The racetrack is a place filled with stories of triumph and tragedy, elation and heartbreak, winners and losers and tales to warm the heart.
None of them any more touching than the story of the trainer and the jockey, Dougie Huntington and Lori Keith, a tandem that floated on a cloud and collected the warmest of wishes from Saturday’s Festival of Champions crowd along with the winner’s share of the $50,000-guaranteed purse in the Minnesota Turf Championship.
Huntington claimed a horse named C C Tat from the Todd Hoffrogge barn on June 7. CC was winless for the season at that point. Huntington put Keith on the horse after giving Jason Lumpkins a single mount and the results have been nothing short of impressive.
Huntington, a native of Waseca, keeps a small barn, two horses. He is known more for his haircuts on the backside than for his stakes winners, but Huntington, with Keith in the saddle, got one on Saturday.
C C Tat is by King of Scat from the Fred Astaire mare Dancing Freddie and was bred by James M Hobbs.
Huntington had a horse named Well What Else in 1985 that won seven consecutive races, but it has been some time since he celebrated as he did on Saturday.
Huntington was part of a large crowd (the horse is owned by his brother, Kent) that surrounded a television set on the first level of the grandstand to watch the race, and a loud protracted roar went up when C C Tat repelled challenges from Joni’s Justice and Winter Trick in the stretch run.
The trainer had all he could do to contain the tears as he made his way to the winner’s circle.
“Bless his heart,” Keith said, first of Huntington and then the horse. “This horse is just so consistent. He’s hard for a horse to get past. He’ll give you 100 percent every time.”
The stakes win was the first for Keith, considered widely as a vastly underrated as a rider. “This horse has been really good to me,” she said after getting her third win aboard the gelded son of King of Scat who has now won $70,000 this season.
Huntington? He wasn’t sure of his last stakes victory. There must have been one at some time or another. He simply couldn’t recall.
He got one on Saturday that he is apt to remember for some time.
Owner Barry Butzow was battling a case of nerves before the Turf Championship in which Joni’s Justice was one of the favorites.
“I’m always nervous before these things,” he said, then veering off into another subject, his days of coaching little league sporting events.
Joni’s Justice finished second to C C Tat in the race, but Butzow, who races in conjunction with his wife, Joni, had another horse in the Sprint Championship _ Sir Tricky.
Sir Tricky is by Sir Cat from Tricky Sugar and was bred in Minnesota by William Hobbs.
Sir Tricky, trained by Mac Robertson and ridden by Derek Bell, added another stakes victory to his win earlier this year in the Blair’s Cove.
Did that finally take care of the nerves?
“No, now I get more nervous,” said Butzow.
Hopefully, not too nervous to pick up the winning share of the $60,000 pot.
NORTHERN LIGHTS DEBUTANTE
Chick Fight took care of the 2-year-old girls with a convincing victory in this $60,000-guaranteed race, Again, it was Bell in the saddle and Robertson in the barn.
The unbeaten winner is owned by Bleu Valley Farm (Jeff and Deb Hilger) and was bred by Jeff Hilger and Doug Oliver.
Chick Fight is by Fit to Fight from the Northern Baby mare Goody Gumdrop and has won all three of her races this year, earning in excess of $60,000.
“We’d like to try her at some other tracks,” Jeff Hilger said. “But she’ll be back here next year.”
Where the Debutante travels, Hilger added, is up to the trainer.
NORTHERN LIGHTS FUTURITY
There was $60,000 at stake in this race for two-year-old colts and geldings and a 50-1 outside choice named Ice Rocket melted a few hopes and lots of tickets with a late rush that got the job done in the six-furlong sprint
The winner is trained by Todd Hoffrogge, who had a similar experience in this race 12 years ago when Webster won at similar odds.
Glenn Corbett got Ice Rocket moving down the middle of the track over the final furlong and he moved past Supreme Warrior and First Captain in the final strides.
That made it a one-two finish for trainer and owners Dave and Deborah Astar of Hastings and, in the winner’s case, Thomas Lindquist.
“I knew this horse wanted to go longer,” Hoffrogge said of the winner, who had never run more than five furlongs before.
Ice Rocket is by Cape Canaveral from the Manila mare Minnesota Magic and was bred by Richard Bremer and Cheryl Sprick.
This time a 4-year-old filly named Thanks for the Tip, hit the winner’s circle, again out of the Robertson barn.
A.J. Bakes and Bella Notte were the speed and the favorites in this race, with Shot of Silver expected to clean up if those two duled.
At 14-1, Thanks for the Tip was not even mentioned in most analyses of the race,
But Dean Butler rode this winner for the Robertson barn and owners Christopher West and John Metnz of Eagan.
A $2 win ticket was worth $30.60 on this champion.
A.J. Bakes never fired, and Bella Notte, with Bell in the saddle, finished second.
The winner is by Evansville Slew from Queen’s Toast and was bred by Elaine Oliver.
Pretty as a Smile was perfectly suited for a mile, a mile and 1/16 to be precise, and scored a gate to wire victory to collect first place money in this $50,000-guaranteed race.
The three-year-old filly is by Vision and Verse from Jubilee Lady. She is owned by Jeff Zlonis of Grant, was ridden by Nik Goodwin and is trained by Gary Scherer. The breeder is B & D Thoroughbreds.
The lone speed in this 10-horse field, Pretty as a Smile had a bullet work coming into the race and got an easy lead. Goodwin got her relaxed and there was plenty in the tank for the stretch run.
Second was Hills of Ireland, ridden by Scott Stevens and owned by Dana Isaacson of Bloomington. Seasahm, owned by Carol Curtis and Cam Casby and ridden by Derek Bell, was third.
Suddenly Silver gave Robertson (who had five wins on the card) his fourth stakes win of the day, trouncing six rivals at a mile and 1/16.
The one-sidedness of this race was no surprise to anyone who knew this horse’s background. Orphaned at birth, he broke a cannon bone at two.
There were clearly no visible signs of the injury on Saturday and certainly no signs of emotional trauma after losing his mother, Sudden Sensation, while she was giving him birth.
Suddenly Silver’s owners and breeders, Art and Gretchen Eaton, enlisted the aid of a 2000-pound draft horse named Janet from a nursing farm in Kentucky to take the place of Sudden Sensation.
“He’s always had a lot of heart,” Gretchen Eaton said. “He seems to know when he has won.”
The Eatons have always liked breeding to the winner’s sire, Silver Ghost. That allegiance paid off on Saturday.
MINNESOTA QUARTER HORSE FUTURITY
The Festival got under way with a third straight victory from the ornery two-year-old Call Me Mr. Nibs, trained by Ed Ross Hardy, ridden by Tad Leggett and owned and bred by Rodney Von Ohlen of Alpa, Minn.
Call Me Mr. Nibs made it three straight, winning convincingly in 18.430 seconds. Hardy has called this gelded son of Southern Cartel as mean as they come, but a horse who turns that streak into toughness on the racetrack, as he did once again.
Von Ohlen knew he had a cantankerous one on his hands the day Call Me Mr. Nibs was gelded, and the vet found himself in a fight trying to tranquilize the horse.
The victory was not only the horse’s third straight but the third victory in the Futurity for Hardy.
MINNESOTA QUARTER HORSE DERBY
Okey Dokey Irish was A OK with a pot of $20,000-added money on the line, dominating a field of seven rivals. The three-year-old gelded son of Okey Dokey Dale made it three in a row over the Canterbury track, finishing in 20.410, with Helen King up.
The winner is owned by Tom Pouliot of Loretto, Mn., and trained by Ralph Haglund, who said he plans to run the horse next in the Cash Caravan Stakes.
Okey Dokey Irish was bred by Paul Knapper of Lonsdale, a former president of the Minnesota Quarter Horse Racing Assn., and traces his local ties back to 1979.
That’s when Knapper acquired Okey Dokey’s great great grandma, Marilee Margaret, the source of the “Irish” in the horse’s name.