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Forging a Friendship

Cobwebs hang on the memories like tinsel on a tree and details are sometimes fuzzy, but the recollection itself is like an heirloom, fragile and priceless. The year is uncertain, the summer of 1961 or ’62, but the site is unforgettable – the fair meet in Vienna, Ill. Jerry Simmons was 16 or 17. Billy Owen was 13 or 14.

“I don’t know how we met,” Simmons. “But we did.”

They met again in 1966 at Waterford Park. Simmons was a valet for the first time. Owen was riding for the first time. They connected as partners in those duties.

The years passed and in 1987 they met once more. Simmons was on the starting gate at the opening of Birmingham Park and Owen was training. Then, in the 1991 opening of Trinity Meadows they met once more. Owen was training and Simmons was a racing official.

Now it is 2012 and Owen has been in the jockeys room at Canterbury Park, renewing the friendship while Simmons, the room custodian, finishes out the meet.

Owen made his way north in the last week from his home in Williston, Fla., stopping to see a brother in Georgia, a friend at River Downs, a sister in Ohio, an old flame who is seriously ill in Indiana. “That broke my heart,” Owen said.

When he got to Shakopee he spent a day recovering from the trip before he joined his long-time friend at Canterbury.

Owens himself is battling severe illness. In the mid 1970s he broke a hip in a car accident and needed a blood transfusion. Not until 1999 when he became severely ill at River Downs was it discovered he had Hepatitis C, and it was connected to the blood transfusion two decades earlier.

Owen underwent a liver transplant in 2008. Two months ago, cancerous spots were found on the liver and then on his lungs. “They told me on Aug. 20 that I had six to eight months,” he said.

Owen has former connections to Canterbury Park. He was here a few years ago with a horse. “They raised a fuss about a goat I had for the horse,” he said. “So I left.”

There is another former connection locally, too. He is uncle to Tommy Bartram, the former chaplain at Canterbury.

Owens learned about horses and how to ride from his father, Bill, who rode Mercator to victory in the 1945 American Grand National at Belmont Park. “He taught me a lot of things about riding,” Owen said.

Owen presented Simmons with a picture of that historic day upon his arrival. The $15,000-added race was conducted on Oct. 3, 1945. In the picture are Mercator’s owner G.D. Widener, Owen’s father, trainer W.G. Jones and his wife and a certain M.A. Cushman.

The picture is special to Owen, representing as it does the highlight of his father’s career. The senior Owen died at age 42 when Billy was 13.

School didn’t hold much interest for him thereafter. Shortly after his father died, he was cited for skipping school and submitted to “60 licks” to avoid being informed on to his mother.

The punishment was divvied out as he requested, 10 licks to start with the school paddle, another 10 at lunch, ten more later and so forth. “I was bleeding in my underwear so I went home to change clothes,” he said. That’s when his mother made the discovery and confronted him about his intentions regarding school.

Racing held more allure so “I left school in the 10th grade,” Owen said He started applying the lessons learned from his father immediately.

In addition to that cherished win in the Grand National, a week reminiscing has brought to mind some of the names from his father’s career. Among others, “he rode for the Duponts,” Billy recalled.

The younger Owens has other former ties to trainers who once called Canterbury Downs home, Chuck Taliaferro among them.

When the Canterbury meeting ends on Monday, Simmons and Owen will travel together to Florida, on the same route Owen took to Minnesota, with stops at virtually all the same places visited earlier.

Simmons was thinking about that trip earlier on Saturday.

“I don’t why, but our friendship’s gotten stronger over time,” Simmons said. “That’s the way it seems right now any way.”