and personally I’d rather be here. I say that honestly.”

Thirty years ago Minnesota’s voters gave the go ahead to pari-mutuel wagering in the state and three years later, on June 26, 1985, the doors opened at Canterbury Downs to a celebration unseen before in state history.

Horse racing had arrived in the Land of 10,000 Lakes with a flourish and many of us ate up the clichés and swallowed the pitches thrown at us by the track’s publicity agents as if we were starving orphans. We relished every morsel.

The enthusiasm was unparalleled. Crowds of 20,000 were commonplace. Newcomers to the game with a few extra bucks sought out partnerships so they, too, could own a racehorse.

Breeders invested in new mares and built new stables. Trainers could find green but eager hands from the surrounding community to work the stables on the backside. The Minnesota horse industry had gotten a boost never before experienced. Breeders shipped their mares around the state, to Kentucky and other spots to produce foals for this exciting new market.

Then as quickly as it arrived it began to wane, stifled by the arrival of the state lottery, pull tabs and then casino gaming on the state’s Native American reservations.

It was never quite the same again… until this week.

TANNER BRINGS HOME FIVE IN A ROW

Agent Richard Grunder paced nervously around the first floor of the grandstand before Friday’s sixth race.

Tanner Riggs, one of the two riders he represents at Canterbury Park, had won the first five races on the card and was in position to tie the record of six wins on a single card, accomplished by Derek Bell on June 14, 2002.

“He probably won’t do it, but he has a shot,” Grunder muttered as he paced about.

Then again, Larry Cascio of Omaha had similar thoughts before Friday’s third race. “Tanner had won the first two races,” he said, “so I thought no way is he going to win on my horse and then he wins on mine and on two more after that.”

Meanwhile, Riggs was getting a greeting from the grandstand that he had never before experienced. “They were all yelling and clapping for me. That’s never been done before, but (announcer) Paul Allen had them pretty pumped up.”

Riggs had mounts in the first six races on Friday’s card, but his last of the day, Satin Sweep, ran third.

Bell was being represented by Grunder at the time he won six races on a single Canterbury card, and the agent was hoping it would happen for his current rider, as well.

Riggs rode six winners on a single card in 2010 at Hawthorne Race Course. “You have to be lucky,” he said. “That’s part of it for sure. I’m no better than anyone else in this (jockeys’) room but things have to happen just so.”

Riggs referred to last week when he didn’t ride a single winner.

“I try to get a horse to relax for me and put them in a spot that gives them a chance,” he said. “I was doing that last week and horses were blowing past me anyway. I did that tonight and I was winning.”

Riggs’ winners in order Friday were: Lucky Straw, Grandpa George, Bourbon King, Restless Warrior and Gail’s Jewel.

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.

Photo Credit: Coady Photography