An extra $25,000 has been added to a Northlands stakes race on July 8. The money did not come from Northlands. It did not come from Horse Racing Alberta. It did not come out of slot revenue or purse money.
It came out of Robert Vargo’s pocket.
Formerly called the Mademoiselle stakes, the mile and a sixteenth $75,000 race for older fillies and mares will now be called the Shirley Vargo Memorial in honour of Robert’s late wife who passed away a year ago.
“It’s very generous,” said Northlands racing secretary and manager of live racing. “Robert and his partner Norm Castiglione have been very supportive of the industry for many years. This is just another example. “To add that kind of money to the stake in honour of his wife just shows what kind of class this person has.”
“Shirley was a huge fan of horse racing in Alberta,” said Castiglione. “She had a brain aneurism 10 years ago but she would not give up on going to the races. She just loved it so much. “There weren’t many Friday nights and Saturday afternoons that she wasn’t at Northlands. “Shirley was a fighter. She fought the brain aneurism and then she fought cancer. Then her body finally gave up.”
Shirley, born in the Crows Nest Pass, and Robert met in Lethbridge where Robert was born and where Shirley, who would become a school teacher, was attending the University of Lethbridge. Moving to Fort McMurray where they raised three kids and where Robert bought a car dealership, the pair were married for 45 years. “Shirley loved kids and she loved horse racing,” said Castiglione, who has known the Vargos for 41 years - meeting for the first time at a Fort McMurray Rotary Club meeting.
The first horse Shirley and Robert owned was Knight’s Covenant where they caught lightning in a bottle. In 2005, Knight’s Covenant - with Monical Russell the trainer - not only won, he captured one of the richest races of the Alberta when he took the $150,000 Alberta Derby. “Robert had asked me to go to the track to watch the horse run,” said Castiglione. “After the race I remember Robert telling me ‘How easy is this?’
“It was a very sloppy track - one of the worst you can imagine. Knight’s Covenant was the only horse that didn’t have a drop of mud on him because he went wire-to-wire. At odds of 27-1 no less. “He went out by himself by six lengths and never looked back. “But that was millions of dollars ago.”
That fall, Vargo, whose father used to own thoroughbreds, and Castiglione went to the fall yearling sale in Calgary where they bought a couple of yearlings. That marked the start of the gargantuan Riversedge Racing Stable. “We went from those two horses to 65 race horses,” said Castiglione.
“We have 21 horses at Northlands, 18 in Vancouver and one in New York. The rest are either on the farm in Okotoks where they have 800 acres that includes a training track, or in Ocala, Florida where they have set up another training centre that includes another training track which they share with five other owners.
“At the farm we have 99 horses that include broodmares, weanlings, yearlings and retirees,” said Castiglione, with the latter including Knights Covenant. “It’s not a small operation by any means.” Neither is the one in Florida.
“We had 35 horses there last winter - the bulk of them two-year-olds as well as some of our better horses which needed time to recoup from the 2016 season. “It was either winter the horses in 85-degree temperatures or in minus 25 in Alberta.” The move obviously worked with Riversedge’s trainer Tim Rycroft sending out 11 winners from just 33 starts which is the highest winning percentage in the province and just four wins shy of Greg Tracy’s leading mark.
Riversedge has been a force for years. In 2012 - a personal best - they won 43 races for earnings of $870,752.
Two years ago the stable won 33 races with $536,041 in earnings with seven different horses winning nine stakes races and ended up a finalist for a Sovereign Award as Canadian owners of the year. One of those seven stakes winners was Academic, a filly who won the Canadian Derby and then the B.C. Derby in partnership with the Bear Stable.
Last year, Riversedge won 28 races from 139 starters for earnings of $636,637.
Next Saturday (June 17) Riversedge will send out a pair of stakes horses in the weekend’s four-stakes race card with Trooper John contesting the $50,000 Ky Alta - a major prep for the Aug. 19 $150,000 Canadian Derby which they won in 2015 with Academic that was co-owned by Dany Dion - and then Hold The Giant in the $50,000 Spangled Jimmy.
A career winner of four of his seven starts, Trooper John exits a sharp win in the May 27 Western Canada prevailing in a blanket three-horse photo - a six furlong race which went in a very quick 1:10 flat. Ridden by Keishan Balgobin, Trooper John came in between Bar No Q and the pace setting favourite Rock Victor to win by half a length over Bar No Q with Rock Victor a nose back in third.
“We’ve always had plans for this horse,” said Castiglione. “Whether it’s the Canadian Derby or something else. “He came out of his last race real good. We checked him over really well. “He worked five furlongs on June 6 in 59 seconds and change. “We didn’t like him to work that fast but he doesn’t want to do anything different. You try and slow him down but he doesn’t want to go slow.”
Trooper John wasn’t supposed to be the only Riversedge horse pointed to this summer’s Derby. Last year’s Alberta Two-Year-Old Champion, Norm’s Big Bucks looked for all the world like he was something very special. But in last October’s Canadian Juvenile - a race Trooper John won by eight and a half lengths - Norm’s Big Bucks broke his right front knee and had to be humanely put down. “It was a terrible loss,” said Castiglione of the horse who was still named last year’s Two-Year-Old Colt Champion.
“I can’t even imagine what his full potential was. He was one of those horses that don’t come along very often,” said Castiglione, adding that Riversedge has a sister to Norm’s Big Bucks - Sneaky Sister - who has been training very well in Florida.
In the one-mile Spangled Jimmy Hold The Giant comes off a solid runner-up performance to Annie’s Candy in the May 27 Journal Handicap. “We’re not 100 per cent sure that a mile is Hold The Giant’s perfect distance but he hung in game against Annie’s Candy when he pushed the pace from the outside,” said Castiglione. While I’ll have much more next week on the Spangled Jimmy, suffice it to say that - while still early in the year - could be the race of the year.
After all, not only are Annie’s Candy and Hold The Giant expected to line-up, the likes of Killin Me Smalls, Hemlock Channel, Blue Dancer, Ready Intaglio and Royal Warrior also seem to be pointed there.
As for the Shirley Vargo Memorial, Castiglione isn’t sure who they will be represented by before mentioning the likes of Bootlegger’s Wife, Corkys Luck and Candy Trader. Now four, Bootlegger’s Wife was named Alberta’s Champion Two-Year-Old Filly in 2015 when she won three of her four starts including the Princess Margaret. “Bootlegger’s Wife had a bit of health issues last year but we’re close to bringing her up here from Florida.
Castiglione said that after teaching, Shirley was a stay-at-home mom. “She was a quiet person and preferred to stay in the background.” But, on July 8 she will be front and centre.
Follow me on Twitter at CurtisJStock