The finish line approaches; the collective memories roll by in waves - one following another evoking a clap dance of history that mistily melt before our eyes and remembrances. Teeming grandstands wild with full throated voices. Big, big rich races like the Stewart Fraser Memorial and even Breeders’ Crown finals that brought the best pacers in North America to Edmonton. Those were the days when Northlands was the place to be - when wagering on a per capita basis was the highest in all of the continent.
Old racetrackers like myself remember and will never forget. It was, as we like to say, the good old days and we lived through it all. The great and the much more recent not so good. But, after 118 years of hosting standardbred and thoroughbred racing, the last time harness racing will take place at Northlands is this Saturday afternoon.
The pacers, after a six-week break, will now move to Balzac’s Century Downs. Then, this fall, they will move into their new home - Century Mile adjacent to the Edmonton International Airport where a new history will arrive and new memories will begin and crystallize.
But before we go it is time to recognize a more recent past - this past weekend’s celebration of the best harness horses and people of 2017. Standing alone at the top was Kelly Hoerdt who was recognized as not just Alberta’s top driver and top trainer but, completing the Triple Crown, Alberta’s Horseperson of the Year as well.
“It’s a milestone for me,” said Hoerdt, 51. “I’ve been the leading trainer a few times; I was the leading driver one other time. And, in 2010, I was also named Horseperson of the Year. “But I’ve never won all three in the same year. So this was very special,” said Hoerdt, who was named Canada’s top Horseperson in 2013. “It was a great night; one I’ll never forget.” Asked to somehow sum up what it meant, Hoerdt said “Managing my 40-horse stable, driving my own horses, catch driving for other trainers, all the long hours of training, the day-to-day paperwork - which is enormous - I guess it means that maybe I’m not doing it all for nothing.”
Given what he accomplished last year, it was almost a foregone conclusion that Hoerdt would win all three major titles. As a trainer, Hoerdt sent out 117 winners from 480 starts amassing a Universal Trainer Rating System (UTRS) percentage of .393. As a driver Hoerdt won 95 races from 376 drives for a Universal Driver Rating System (UDRS) of an even .400 percentage. “Getting to .400 as a driver was something I’d never accomplished before. I had a percentage of .370 a couple of times. But this was by far my best. “It’s hard to do. A lot of things have to happen right.”
As is his usual wont, Hoerdt immediately shifted the praise away from himself. Instead, he credited his owners, his horses and his stable help. “I have some great owners, I had some very good horses and I wouldn’t possibly be where I am without the help of my staff. You’ve got to have a lot of good people in the right places,” Hoerdt said pointing out the likes of Porter Hill, Joe O’Brien, Amy Henry and Jessica Henriquez. “Porter, Joe and Amy are here with me in Alberta while Jessica runs my 12-horse B.C. operation by herself and does a really great job. So, a big special thanks to her. “I’ve been very lucky.”
Hoerdt said his stable has won more money in the past. “Money-wise last year was my fourth-best season. I didn’t have as many superstar stakes performing horses as I’ve had in the past. But I had a lot of really hard knocking, overnight horses - claimers and condition horses - that came through for me. “So, at the end of the day, the numbers were still there.”
That said, three of Hoerdt’s horses, still took home home individual awards. Custards Laststand was named 2017’s champion Alberta-sired colt or gelding while Iwontdothatagain was easily voted the champion aged horse. Custards Laststand, owned by Hoerdt and Blair Corbeil, won four of his eight races including the $80,000 Super Series Final in October taking a lifetime mark of 1:55. He also had two seconds and a third. “We always had high hopes for Custards Laststand and he delivered,” said Hoerdt.
Iwontdothatagain, owned by Hoerdt and Ed Keryliuk, was simply in a class by himself winning 17 of his 26 starts while also notching five seconds and a third. “He was one of only six horses that won 17 or more races in all of North America. “I’ve never had a horse that won that many races before. He’s like driving a car.” Remarkably, Iwontdothatagain was claimed for just $4,000 13 months ago.
“A real Cinderella story,” said Hoerdt, who immediately won Iwontdothatagain’s next start after the claim for $9,000. Then he won a pair of races for $20,000 and was on his way leaving behind the claiming ranks for good and immediately winning the open class. Iwontdothatagain has now won his last six starts including the Jim Vinnell stake elimination in a lifetime best of 1:52 3/5 and then the $50,000 Vinnell final. He is scheduled to race again at B.C.’s Fraser Downs on Friday. “He’s a thrill to drive every time. It’s so much fun to sit behind a horse with that much talent and is so versatile.”
As well as Iwontdothatagain and Custards Laststand, yet another Hoerdt-trained horse, Kokanee Seelster was recognized this past weekend as a joint winner of the Champion Fastest Boy award along with Royal Renegade - both horses taking marks of 1:51 4/5. “At the awards banquet I had so many people come up to me and say what a great year. But you know what? At the end of the day I know we can always do better. “We don’t rest on our laurels. We know we have to go out and fight harder, get better horses, continue to put horses in the classes where they belong and keep trying to win races. “We know we’ve got to stay sharp and keep the machine running. We’re not going to rest.”
While all the award winners are available online at thehorses.com we would be very much remiss without talking about Horse of the Year, Outlaw Fireball, Owned by J.F. Gagne, Peter Van Seggelen, Carl Warnaar and Tapron Holdings, Outlaw Fireball, who also ran away with Alberta’s Three-Year-Old Filly of the Year, was the picture of consistency while bankrolling $241,109. Limited to just 14 starts, Outlaw Fireball won eight times, was second four times and third twice. Her big win came in the $132,390 Northlands Filly Pace when she roared down the stretch to win by three parts of a length in a lifetime equalling mark of 1:55 1/5.
“She was so dominant,” said Gagne. “And so consistent. She never missed the board. “The only reason she didn’t get more wins was because there were no more races for her. Even so she won so much money. Especially for an Alberta-bred.” Outlaw Fireball was turned out for the year after finishing second - after some traffic problems in the backstretch in her $80,000 Super Series Final for three-year-old fillies. “I’ll bring her back in the spring,” said Gagne. “Probably the late spring. Right now we’re just letting her grow. Hopefully she’ll be even better this year. It’s going to be interesting to play with her again.”
Follow me on Twitter at CurtisJStock