Friday, 12 May 2023 18:36

“I saddled A Fleets Dancer and then I saddled Northern Prospector. They won back to back.”

Rod Cone in the paddock at Century Mile Rod Cone in the paddock at Century Mile Photo by Coady Photo/Ryan Haynes

— a conversation with trainer Rod Cone

It is getting late: just before 10 p.m. on a chilly Saturday evening of September 27, 2020.

Real Grace has just gone wire to wire to win the mile and a quarter Canadian Derby at Century Mile at odds of 18-1.

Walking out of the winner’s circle - cold rain beginning to fall - trainer Rod Cone’s wife Jennifer Smith stops and says “Nobody can get a horse to run a distance like this guy.

“Nobody,” she says again for emphasis.

It’s true. Cone is a magician getting horses to run farther than one would expect. And he has been doing it ever since the blacksmith-turned-trainer took out his conditioners license in 1988.

A winner of three other Canadian Derbies this one was more than special.

Shelley Brown had been training Real Grace but - diagnosed with Stage 4 metastatic cancer - she was unable to come to Edmonton and turned the horse over to Cone.

“Best race I’ve ever won,” said Cone, who, this past Friday night was given a standing ovation when he named the recipient of the Ken Cohoe lifetime achievement as Horseperson of the Year.

“This was all about Shelley. I told her we were going to win this race for her and somehow we did. She needed a boost and I’m sure this win did that for her. It was very emotional. A lot of tears were shed including my own.”

Humble and modest, despite training Real Grace for two months leading up to the Derby, Cone refused to have his name put down as the official trainer.

“Shelley sent Real Grace to me in real good shape. She’s the one who deserves all the credit. If anybody deserves to win a race like this it’s Shelley,” Cone said of Brown, who was given three to six months to live in September of 2020 when she was first diagnosed with the cancer that had spread throughout her body.

“It was the right thing to do.”

It was also the right thing you would expect from Cone, a well-liked and respected trainer, who with another win on Century Mile’s opening day is moving ever closer to 1,000 career wins and $10 million in earnings.

Cone ran Real Grace at Century Mile twice before the Derby. He just missed in the Count Lathum and then was a good fourth running against older horses in the Arctic Laur.

But good enough to win the Derby?

“If you don’t think he belongs be honest with me,” Brown told Cone, who quickly assured her that he thought Real Grace could not just compete but he could win.

“There isn’t a lot of speed in the race,” Cone opined. “If he makes the lead I actually think he has a good chance; he’s been training great.”

Sure enough - at odds of 18-1 - Real Grace led every step of the way under then-apprentice jockey Mauricio Malvaez, who only got the first win of his career just three months previously.

Cone’s previous Derby victories were with Cozzy Grey in 1993; A Fleet’s Dancer in 1998 and Double Bear in 2017.

Those three all came at a gruelling distance of a mile and three-eighths.

Cozzy Grey surprised a lot of people given that he was eased in his previous start. But there was no stopping him in the Derby when the horse who usually came from far behind went wire-to-wire at odds of 12-1.

“We changed the bit on him,” said Cone. “Perry Winters, his jockey, said he really fighting the bit in his start before the Derby. We went to a straight-bar bit that had a ring that went under the jaw.

“That new bit was all it took.”

Cone said in this business - as in life - you have to continually be willing to make changes.

“Lou Cavalaris taught me that a long time ago,” he said of the Hall of Fame trainer, who was Canada’s leading trainer in the mid 1960s and 1970s.

“If things aren’t working make changes. Change their shoes. Change their equipment. Change their feed.

“Lou told me that the only constant thing in this world is change. You can’t change what happened. But you can change what might happen in the future.”

Owned by Edmonton’s Cam Allard, A Fleet’s Dancer, who went on to win 12 races and over $1 million, campaigning in Toronto where he was named Champion Older Male in 2001, was really special.

Then there was Double Bear, owned by Hal Veale.

That one also brought with it a great deal of controversy. Chief Know It All crossed the finish line first; Double Bear dead-heated for second with Trooper John. But after a long series of court cases and appeals, Chief Know it All was eventually disqualified for interfering with Double Bear.

“Double Bear might not have been the best horse in the race. Just like Cozzy Grey probably wasn’t the best horse in the 1993 Derby,” said Smith, who, herself, was a very successful trainer training stakes winners like Nanscar and Amicus Curiae.

“But they were the fittest. Just like Real Grace was (in 2020).”

Winning three - or, if you prefer, four - Derbies is just three - or again, if you prefer, four more examples of how Cone can get a horse to keep running when the past performance lines suggest otherwise.

Cone has also won six Marathon Series in Alberta.

The longest was the two-mile Joey Handicap in Calgary in 1982 which Cone won with Black Tie Still, a horse he had claimed off venerable trainer Freddie Jones the previous season.

Other Marathon victories came with Racaholic in 1983, Kissinthetheater, who won all three legs of the 2013 Marathon Series - a mile and a half, a mile and five-eighths and a mile and a quarter - Double Bear and the bay mare Mangotango for owners Ann Clark and Robert Clary last year going a mile and a quarter to beat the boys.

How does Cone do it? How does he get horses to keep wanting to run farther and farther?

“I put a lot of miles on my distance-running horses,” said Cone, 77. “I like a lot of long gallops to put lots of air in them.”

Double Bear was a classic example. Cone would gallop Double Bear two miles on a regular basis.

“Double Bear took a lot of training. He needed it and he liked it. He liked to roll. On the track he could be a cantankerous horse - tough to handle. It took a real strong rider to handle him. And he liked to eat. The more a horse works the more you have to feed them.”

Cone, however, said there is a fine line between keeping a horse fit and overdoing it. “You have to keep them happy. Sometimes you have to be a psychiatrist as much as a trainer.”

When Cone’s son-in-law Craig Smith listed some of the top horses Rod has trained at the Night of Champions it was like a litany of many of Alberta’s top thoroughbreds of all time.

In addition to the previously named horses, Cone also trained the likes of Notoriously, a multiple stakes winner going long, who won eight of his 23 starts while adding four seconds and three thirds for earnings of $241,915 for Darrell Landry from 2009 to 2012; Quiet Approach, a sprinter, who won seven times and was second or third 10 other times for Darrell’s father Peter at about the same time Notoriously was running and Go Eighty Eight, a hard-trying claimer who won a remarkable 30 times and also had 24 seconds and 13 thirds.

“Go Eighty Eight ran for a price his entire career - right up until he was 12-years-old,” said Cone of the horse who ran from 1989 to 1996 for Kathy, Leonard and Nick Kozak.

“One year he won six races - more than any claimer on the grounds. He also won more money than any other claimer. I thought he had a real good chance to be named Claimer of the Year but, somehow, he wasn’t even nominated.”

The list goes on and on.

There was also Bird of Pay, who Cone said was his favourite horse, Tempered Saphire; Northern Prospector; Latshaw and Switch N Win. “Bird of Pay was a real sweetheart,” recalled Cone of the filly owned by Allard and Durwood Ashcroft.

“In 1992 she was Alberta’s Two-Year-Old of the Year when she won four of her seven starts and finished second in the other three. She won the Yearling Sale Stake in Calgary, the Lotto 649 Classic in Edmonton and the Jack Diamond Futurity in Vancouver. It took me 26 times before we got her gate approved. She got so excited and wanted to run so much that she kept rearing up in the starting gate. After the 26th time, the starter, Windy Thurston, told me not to bring her back. He said he would just load her last.”

Northern Prospector won the Speed to Spare the same afternoon that A Fleets Dancer won the Derby in 1998. “I saddled A Fleets Dancer and then I saddled Northern Prospector. They won back to back. It was quite a day.”

Cone said Tempered Saphire, who won seven of 25 starts and $251,899, won every filly stake in western Canada.

He bought her for $1,000.

“I had given her good marks at the Yearling Sale. She was a good looking filly but they couldn’t get a bid. I finally convinced Garry, Lauri and Roland Kugler to take her.

“Sometimes you never know where the next good one is coming from. She won in Alberta. She won in Vancouver. She won in Winnipeg,” Cone said of Tempered Sapphire, who raced from 2011 to 2014.

Latshaw was a hard-luck colt.

“He was second in the Canadian Derby and second in the Alberta Derby in Calgary - both in photo finishes. Alan Cuthbertson beat us at the wire with Funboy in the Canadian Derby. Chris McGregor beat us by a head in the Alberta Derby.”

Allard and Al Pitchko owned Latshaw.

Then there was Switch N Win. “He won the Sun Sprint Championship a couple of times for Lloyd and Mary Wilson. He was a legitimate sprinter for sure. I’ve been lucky. I’ve had some nice horses.”

‘Lucky?’ Nope. Cone has won far too many races with far too many horses to ever be called ‘lucky.’

Cone loved horses all his life. When he was just four-years-old his dad, Jim, took him to Northlands Park.

“My dad let me pick out a horse and he bet $2 - half of which was mine. I picked out a grey horse. It won and paid $12 so I got $6. I thought I was the richest kid in town. After that I used to get my chores done early so I could go to the races with him on Saturdays.”

He was hooked early.

“My dad was around horses all his life. He worked on the railroad but he also rodeoed at a Dude Ranch in San Antonio Texas. He was really good with a rope and he would also stand on the back of a horse and jump through a hoop. He entertained the dudes. Jim’s dad was a blacksmith.”

That’s how Rod got started too.

“I started showing saddle horses at a riding stable just outside of Edmonton when I was 15. I couldn’t stand holding my horses while the blacksmith got mad at the horses so I thought I would learn how to do it myself. I went to Welch’s Saddlery and bought my own shoeing tools.”

Sixty-two years later Cone is still shoeing the odd horse.

“I don’t do much anymore but I occasionally help out. I’m quite willing to let the younger guys do it now.”

Cone soon found himself shoeing other people’s horses.

“I learned a lot from a lot of people including Red McKenzie. If there was a problem with a certain horse I’d go ask Red what he thought. He was a really good blacksmith and and all-around good horseman.”

So is Cone, who has campaigned at just about every racetrack in Canada and several in the U.S. Edmonton. Calgary. Fort Erie. Winnipeg. Toronto. Montreal. Finger Lakes. Cleveland, West Virginia. New Orleans. Tampa Bay. San Francisco.

Cone has seen them all.

“I kept trying out different tracks to get more experience. But I’ve always come back to Alberta.”

One of Cone’s first horses was Meanerthanajunkyarddog, who he bought off one of Alberta’s all-time top trainers, Ron Brock.

Brock had run the horse in sprint races and he wasn’t winning. Not surprisingly Cone turned him into a winner when he trained him to run a distance.

Go figure.

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