Saturday, 09 October 2021 13:20

"The shoes have been pulled" — Trooper John taking a well-earned retirement

Written by Curtis Stock
Trooper John at Northlands Park winning the Ky Alta Stake, June 2017 (j. Keishan Balgobin) Trooper John at Northlands Park winning the Ky Alta Stake, June 2017 (j. Keishan Balgobin) Photo by Coady Photo/Ryan Haynes

It's over. The last helicopter has left Saigon. The last pass by Peyton Manning has hit the turf. And the last starting gate is a thing of the past for Trooper John, one of the best thoroughbreds to ever grace the dirt in Alberta, has been retired. "That's it," said Trooper John's trainer Tim Rycroft. "The only place he'll run anymore is in the fields at Riversedge Farms. He'll be bucking and playing in the hills of Okotoks. The shoes have been pulled."

Seven years old, Trooper John retires with career earnings of $401,505 - a very handsome amount for a horse in Western Canada. He also goes out with 11 wins, seven seconds and seven thirds in 36 starts - a marvellous display of consistency. And that's in spite of the fact that he only had one second-place finish in seven starts this year. Erase 2021 and his log would be 11 wins, 6 seconds and seven thirds in 29 appearances - an incredible performance record.

"He's the best horse we ever had," said Norm Castiglione, who owns Trooper John with Robert Vargo. "And we've had a lot of good ones. He gave me goosebumps every time he ran."

"It's a little sad," said Trooper John's trainer Tim Rycroft soberly. "But he's had enough. Physically he's still sound but his mind isn't in it anymore. He's told me that he's tired of chasing these punks. When he was good he would have blown by those horses."

Castiglione, Vargo and Rycroft could have dropped Trooper John into a claiming race but that isn't their style. "We didn't want to embarrass him," said Rycroft. "We wanted to show him some respect."

Vargo and Castiglione said the same thing. "He's been too good for us to do that to him," said Vargo. "We would never let him get to the point where he could get claimed," said Castiglione.

Without question 2017 was Trooper John's best year. That was when he won all the prep races - the Western Canada, Ky Alta and Count Lathum - leading up to that year's Canadian Derby. As a point of emphasis he won the Count Lathum by nine and a half lengths.

With a big hip and girth, massive, chiselled shoulders and an intelligent face, he was the epitome of a classic, handsome race horse. He didn't win the litigious Derby - he was second in a dead heat with Double Bear, who got moved up to first. But he gave it his all - just as he did in his final race of 2017 when he finished second by a scant nose behind Chief Know It All in the B.C. Derby.

"He should never have lost the B.C. Derby," said Rycroft. "He got a bad ride," he said succinctly. "He was running hard but got fanned wide turning for home. The winner came up on the inside. Even then he only lost by a few inches."

For his efforts, Trooper John was named both Horse of the Year and Champion Three-Year-Old that season. The following year, tired because of his gruelling 2017 campaign, Trooper John only made four starts. He won two of them — the Don Getty by a length and three quarters over Killin Me Smalls, a rival with whom he had some extremely memorable clashes — and the Journal where Killin Me Smalls was third.

"The Don Getty was a great race," said Rycroft. "Killin Me Smalls, a horse who I have a lot of respect for, came to him a few times but Trooper wasn't going to let him go by."

In 2019 Trooper John won the Journal again as well as taking an allowance race. In 2020 he won the Century Mile. "He was a horse that everyone would like to own," said Vargo. "He was a super horse."

Sired by Colonel John out of a Woodman mare, Trooper John was purchased as a yearling by Castiglione and Vargo for $21,000 at the Fasig-Tipton Keeneland, Kentucky 2015 September sale. Second in his career debut in 2016 Trooper John broke his maiden in style winning his next start by six and three-quarter lengths. He also won the Winnipeg Futurity that year - by a nose over the sensational mare Escape Clause.

But it was in that year's Canadian Juvenile that Rycroft said was his career changer. "That day the lights came on. That was the day he learned to be a racehorse," Rycroft recalled of Trooper John's authoritative eight and a half length win at Northlands Park.

As poised and confident as he was on the track, Rycroft said he was like a teenager when he was in his stall at the barns. "He likes to eat and he likes to sleep," said Rycroft. "After we've fed Trooper John his breakfast he liked to lay down and sleep some more. Even just before he ran we would often have to wake him up." But nobody needed to set an alarm clock for him when it was time to run or train.

Trooper John's last race was October 2. Like Muhammad Ali, who came out of retirement to lose to Larry Holmes and Trevor Berbick at the age of 40, or Willie Mays floundering in the outfield when he too was past his due date, Trooper John's finale will not be remembered fondly.

"When they turned for home and I knew he wasn't getting anything I turned away and went to the barn," said Rycroft. "I couldn't watch it anymore." Trooper John finished ninth and last.

"He was just going through the motions. He had trained really good but he just didn't want to run anymore. He cooled out good. He went back to his stall and ate his supper. It was hard to watch because I knew that was the end of his racing career."

Rycroft said he never gave any instructions to any of the jockeys who rode him. "All I would say was 'Have a good trip.' He did his own thing and I never knew what that would be. He was pretty versatile and he knew where the wire was."

Trooper John was almost human in a lot of respects. He knew he was good; knew he was special. He showed that every time he went to the track to gallop or work. "He would stand there and just pose for a while," said Rycroft. "He wanted to make sure that everyone knew he was there. He was one of the really good horses to race in Alberta. Probably in the top five."

"He's really going to be missed."

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