Wednesday, April 13, 2016

The highs and lows of owning horses, in less than 5 days.

My favorite moment in harness racing, and all that led up to it. It's a long story, but I felt it all needed to be included to set the scene for why it was so important.

I met Vince Li by chance at Greenwood Raceway one night. There probably aren't many in harness racing who remember him for anything significant or know who he was. But if you follow harness racing in any way you know of one mare he owned that changed the breed as we know it today. Some would argue she is the greatest broodmare of our generation, and one of the greatest of all time. I knew Vince before he bought that mare.  He also had some very nice horses for a very short time, but eventually faded away from the game and I lost touch with him. I haven't seen him at all in more than 20 years. 

He also had been an owner many times in the years before I met him, and knew a lot of people. On many levels, he was an insider. I never realized how much of an outsider I was until I learned what he knew and how he knew it. It truly changed the way I viewed the harness racing game, even if I had never owned or trained a horse. As it turns out, I did both and probably that is mostly due to Vince.
That particular night, when I met him, I was sitting outside in the grandstand at Greenwood. It was a warm, sunny night, like many when I went to Greenwood in the summer. I don't recall that being any kind of special stakes card or anything else special about that card, other than I met him. Oh, and also, I was picking a ton of winners that night. He noticed that. I was also there that night with my grandmother. All of that was relevant when I get to the reason I am telling this very long story. It seemed whenever Vince was around, at least near the beginning, I picked a lot of winners. I guess some people just have that effect on you. Certainly, when he wasn't around, I could still pick my share of losers. Lots of them.
That night, after I picked a few winners, and it was obvious I did because my grandmother bet whatever I bet (and she was very vocal, more about that later in the blog), he made contact with me. He asked me who I liked in the next race. I said TENIKAT. I always did well with Tenikat. He was a Direct Scooter and I seemed to win a lot on those (that will be connected at the end of the blog). Tenikat won that race and paid something like $7.00. After that, we left and the next time I came, he was there again but my grandmother didn't come that night. So, we struck up a conversation. I always kept a notebook and was writing down notes. He asked me about the stuff I was writing. If you know me, you know that just opened up the conversation floodgates. 
I saw him a few times after those initial encounters, and we started to talk more. As it turns out, he lived just down the street from me. So, being a regular, and Vince being a regular, we decided we would go together. He would pick me up, and off we would go to Greenwood, or Mohawk if they were racing there. I didn't go to Mohawk much, as I was still in University and didn't have the time to go on weeknights. But the odd time he would phone me up and tell me he was coming over in a few minutes, and convince me to ditch my schoolwork  (I didn't need much convincing, as it turned out). I recall we went one night on a Tuesday, and we both had TOM CHAR MINDALE for a decent price. There was one difference though, and I learned this about Vince fairly quickly. I bet $5 to win on Tom Char Mindale, because Vince had inside info and told me that the horse was going to the front and winning that night. Vince bet $500 to win. How do I know that? He sent me to the window for him to bet the $500! The guy at the $50 window must have thought I'd mugged a guy to get that money, because I'd never bet a sum like that in my life on a horse race. It didn't even feel comfortable saying 500 to win on anything. But, to Vince, it was like pennies in his pocket. I remember when he won big, or lost big, he didn't seem to blink or care. That was with betting. When his horses won or lost, he was very enthusiastic. 
At the time, he only owned 2 or 3 horses, mostly leftovers from his last foray into owning. One was a horse he had with Paul Simko who they had for a long time and Paul's parents had bred as I recall. I remember he was a Ladatross and that the mother was a good mare they had done well with together when Paul was young and that it was Vince's first horse. That foal didn't turn out to be that good, but Vince still was on the ownership papers, even though he didn't have any interest in the horse at that stage. His other one was a horse called HARROWSMITH. He was an Armbro Ranger, and was supposed to be a good horse. From what Vince told me, they had paid good money privately for him, but he hadn't turned out. He was a choker. He'd had some sort of surgery to try and fix that, but on this night, my first time ever at Elmira, we went out to see him race in a 4 claimer. He was supposed to win, but he hung badly and barely held 4th. Vince certainly wasn't shocked and I believe he told Paul on the way out of the track that he wanted out on the horse. It was the beginning of a new owning chapter for Vince. For me, even Harrowsmith, and the thought of owning a racehorse that you had in any race seemed pretty exciting and a dream come true. I learned better as the years went on, but at that point, even owning a 2 claimer at Goderich would have thrilled me.  
A few weeks later, we went to Orangeville and watched a full day of Sire Stakes. 2 year old colt pacers. Horses like Riser, Ivan, and a host of others. I was pretty excited. Hit a bunch of winners that day too, and Vince mentioned if I wanted to own we could go partners. That became the plan, although we didn't act on it for a year or two to come. In the meantime, Vince did start owning. 
One thing about Vince was that he had money. Big money. It was money he came over with from Honk Kong. He also had a very nice house, a high end new car, and he was a bank manager who made a good buck doing that. Because of all that, this time, he was only going to spend big money to buy better horses. He started with a horse called Kintyre. I believe he claimed him for 30,000  (although I am foggy on the exact amount) won a race or two with him and lost him for 40,000. In the meantime, he claimed a horse called P J Blaze for 50,000 (that number I do remember clearly). P J Blaze was a horse I knew well. I had loved him as a 2yo and bet him several times when he had won. He was also a good 3yo, but not as dominant. As an aged horse, he had stalled and wasn't doing very well. To claim him for 50k seemed foolish, but Vince said he knew what he was doing. That was on a Saturday I think. The next Friday, Vince and I headed out to Greenwood. P J Blaze was in the last race of the night. I remember that clearly as well. There was another horse in that race, the only one who looked like he was competitive with Vince's new horse and that horse was called Royce Rolls. At that stage, Royce Rolls had a well earned reputation as a horse that always looked like he should win, made lots of money, but finished 2nd just about every time. Still, he was well thought of, and he went off slightly less than even money. P J Blaze went off at about 5-2. I remember that because I bet $10 to win on him, and that was the first time I'd ever bet $10 to win on anything. I'd cashed bigger wins before, but never bet that kind of money on one horse in one race. P J Blaze stalked Royce Rolls and then took him on the turn and opened up on him by the tote board, a long gone winner. We rushed down to the winners circle (also my first time ever in the winners circle, another dream of mine) and got the picture. Vince was a very generous guy. He even bought me a separate win picture for myself in addition to the one for himself. I still have it somewhere. Trevor Ritchie was the driver that night. That will become important later in the blog. From there, he held on to P J Blaze,and had him a long time. Another night, when I didn't go with Vince, P J Blaze won the final race of the night at long odds and Vince had the triactor, and he cashed out for $25000 on that one race, not even counting the purse he won. I had never even heard of anyone cashing a ticket like that. He actually didn't even cash. It was such a large amount, they had to give him a cheque for safety reasons. He didn't even seem to be too excited about it.  He did very well with P J Blaze and that led to Jagger Hanover. Another claim, and he turned into a Stakes horse for him. He also won the Molson Pace the next year, and I think he competed in and got a cheque in the Canadian Pacing Derby for Vince. Jagger Hanover also has a direct connection to this story, which will come near the end. Jagger Hanover was another horse I ended up in a lot of win pictures with Vince. I have one or two lying around (I couldn't find them in time for this blog, but will post them sometime when I clean up my basement and I do). He was a dream horse for Vince. I don't think even he thought he would end up with a horse like that when he claimed him. Like many he claimed, they flourished under the care of Rick Fife, who was his trainer at the time and who was the top or one of the top trainers at the time on the circuit.  
The sale I went to where we were supposed to buy something.

That summer, we went to the Royal Blue sale at Mohawk and our goal was to buy a Laag or Willow Wiper foal. There weren't many of either at that sale, and we only liked one or two of the Willow Wiper's, as some were good, but many were bad specimens and had serious flaws. The two Laag's we liked were way overpriced when the hammer fell, because they were greys and as we all know, greys sell for more than they are worth as a rule because people love to buy greys. So, we passed on those, and both of them never turned out to be anything anyway. There was only one Willow Wiper we both liked, but she went for way more than we thought we should have to pay. As it turns out, we were the underbidder, and the filly, named ARRESTING, went to Earl Lennox for 20k if my memory serves. It turned out to be a good deal for him. She made something like 80k at two, and while she didn't come back good at 3, he got her claimed early for 35k and was out on her. She will come into play in this blog later as well.  
ARRESTING sale page

 We went home with nothing that day, and of course I was disappointed. Vince told me something that day on the way home in the car I have never forgotten. There are always more horses to buy. You just have to be patient. We could have gone out and claimed a cheap one just so I could get my feet wet, but we waited. The time came the next January. By then, I had a job and some money saved up. I could easily afford my half of a decent horse to race at Greenwood, which is what I wanted. Because Vince was connected, as I mentioned earlier, he had Paul Simko on the lookout for anything that fit our criteria. Paul was stabled at Flamboro. I remember that because he had a goat named Jack, and Jack was a ram. He spent the entire time you were in the barn at Flamboro trying to ram you. It got really annoying after a while. Every time Paul said I should come down to the barn after the races, I asked him if that ramming goat Jack was going to be there. He said yes and I said "I'm not coming then." Anyway, Paul heard that Gary Rivest had a 4yo filly he had claimed at 3 at Connaught or Sudbury and had raced out there until they shut down for the winter. Gary always wintered at Flamboro and tried to race what he had to grind out a buck until he went back North or East. He had a mare named COLANUT then and she did okay. She was even a marginal Greenwood horse some nights. The mare Gary had that we wanted, that he wanted to sell, was named COME BY CHANCE. She was a nice filly. Sound, very good gaited, seemingly fast enough, and was bred well enough to suggest she would do okay at Greenwood and Mohawk. She was a Silent Majority mare out of an Armbro mare (Armbro Wisteria) by Nansemond. She had a full sister named Vibernum that I think Garth Gordon raced at Greenwood for a while and did okay enough. 
One Saturday, we decided to go to Flamboro to watch Come By Chance qualify. It was a bitter cold freezing day, and it was the morning. We were both tired, as we had been to Greenwood together the previous night. I remember that because we were reading the program on the way to Flamboro, and both trying to figure out how we missed SEVEN WONDERS at 22-1 in the last race when we both had bet him the week before. We arrived a few minutes before the qualifier, and there were only 4 horses. She was the only one who could go any speed, so, even though she won by 12 or 15, she only went 2:04 or 2:05. We were willing to pay 13k, which we thought was fair, but Gary wanted 15k, firm. We both thought that was too much for a mare who went a qualifier like that and he had claimed for 7k plus allowances the previous fall, but he was insistent. We told him we would think it over and left. Vince told me that if we didn't give him 15k, he wouldn't sell. Whether that was true or not, what is 2k when you are buying a horse you think can race at Greenwood? So, we bought her, and left her with Paul. 
I now owned my first racehorse!
She qualified again, this time in 2:02 and a bit, and then it was time to race. The first race was to be at Flamboro, and all they had was a phony fillies and mares open type race. There was only 6 entered, and 3 of them were really 15 claimers at Greenwood. One was a nice mare named Holly Harbor who was probably better than all of them, but she didn't get a very good trip and finished back (I remember that because her trainer/owner drove her that night, something he didn't do very often, and he was not pleased with another driver who parked him the entire mile. I was chatting with him for a while after the race). We finished 2nd, with Gary driving since he knew her already, and we were pleased. I was pleased for sure. 
Now it was time to take her to Greenwood. Paul wasn't the type to race at Greenwood, so she was to go to Rick Fife, who was Vince's guy. I had never met him and didn't even know him other than what I had read off the program. All I knew was that he knew what he was doing and had gotten great results with P J Blaze and Jagger Hanover, and others whose name I can't remember anymore. Her race was to be on a Friday night and we put her in for 15k,  but she went for 22.5k with allowances. She wasn't going to get claimed, but if she did for some reason, we would have made a big profit. All week Vince kept telling me that Rick loved her, and that she was going to win that night, or have a big shot to win. I don't recall for certain which of the two it was, but it was one of those. I was skeptical. There were other mares in there who looked better than her.  She was 10-1 at post time and I bet her to win. Vince bet a lot of money on her to win. That I do remember. I still remember my jitters that night, and the rush as they began to go to the gate. I was actually racing a legit horse at Greenwood for about 7 or 8 years of going there and just being a fan and a bettor. As the race unfolded, it was clear she was a contender. She sat in and followed, pulled on the turn and took over the lead. She had a big lead heading to the wire, but a nice mare named Generosity, who had beaten much better in the past, rushed up and passed her on the wire. Still, it was a very good 2nd. After that,  we had a choice to make. We could put her back in for 15k, but we were well aware we would likely win, and certainly lose her to the claim, which would have been a big profit but still have no horse. So, since having a horse was the more important at that stage, we put her in for 20k. The next race was the next Friday night, and she was in for a base of 20k, which meant a 30k tag. She still looked to be one of the favorites, and was, but got a terrible drive and finished 5th or 6th. We left her in for 20k for about a month, and she got a few 4ths and 5ths, but no wins or close calls. By that time, Mohawk was about to start in the spring.  
 We decided to put her back in for 15k at that point and take our chances. She seemed like she would be a good claim, but nobody ever took her. Her first start for 15k, she was in the first race of the night. She had a good post, maybe the rail, or something else good, and went right to the front. She was 1-5, or 1-9 and she looked the best for sure. Terry Kerr was her driver that night. Why? I don't know. He didn't drive at Mohawk much,and never for Rick or Vince, but he was on her that night, and he certainly knew well how to win on the front end. She seemed home free on the turn, opened up, but then, as was her habit, she eased up and let a big longshot pass her on the line again. It was a very close photo. We thought we had won it and it took a long time to put a number on the board. We were 2nd though. After that, she went back in for 20 again, and was 3rd and 4th a few times but never really close to a win. That lasted the entire spring until they went back to Greenwood. She was paying her way, and racing good, but it was time to go back for 15 where she could win.
It was a Monday night I think, and the opening night of the Greenwood meet. Race 3. She looked like she had a shot. A reasonable shot, but she wasn't the best in there. She was one of many. She had a decent post, and although we didn't expect it, Trevor Ritchie put her on the front and tried to wire them. She was always best on the front or sitting on the rail, like many Silent Majority's who liked a trip. As they turned for home, she was on top, but they were closing in and beginning to swarm her. I thought she might hold on for a share, but that was it. However, for whatever reason, this night, she dug in and fended them off. At the wire, it was very tight with a late closing Foxy Lady H, a mare who had beaten her many times at Mohawk. I was outside in the grandstand, so I couldn't tell for sure. Again, it was a very long photo, but, she had won it. My first win. I recall I was sitting outside with Patti, Rick's wife, and I had come alone, so Vince was there but not sitting with me. Also there was David Smith's girlfriend at the time, a very pretty blond girl who I don't remember her name (but who knew Vince because her family was all horsepeople and Vince knew the all), but was obviously rooting for Foxy Lady H, as Smith was driving that one. Of course, I ran down to the winners circle, and happened to pass Vince and his wife Rosita on the way there. Winning a race like that with a horse like that was no big deal for Vince, but he was very happy, I guess for me. It was a high that lasted for days.
My first win. In this pic, a bunch of nurses who sponsored the race, me in the green shirt, Rosita (Vince's wife), Vince in the suit, Trevor Ritchie (the driver) Rick Fife, Patti (in green), and Nat Varty in red holding the horses head. Nat was very young and just starting out at that point, and was Rick's assistant trainer.

Two of the horses that were behind her that night were Willow Wiper fillies. One, the one who finished 3rd, was called Timeless Image. The other? She was a Willow Wiper filly who was down on her luck and near the end of her racing career called.....ARRESTING. 
 After that first win, she was 4th or 5th I think her next race, and then came the moment I will never forget in my racing experience. My favorite moment. I mentioned my grandmother earlier in the blog. She was a racing fan for her entire life. She was born,raised and lived in Western Ontario for much of her life. That is a hotbed of harness racing. I'm sure she spent many a night at Western Fair in her day, and even Woodstock Raceway.  She was from Ingersoll, which is not far from Woodstock, and later had moved to Toronto. I don't think she went to the races often once she moved to Toronto, and since my grandfather, her husband, died suddenly in 1975, she didn't go much of anywhere on her own. By the time I started to go to the races (see my earlier blog for a story about that), she got wind of it and we went together, just the two of us. I would go virtually every week, and she would come along about once a month. One of the things she liked to do was pay. That meant she paid the admission, the program, the food and gave me 20 bucks to start the night betting for us. So, I was not losing on those nights no matter what. In spite of that, almost every night we went, I picked winners and we left with more than we started with. No matter what I did, she insisted I got to keep that money. I think she just enjoyed that she got to go do something she loved doing again. There was no amount of money that was worth that to her, so she was happy to pay. One thing about my grandmother is that while she never suffered, she never really had money. So, obviously, she never owned a racehorse, or had been in a winners circle of any kind. It just so happened that every time Come By Chance raced to that point, my grandmother could not come. Then, her next start, my grandmother could come. That night, which was a Thursday night, she wasn't expected to win and we didn't expect much. She had the 9 hole, which was the trailer at Greenwood, and she only looked okay anyway. She was 9-1 and should have been. In any event, it was just fun for my grandmother to think she could root for my horse. We were all sitting together. Vince, Rosita, myself, my grandmother, and possibly some of Rick's family or other friends. I don't recall for sure how many were there with us. But, you knew my grandmother was there. By then, her eyesight was very poor and she couldn't even see the race. But, if you knew my grandmother, you knew she was there. She was VERY VOCAL.  She always was. 
All my cousins, my sister,  her two young sons, myself and my grandmother.

 My Uncle, (her son) had 4 seasons tickets to the Blue Jays games from the very first season, so we often went together in various configurations. Many times, that was two of my cousins, myself and my grandmother. The key for all of us was to get the corner seat that didn't touch my grandmother. Why? Because she also liked to have a beer at the game, and she would be a crazy rooter during the game, jumping up and down and spilling the beer all over herself, and anybody to her left or right. My cousins and I still joke about all that. 
P.S. My grandmother used to scream "Let's play ball" just like in the video when they played that song just before the start of the game, every time, and even before they came up with the song, she was doing it. 

So, the race began, and my grandmother was very vocal. I'm sure the customers around us were wondering what she was so hyped up about. She couldn't even see the race anyway. But that certainly did not stop her. The race progressed and Come By Chance sat back out of it,  maybe 7th or 8th. Not many horses won off that trip at Greenwood. She followed the outer flow, and it was clear the front was collapsing. When they hit the turn, you could see she was going to loop them all and draw off. I remember it clearly. It was like I was watching the race in slow motion. She had won it, and won it easy. In a new lifetime record and my grandmother was there to experience it. Another thing about my grandmother at that stage is that she wasn't very mobile, and it was a long way from where we were sitting in the grandstand down two levels and out to the track to the winners circle. I remember Vince and Rosita saying something I never forgot. They waited and helped me to take my grandmother down to the winners circle and told me that the horse would wait, as long as it takes. 
In this pic,  Rosita far left, Vince, my grandmother, me, Trevor Ritche, Rick Fife and Nat holding the horses head again. My favorite memory of many in the horse racing game.

I'm sure it was one of the biggest thrills of my grandmothers life to be in the winners circle with a horse that her grandson had owned. It certainly was my favorite memory of anything that ever happened to me in racing, betting, training or owning. And that is saying something, because I cashed a lot of nice tickets, won many races as an owner and trained many that won a lot of races. But nothing approached that night or moment.  It was my highest high in the racing game. As it turns out, the coming Monday ( just 4 days later) was Molson Pace night and Jagger Hanover was entered in that. Since they had a race for Come By Chance, she was already entered in that before the Thursday win. She was in for a base 13k, and it was probable we would lose her in that. But, we took our chances. She was 1-9 the best in there, and really only had to get around to daylight them. But of course, it never works out like that. Her race was early in the card, well before Jagger Hanover's. She left out and was moving to the lead when another horse made a wild break, scattered a bunch of them, and she got her legs cut out from underneath her. In spite of that, she stayed up and  kept trying. She even almost got past the leader again, but she didn't and then faded late.  It turns out she had been hit on her suspensory, and she felt that sting near the end of the mile. She came out of the race okay after a couple of weeks, but was never the same and later after a long layoff, ended up at Windsor in a cheap claimer, where we lost her for an overall loss. That was the lowest of the low. The highs and the lows of the owning game in just 4 days. For Vince, that night was probably the highlight for him. Jagger Hanover won the Molson Pace that night, and it was a big deal for him as he had cut his racing teeth at that track. He went on later to buy many yearlings, some for decent money. He even had a horse called Ritchies Imperial who was thought good enough to make the NA Cup, but got beat in the Burlington and didn't make it to the top level, although he made a lot of money afterwards. Vince bought a few other yearlings, mostly fillies. One of those was a Direct Scooter mare you might have heard of. Her name? Well, she was Armbro something when he bought her in Kentucky for about 19k, but he renamed her RICH N ELEGANT. You might have heard of her. She is the dam of RockNRoll Hanover, Rustler Hanover, and all the rest of those from that family. Below ROCKNROLL HANOVER is setting the World Record and the first ever Standardbred 2yo to break the 1:50 barrier. I remember being in Sudbury that night racing and watching it in the lounge after the races while I got a hot dog.

Vince raced RICH N ELEGANT but ended up selling her when he reduced his stock. And I knew him when he was just a guy I met at the track with my grandmother. We went to Elmira to watch his old 4 claimer named Harrowsmith race. We both had some highs and lows in the game. One day I might own a very nice racehorse that hails from the line of RockNRoll Hanover, but no matter how big a thrill I get from that horse, it will never top the thrill that I got with Come By Chance when she won unexpectedly on the one night my grandmother happened to come watch her race. Nothing will ever top that.

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