BY JIM WELLS
Trivia lovers easily recall the English-bred horse who won the first race in Minnesota pari-mutuel history. Faiz was in headlines all over the state the next day, with trainer Martin Kenney running a close second.
It’s tougher to recall the horse that got up for show money in that race. He was Sultan’s Gold and he was trained by Robert “Bun” Colvin, a near permanent fixture in Canterbury’s stable area the next 25 years.Colvin was a horseman’s horseman from South Dakota, a man of his word and trustworthy with a handshake.
“I met him when I was 12 years old at Aksarben and I’ve been friends with him and his wife, Marlene, ever since,” said trainer Mac Robertson. “He was a hard-working man, an honest man. Not many around like him.”
And Colvin was durable.
How many men do you know still galloping their horses, or breaking two-year-olds at age 73.
Bun Colvin did. “Most men that age are sitting in the stands,” Robertson added.
A couple of years ago, Colvin was galloping a horse one morning at Canterbury when an outrider approached him. “Hey, old man, what are you doing out here,” the fellow jested. “You should talk,” Colvin responded. “I can see what you’ve got hanging over that saddle horn.”
As the years piled on, Colvin considered giving up breaking young horses. “I don’t know if I can do it anymore,” he told Marlene, his wife of nearly 57 years. “Then he’d start to get fit and I’d see him out in the pasture on a young horse,” she said.
Colvin tried to retire two or three times, but couldn’t make it stick.
“We tried fishing in 2000 (his first retirement),” Marlene said. “He bought his brother’s old boat, but didn’t have much success catching fish. He ended up giving the boat away and went back to breaking colts. You should have seen him. It was amazing.”
Colvin started riding at age five at his father’s hand. He loved horses and he loved racing. He’d sit in his favorite chair and read the Blood Horse, study blood lines or watch the races on TVG.
That’s what he was doing, watching the races, last Dec. 4, a Saturday, with Marlene at his side, when he gasped and died on the spot of an aortic aneurism.
He was 74 years, one month and four days old.
Bun Colvin was 17 and Marlene was 16 when they married in 1954 in Mitchell, S.D. Eleven years later they purchased acreage near Mitchell and opened a breeding, training and racing operation.
“We were partners, best friends, the whole ball of wax,” Marlene said. “We worked together seven days a week.”
Colvin prided himself on his strength, right up to the end. “He walked three or four miles, rode a colt the same distance. He was very healthy. Then this sudden thing hit him, sitting in his chair,” Marlene said.
Trainer Randy Pfeifer was 17 or 18 years old when he met Colvin at Park Jefferson in South Dakota. “I’m 60 now,” Pfeifer said. “Bun used to ride up to my barn about 4:30 each day on his bicycle. We’d talk. Sometimes he’d stay to dinner. I miss that.”
Pfeifer and Robertson had matching descriptions, nearly word for word, for Colvin: “He was a true horseman. He took awful good care of his horses right to the end.”
Stable superintendent Mark Stancato interacted with Colvin at various tracks. “From Aksarben to here, he was on every stall list wherever I was,” Stancato said. “He had a terrific fondness for hugging women,” Stancato added. “If you were a woman and Bun never hugged you, there was something awfully wrong with you.”
Stancato didn’t discover what he liked best about the man until after his death. “I found out after he died that Bun was a good Democrat,” Stancato said. “I was glad to hear that.”
Colvin never had the big horse, but had plenty he grew right fond of. There was Sugar Dust, Petro D Jay and, of course, Plana Dance, the only two-time winner of the Princess Elaine Stakes. Plana Dance won five stakes and 11 races for the Colvins. Now she is producing babies.
Marlene made reservations for 35 at the Canterbury Inn this weekend. “Mostly my sisters and their families,” she said. They are in Shakopee for today’s running of the Bun Colvin Memorial race. Among those in the gathering will be Dr. William Hemminger, an equine veterinarian from Kentucky.
Hemminger is Bun’s nephew, his sister’s son. “He came to live with us when he was 12,” Marlene said. “I always felt bad. We hauled him all over the place, racing. But he says it helped him learn about the world.”
There is more to it than that. Hemminger had words of advice for his aunt Marlene when he talked to her recently.
“Have plenty of Kleenix in the winner’s circle on Sunday,” he told her.