You know the feeling when you get into scorching car with the windows closed on one of Edmonton’s rare sweltering afternoons? That’s Alberta harness trainer Chris Lancaster. Hot. Red-hot. Blistering hot.
On one big, long roll since the second week of the current harness meet at Century Mile, Lancaster has won with 10 of his last 12 starters. But wait, there’s more. The two horses the harness trainer sent out that didn’t win lost to stablemates! Probert was upset by barn mate Lady Neigh Neigh in Sunday’s feature; at the end of last month Custards Crown finished second to Probert in the $88,320 Don Byrne Memorial.
In other words, Lancaster has won the last 10 races he has entered. “We’re on fire,” understated Lancaster. “The only time we’ve been beaten lately is by ourselves.” In that span from November 21 until now Lancaster has won three times with Open Mare Lady Neigh Neigh, twice each with Probert, $20,000 claimer Gray Zee, $20,000 claimer Canadian Pharoh and once with Custards Crown in an elimination of the Don Byrne. “I’ve got to thank all the owners and drivers. The owners have given me great horses and the drivers - Dave Kelly, Michael Hennessy, Phil Giesbrecht and Brandon Cambell have given me great steers.”
Lady Neigh Neigh, last year’s Don Byrne Memorial winner, defeating Probert and Canadian Pharoh holding off last year’s Western Canada Pacing Derby winner Knee-deep N Custard were mild upsets this past weekend but Lancaster wasn’t surprised. “I thought Lady Neigh Neigh would win; I told everybody in the barn she would win,” Lancaster said of the four-year-old filly who has a huge reach and a flawless stride. “She’s really on her game and she had the inside post on Probert.
This week Probert has the inside post so I fully expect to see Probert get back to her A game. “Lady Neigh Neigh really likes this big racetrack. She was meant to race on a mile track. She can get her head low and open up throttle.”
Lady Neigh Neigh has now won just under $215,000 while posting a record of 20 wins in 39 starts. “For a four-year-old that’s never left Western Canada that’s a big accomplishment,” said Lancaster, who owns the mare with Chris Lambie. Lady Neigh Neigh won two stakes as a two-year-old - the Emerald and Jim Rogers - and in addition to Don Byrne, won the Penny Bath and Moores Mile last year.
Now with her win over Probert when she went wire-to-wire in 1:53 1/5, Lady Neigh Neigh has won three in a row this year. This from a horse which was picked out of a video catalogue and bought out of a sale at London, Ontario for $16,000.
As for Canadian Pharoh, Lancaster said “He’s on his game too. When he makes the front he’s a tough horse to get past.” That’s exactly what Canadian Pharoh did this past Saturday: leaving in a sizzling first quarter in :26 1/5, letting Outlaw Gunsablazin go and then doing a quick retake to recapture a lead he would never relinquish to win in 1:53 2/5 with Night Stick second and Kneedeep N Custard a charging third.
A multiple stakes winner, Canadian Pharoh has now been first or second in 37 of 78 starts. “He’s been a monster. That’s two big 1:53 and change miles in a row. You can’t ask much more from him.”
While Canadian Pharoh and Lady Neigh Neigh were both impressive, Lancaster said he was most riveted with Gray Zee, who took a new mark of 1:53 1/5 at the age of seven. “You don’t see that very often,” said Lancaster, who claimed Gray Zee for $7,500 on Oct. 20 and has watched him win his last two races for $12,500. “He put up two :27 2/5 quarters in a row. You don’t see that very often in claiming races either. That was cool. A half in :54 4/5 and then still go on.”
A hard knocking pacer with 35 wins, 19 seconds and 22 thirds in 162 races, Gray Zee seems to be only getting better. “He has great determination,” said Lancaster, who trained Gray Zee several times in the past. “He’s been a little ATM for me. Since I claimed him he’s only missed a cheque once.”
There have been two things happen to Lancaster while he has been on this amazing winning streak. Neither is likely coincidental. One, he started training at Blair Corbel and Kelly Hoerdt’s Bedrock Training Centre, just southeast of Beaumont. Two, he has had Kayla Chappell working for him. “Kayla has been great. She gives me a killer effort,” said Lancaster, who was born in Calgary and grew up in B.C. “Kayla turns out the horses at Bedrock for an hour before I jog them. It’s really made a difference. Farm life is farm life. Everybody likes it. It’s peaceful. There’s no drama. You set your own pace. It’s been a great set-up.”
Winning races in bunches is nothing new to Lancaster, 29, who has only been on his own for four years after learning the ropes with Rod Hennessy, Kelly Hoerdt, Jamie Gray, Gerry Hudon, Brandon Campbell and Travis Cullen. Two years ago Lancaster won the O’Brien Award as Canada’s Future Star (which was obviously prescient) when he won 29 races from 103 starts for earnings of $216,573. Last year he won 65 races from 254 starts for an incredible $656,918. This year he has won 33 of 134 races for $266,355.
His numbers are down mostly because of a decision he made early in the year to cull a lot of his average horses and concentrate on young horses. “I bought all these babies. That’s where the money is - in stakes races for two- and three-year-olds. “I’ll have 16 two- and three-year-olds next year.”
One of the turning three-year-olds is Graceful Horizon, who won the Starburst and Stardust stakes this summer. Graceful Horizon didn’t win the big two-year-old race, the Super Finals, but it wasn’t without a big effort. “She drew the outside post, got parked early, came hard but just got tired at the end. You couldn’t ask for more from that filly.” Purchased at the Alberta Yearling Sale for $9,000 Graceful Horizon is co-owned by Lancaster, Derek Gilbert and his mother, Velda Olding.
“My dad is a farrier at Fraser Downs, my grandfather was a trainer and a farrier down east and my great grandmother was a horse trainer in Ottawa at Rideau Carlton. But my mom did not want me going into harness racing at all; she wanted me to go to college. But buying into Graceful Horizon tells me she’s softened that stance now.”
With his mother insisting that Chris get his high school diploma when he did that and turned 18 he immediately jumped on the first plane out of B.C. and went to Grande Prairie where he started working for Brandon Campbell. “I always loved horses and I’ve also always loved the thrill of horse racing.”
While Lancaster is currently winning everything in sight, the year hardly started off very well. In February at Century Downs Lancaster was jogging a two-year-old that didn’t exactly live up to his name of Pacing Perfect. “He was bucking and kicking and then planted his feet and went down.” So did Lancaster. “The first thing that hit was my right knee. I tore the ACL, MCL and my meniscus. It’s still pretty stiff.”
While Lancaster was on crutches for a very long time he had Thomas Miller doing all the work. “He was tremendous,” said Lancaster. “He made Graceful Horizon his pick and his pet and that obviously worked out great. “I just sat back and watched and see how it all came together. But I’m back on all cylinders now.”
Lancaster has five horses in this weekend* including Canadian Pharoh in the Open and Probert and Lady Neigh Neigh in the Mares Open. He also has Custards Crown in the Shirley McClellan elimination for three-year-old fillies. “I assume Custards Crown will be the heavy favourite in the Shirley McClellan,” said Lancaster, of the filly that has been in the top three in 14 of 21 starts. *(Update: Due to recently announced Covid restrictions, Saturday's card will feature 20 races and there will be no racing on Sunday)
“She came out of her runner-up finish in the Don Byrne sharp. I gave her a couple days off and she’s ready to rock. We’ll see if we can keep this streak alive.”
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