BY JIM WELLS
Charlie Again came to the door Friday morning, then pinned his ears and retreated to the rear of the stall, turning his back on the visitor who had caught his attention. There was simply no way for the 5-year-old gelding to understand the fuss he had created with his long-shot win the night before. No way to understand that everyone wished him only the best, and, perhaps, a pat on the nose for a job well done.
Occasionally, this Kentucky-bred returned to the door, almost as if he wanted to collect whatever it was he had turned down previously, but on each such occasion his ears immediately flattened out and he backed into the far reaches of the stall.
With or without him, the achievement of the night before remained the topic of conversation. Charlie Again had provided Dave Van Winkle with the 1,000th win of his career, and the Canterbury Park Hall of Fame trainer continued to discuss the many details of a career that started in 1989.
The signs of that longevity are almost anywhere you look at his end of barn B11, on the walls outside his office, in the space above his desk, simply the fact that he is still in the same barn location, the one he has occupied since 1995 when Canterbury Downs re-opened for live racing after a three-year shutdown.
The walls outside his office include the teenage graffiti from previous years of his two daughters and his son: Taylor now 19, Kendall 17 and Dane 14. The names of friends of the opposite sex are enclosed in hearts. Other inscriptions are simply teenage self-promotion, proclaiming the inscriber to be the greatest at this or that.
Above the desk in Van Winkle’s office is a painting of horses and their jockeys, engaged head to head on the racetrack. The painting was a gift from previous clients, owners he trained for many years ago.
Next to the painting is a mounted fish, a symbol of Minnesota’s best, a 10 to 12-pound walleye. “I bought it at a garage sale,” he confessed for the record. He has another version too, depending on who is doing the asking. “I sometimes tell people that I caught it,” he said with a grin. “I probably should get up there and clean it. It looks pretty dusty.”
He might also want to add a picture of Charlie Again, the 6,750th starter of a career in which his starters have $10.9 million in purse earnings.
Van Winkle first came to Canterbury in 1989 and he has returned every year of live racing since, missing only those years when Canterbury was dark and no one else was present either.
He is a native of Nebraska and was working in construction when he decided that maybe horse racing would prove more gratifying. He takes his job seriously, but apparently not much that has transpired along the way. He no longer recalls the first winner he saddled or even where it occurred. Perhaps Columbus, Neb., or maybe at Aksarben, where as a boy he accompanied his father to watch the races and perhaps acquired the thought that some day he would do something with horses.
Van Winkle was an assistant trainer in 1989 when one of his boss’s owners approached him. “I’m sending some horses to Canterbury Downs,” the fellow said. “Do you want to handle them for me.”
Van Winkle’s reaction was straight forward. He wasn’t certain that was a good idea, to take over horses that his boss was training. “Well, I’m sending them there whether you take them or not,” the fellow said, and the implication was clear. If Van Winkle didn’t take them, someone else would.
Consequently, Van Winkle was introduced to the three-year-old venue in Minnesota, and eventually to a woman named Pam from Minnetonka. Both introductions were life changing. He still trains at Canterbury and is still married to Pam, the mother of their three children.
He had three horses that year, but it was beginning of a continuous relationship with Minnesota and horse racing. In the years that followed he began training at Turf Paradise in Phoenix, where he heads each year after the meet in Shakopee concludes. The Van Winkles have called Phoenix home for some time, although, thanks to the Canterbury meet, “I’ve never had to spend a summer there,” Dave said.
It is a different matter for the rest of the family. They’ll head home in August when school begins.
Van Winkle was inducted into the Canterbury Park Hall of Fame in 2006 after winning training titles in 1995, 2002 and 2003 and training four consecutive Horses of the Year: Shot of Gold, J.P. Jet, Prime Step and Chisholm.
“They were all beautiful horses,” he said. “All really nice horses.”
J.P. Jet was owned by Jim Peltier, the other three by Tom Metzen, the late president of the Minnesota chapter of the HBPA.
On Thursday night, Van Winkle added one more chapter to his career highlights: Three training titles, four Horse of the Year champions and, now, his 1000th winner.
Where does Thursday night’s milestone fit?
“Well,” he said modestly, “I guess it fits right up there.”