Trainer David Van Winkle had been racing at Turf Paradise in Phoenix since late 1995. Phoenix became home for the native Nebraskan, wife Pam who he met in Minnesota, and their three kids. He would annually race at Canterbury for four months of summer and return to Phoenix for the meet that traditionally ran October through early May.
That changed when last fall Van Winkle made the decision, due to the uncertainty of a Turf Paradise meet being conducted, to take his stable to Tampa Bay Downs, some 2,100 miles from home.
“I wasn’t going to ship horses [to Phoenix] and have to ship out again,” Van Winkle said. Business is business, so he made the difficult decision. Pam has stayed in Phoenix. “It’s never good being away from home,” he said. He has flown back a couple of times and Pam has also visited Tampa. His daughter Taylor, an integral part of the stable operation, joined Van Winkle in Florida.
Van Winkle left the construction trade in Nebraska in the 80s after deciding to seek a career in horse racing. He grew up in an age when racing in Nebraska was as good as any place in the Midwest, attending the races at Aksarben and Columbus with his father. He worked as an assistant trainer before going out on his own in 1989 when an owner suggested he take a few horses to then Canterbury Downs. He has been on his own ever since.
Van Winkle would return to Canterbury when it reopened under new leadership in 1995 as Canterbury Park. He concluded the season as leading trainer, saddling seven consecutive winners at one stretch that summer with the seventh being Grand Special T, the claimer of the meet. Van Winkle also won the training title at Hoosier Park that fall before heading to Phoenix for the first time.
He is a Canterbury Park Hall of Famer, inducted in 2006. Winner of three training titles in
Shakopee, campaigning four consecutive Horses of the Year: Shot of Gold, J.P. Jet, Prime Step and Chisholm. Van Winkle has had a remarkable and fulfilling career, doing what he loves. The location may have changed but the sentiment is the same.
“I do like it here,” he said of Tampa. “It started slow. They needed a race over the track. It’s deep but it is good on horses.” He won just one of his first 13 races at Tampa but since has won seven of 20 including two on Wednesday. The 24% win rate is strong at a very competitive meet. For bettors following along, his ROI is 1.54. Van Winkle horses bring square prices.
Turf Paradise management did eventually decide to run a shortened race meet but many working there fear it could be the last. For many, the future of horse racing is uncertain in Phoenix which hardly seems possible for a metro area that is somewhere between the sixth and tenth largest in the country depending on who is counting. This is a metro area that should be able to support a live meet in a market that already has a robust simulcast network statewide. Van Winkle is not the only racetracker that has relied on the Turf Paradise meet to make a living. He is not the only one that made the decision to leave. And he is not the only one that is keeping an eye on what is currently taking place, hoping that somehow stability can return to the once glorious facility that first opened in 1956.
Van Winkle has entered 2020 Crocrock Minnesota Sprint Champion Fireman Oscar in Saturday’s $100,000 Pelican Stakes.