Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Canterbury Hall of Fame Inducts Class of 2011

Saturday evening, after the camels were put away, the ostriches rounded up and the extreme conditions in the condition book were filed away until the 2012 Extreme Day at Canterbury Park, another type of extreme celebration occurred at Longshots Bar overlooking the racetrack: a celebration of extreme talent.

Five honorees were inducted into the Canterbury Park Hall of Fame including one horse, two trainers, two breeders and a jockey.  Jim Wells, in Canterbury Park’s blog, relates a more detailed accounting of the accomplishments of the Class of 2011 that I will recount here.  If you have the opportunity to get the official program of the evening, Wells does a magnificent job recounting the careers of each of the honorees in more detail.

Stillwater breeders Deb and Jeff Hilger were the first to be honored on the warm summer evening.  The Hilgers own and operate Bleu Valley Farm and bred Minnesota Horses of the Year Bleu Victoriate and Chick Fight and other standouts.

Jack Walsh, in his introduction of the couple, related the story of how Jeff got into the business of racing and how that entry led him to Deb.  Hilger was quick to acknowledge the role racing played in his life as well.

“I wouldn’t have met Deb without racing and that’s the best thing that has ever happened to me.”

In the small world of Minnesota racing, the circle of the horse racing community is more like family than business.  “Honestly,” Hilger said.  “This is a family that I’m proud to be a part of.”

Deb Hilger, as she mentioned, always has the last word and in this case they were simple and touching, “We are very humbled and grateful to be included here.”

Sir Tricky, described as “the best claim ever brought to this racetrack” by presenter Andrew Offerman, was next to be inducted.  Claimed by Barry and Joni Butzow for $20,000 in April of 2006, Sir Tricky went on to earn over $300,000 in his racing career.  He won on turf and dirt as well as distances from 5 ½ furlongs to a mile and sixteenth.  There were very few, if any, more versatile horses to grace the track at Canterbury Park. 

“It’s difficult not to find a special place in your heart for him,” Joni Butzow said accepting the award on behalf of the gelding.  “He was the Wal-Mart greeter of the (Mac) Robertson barn and you couldn’t pass him without giving him some attention.  He could be difficult at times, but once on the track he was all business.”

Sir Tricky was retired at the end of last season after reeling off three straight wins including his career capper, his second Minnesota Turf Championship.  Sir Tricky is now teaching young children to ride at Birchberry Farm.

The Quarter Horse was not to be left out on this evening and the most successful Quarter Horse trainer to ever operate at Canterbury, Ed Ross Hardy, was inducted by Jeff Maday.  In addition to winning more races than any other Quarter Horse trainer, Hardy is in the midst of a remarkable run of nine straight Quarter Horse training titles and has won a record six Canterbury Park Quarter Horse Derbies. 

Hardy was gracious and brief, thanking his owners, Canterbury officials and most especially, his wife.  “I wouldn’t be here without my wife,” he said.  “We’re a team.”

Track announcer Paul Allen took the microphone next to induct jockey Derek Bell.  Allen had some fun with Bell’s proclivity of avoiding interviews after races by attempting to interview a lawn jockey to illustrate the difficulty reporters – and track announcers – have had over the years to get Bell to say a few words.  As Allen said, Bell prefers that his talking be done on the racetrack and it’s hard to argue with the run of success he’s had there.

“Derek is always good in big moments,” Allen said. “And he is great in stakes races.”

The record bears that out.  While he’s been the leading rider at Canterbury six times, he has a record 22 Festival Day wins, a total of 50 stakes wins in Minnesota and on June 14, 2002, Bell won a record six races on a single card.  As an exclamation point to these accomplishments, Bell won three races on the card preceding his induction.

“I really don’t talk much,” Bell said.  “I let the owners talk about their horses.  I’m just the passenger.”

Bell provided what was the most poignant moment of the evening when, returning to the rostrum at the end of the night, publically thanked Randy Sampson for sticking by him after he, with six other riders, were banned by Tampa Bay Downs during an unspecified investigation.  After nearly two years, Bell received a letter from the investigating attorney that exonerated him, but the damage was already done.

“Those charges were bullshit,” Bell said, his voice full of emotion.  “And I want to thank Randy for believing in me during that time.  It really meant a lot to me.”

The final honoree of the evening was trainer Mac Robertson.  Owner Barry Butzow remarked inducting Mac that “If it was his (Mac’s) choice, it wouldn’t be an owner introducing him – it would be a horse!”, alluding to Robertson’s stated preference for equine company over human.  His record shows that it is a very successful bond.

Robertson holds so many records at Canterbury it would be probably easier to list which training records he doesn’t own.  For the past six seasons he has been the leading trainer at the Shakopee oval and he holds the track training records for: single-season and all-time in-the-money percentages; all-time win percentage; and single-season earnings.

Robertson, who along with Hardy illustrated the belief that horse trainers are men of few words, was brief in his remarks.  He thanked his owners and family and also singled out his mother for special recognition.

The night was warm and a humid, but the hospitality and the depth of feeling in the Minnesota racing family Saturday night was only warm. Congratulations to all the inductees, you’ve provided many of the greatest moments in Minnesota racing history.  Thank you for your contributions and we look forward to many more.

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