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?
“That’s pretty much what they did,” Neal Von Ohlen said of his parents, Rodney and Sylvia.
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.
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.
The Festival of Champions has always been, from Day One, one of the best days of the race meet in Shakopee. Crowds, enthusiasm and competitive races are the order of the occasion. The Festival annually is one of the grandest days of the summer, including Sunday’s rendition that drew a crowd of 15,023 and record-setting off-track wagering.
There were 10 races in all, eight of them Festival Stake events, that produced a total handle, from all sources, of $878,092, an increase of 3.9 percent over 2012 when one additional race was contested.
The total per race handle averaged $87,809, an increase of 14.3 percent. The total out-of-state handle was $480,154, a Festival of Champions record.
Mac Robertson won four stakes races, five races in all, en route to all but locking up another training title.
Dean Butler, current meet leading rider, won both juvenile stakes on the card. Alex Canchari, hot in pursuit of Butler, won three stakes to narrow Butler’s margin on the meet to just six. Justin Shepherd won a stake and an allowance event.
A perfectly executed ride, from gate to wire, by Alex Canchari took Coconino Slim to his second consecutive win in the race, in commanding fashion.
Canchari put the horse on an easy lead, widening it as the race unfolded, from two lengths to three lengths and then a commanding finish for a five-length win over Ghost Dane, 11 lengths over Tubby Time.
One more win for Robertson and Canchari and a second trip to the winner’s circle for Catherine DeCourcy after this race.
Coconino set the pace along the inside and simply drew off under pressure.
For her part, DeCourcy extended credit for the win to her trainer, who has locked up yet one more training title.
Robertson won four Festival stakes, five races in all, to run his all-time leading Festival total to 23.
This year’s training title is the ninth straight for Robertson.
$55,000 GLITTER STAR DISTAFF CLASSIC
This race offered lots of speculation, not only on the outcome, but on some of the voting for the best runners at the track in the coming days.
Badge of Glory had struck a claim on Horse of the Year but needed a win in this race to secure a hold.
It’s Tamareno had Ry Eikleberry in the saddle and a shot at the winner’s circle if a speed dual ensued.
Then, of course, there was Congrats and Roses, the defending champion in this race.
The speculation on anybody but the reigning winner was useless, since it was a one-horse race, from gate to wire. Alex Canchari, who has shown skill far beyond his years this summer, guided the defending champ through easy fractions, and Congrats and Roses added to her lead every step of the stretch run, finishing 7 and 3/4 lengths in from of Blues Edge, 15 in front of Badge of Glory.
Another win for trainer Mac Robertson and the second for Malkerson Stables who also took down the Bella Notte Distaff Sprint with Congrats and Roses half sister, Somerset Swinger.
“My wife was there for both (Festival winners) births,” said Bruce of his wife, Mary. “She raised them both.”
$75,000 NORTHERN LIGHTS FUTURITY
Would it be Appeal to the King or You Be Gator Bait. Sunday’s big crowd wasn’t sure from the 16th pole to the wire. Even then they weren’t sure.
It was simply too close to call.
The race was decided by the tip of Appeal to the King’s nose, giving trainer Bob Johnson his first Festival win. Owned by Wayne Simon and ridden by Butler, Appeal to the King was one of three horses sired by Appealing Skier to hit the winner’s circle Sunday.
It was the best race of the day, the first two horses’ heads bobbing up and down, first the tip of one’s nose in front, then the other, from the 16th pole to the wire.
Even when the photo appeared, a person had to look closely to see the difference. Appeal to the King was the winner by not more than ½ inch.
The winner is owned by Wayne Simon.
$75,000 NORTHERN LIGHTS DEBUTANTE
Henry Hanson has been watching races in Shakopee since the track opened in 1985. In fact, he’s been running horses at Canterbury since then.
Sunday, though, was the first time he has visited the winner’s circle as owner of the winning horse in a stake race, the first time after years of devotion to the sport.
Better yet the winner was sired by Hanson’s now deceased stallion Appealing Skier, whose son Heliskier, the 2012 Horse of the Year, won earlier on card.
She Can Ski, under Butler, simply added to the lead she had at the top of the stretch, finishing three lengths in front of Blumin Sweetheart and seven ahead of Bad River Belle.
“This has been lots of fun,” said Hanson, who lives in Adrian, giving a nod at the same time to Heliskier. ” He’s a very nice horse. Appealing Skier has had a lot of winners here this summer,” he added.
For Hanson, though, the winner still crowned, was something special.
$55,000 BELLA NOTTE DISTAFF SPRINT CHAMPIONSHIP
Somerset Swinger settled in behind horses, running fourth at the half-mile pole, but moved up on the turn and was second, a head behind Polar Plunge at the stretch call.
Alex Canchari, riding the horse for the first time, picked up something quickly. “I noticed that if she got a little dirt in the face she became more aggressive,” he said.
So, Canchari positioned her to take a little dirt and the horse stayed alert and into the bridle to the top of the lane, where Canchari swung her wide, outside three others, and set her down for the drive.
Somerset Swinger and Polar Plunge went head to head down the lange with Somerset hitting the wire just a head in front. Third, another 2 and 3/4 lengths back, was Gypsy Melody.
Somerset Swinger provided Malkerson Stables with their first of two wins on the card.
$55,000 CROCROCK SPRINT CHAMPIONSHIP
Ask his jockey, the worst thing about riding a horse such as Heliskier is messing up the opportunity.
The horse is expected to win each time out, and he did just that once more under Justin Shepherd, simply much the best in a field of six. He drew off from the field and finished under a hand ride, 4 and 3/4 lengths in front of Desert Alley, 10 and 3/4 in front of Jost Van Dyke.
It was just that easy for the 2012 Horse of the Year at Canterbury, another seemingly effortless run to the wire.
“Every race is special. Every win is special,” said owner Marlene Colvin.
The winning time was 1:09.62, enough for an easy win on Sunday.
So a rider’s biggest concern riding a horse of Heliskier’s caliber?
“Messing it up,” said Shepherd.
Shepherd was in the saddle for the second consecutive time, taking over for the injured Derek Bell, the only other rider the horse has had.
It was a race that Robertson could hardly lose. He saddled Desert Alley, Jost Van Dyke and Heliskier… four of the six competitors.
$30,000 MINNESOTA QUARTER HORSE DERBY
V OS Red Hot Cole is back in fine fettle, fully recovered from the banged-up foot that hampered him in recent weeks, and the evidence was right there in the first race on Festival Day.
Under Rusty Shaw, V OS Red Hot Cole had a little more than a half length on Tres My Tracks, finishing in 20.63. Tres My Tracks had a neck on First Down Marie.
“He banged up his foot in the gate,” said Rodney Von Ohlen, owner of V OS Red Hot Cole, “and has been healing up for the last two months. ”
Von Ohlen is no stranger to the winner’s circle at Canterbury. For instance:
V OS Red Hot Cole is out of Miss Eyewear, the same mare that foaled Von Ohlen’s First Class Smarty, winner of the Bob Morehouse twice, the Canterbury Park Derby and the Northlands Futurity among others.
As Shaw stepped on the scale in the winner’s circle, a bystander commented. “Hey, Rusty, riding in the All American Futurity (a $2.6 million race held at Ruidoso on Monday) this year.”
“Yeah, I wish,” he responded.
For the moment, however, Shaw, Von Ohlen and tainer Ed Ross Hardy had all they needed.
$30,000 MINNESOTA QUARTER HORSE FUTURITY
Much the best. Easy. One-sided.
Pick your descriptions. They all fit.
Sportwagon, under Ry Eikleberry, simply ran away from eight rivals to add another trophy to the burgeoning collection of Canterbury Park’s newest Hall of Fame entrants from the quarter horse ranks, Bob and Julie Petersen.
Thus, Sportwagon broke his maiden in his sixth attempt.
Horses owned by the Petersens finished one-two. Good Eye was a length back of her winning stablemate. Justa Bump was next, followed by Little Bit Brandy.
The victory brought to mind the winner’s dam for Bob Petersen. The Petersens also campaigned Inclinda, winner of the 2003 Cash Caravan Stakes.
It also brought to mind the second-place horse’s dam, Southern Fun. Good Eye, aptly named, since Southern Fun is completely blind.
She had raced six or seven times when glaucoma began taking her sight, and the Petersens brought her home from Los Alamitos.
2013 MINNESOTA FESTIVAL OF CHAMPIONS PHOTOS
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.