Sunday, 10 March 2024 23:17

Honoring Legends: Red McKenzie and Jennifer Buck Receive Prestigious Sovereign Awards

Robert ‘Red’ McKenzie and Jennifer Buck Robert ‘Red’ McKenzie and Jennifer Buck

Canada’s Sovereign Awards for thoroughbred racing - feting the best of the best - won’t be announced until April 18. But, two Albertans have already been honoured: In a unanimous decision by the Jockey Club of Canada’s Stewards Robert ‘Red’ McKenzie will be presented with the Special Sovereign Award and Jennifer Buck will accept the inaugural Outstanding Off-Track Worker Award.

Both are richly deserved and in McKenzie’s case long overdue.

The Special Sovereign Award recognizes a particular achievement within a given year. Given the criteria, McKenzie’s ‘particular achievement’ was a no-brainer. After all, at the age of 96 McKenzie became the oldest trainer in Canada - and second oldest at a recognized racetrack in North America - to win a race.

That happened last year on June 23 at Century Mile when he blew up the tote board when his Entitled Star won at odds of 25-1.

And that isn’t all. The Canadian record he broke was his own. In 2022, McKenzie also won with Entitled Star. This time at 47-1.

(For a full story on those races you can search Horse Racing Alberta’s website - the one you are reading this on now. The 2022 story ran on October 4; last year’s story appeared on June 28.)

“It’s an honour. A really nice honour,” said McKenzie this week while sipping on a glass of water and eating a cookie a friend bakes and brings him on weekends at Billy Budds’ restaurant and bar in Edmonton where he likes to watch simulcast racing and hockey.

“It means a lot to me,” said the man of few words who is back training again in the frigid temperatures doing almost all the work by himself.

With Equibase’s statistics only going back to 1976 - when McKenzie had already trained for 21 years - it is estimated that he has won over 1,600 races. He also won over 300 races as a jockey until he got too heavy.

McKenzie started training in 1945 campaigning outstanding horses like Chariot Chaser, who won the Canadian, Saskatchewan and Alberta Derbies in 1965, and his all-time favourite Grandin Park, who won 29 races between 1972 and 1980.

“Grandin Park won just about every big race there was. The only race he didn’t win was the Canadian Derby. That was in 1973. I can still picture it. He got beat by a dirty nose by Wing Span a horse they sent from Toronto, who was owned by Kinghaven Farms,” said McKenzie, whose mind is as sharp as ever.

Starting riding thoroughbreds when he was only 13, when he was 17 he was Alberta’s B circuit leading jockey with 87 wins.

“And that was when we used to have 25 jockeys.

“We had a lot of fun back then,” said McKenzie, who was named Alberta’s Horseperson of the Year in 2014.

“You know I’ve been at the track for almost 85 years,” who was a 1927 New Year’s baby.

“I’ve seen a lot and I still enjoy it so why would I ever quit? What else would I do?”

And then there is Jennifer Buck, winner of the aforementioned Outstanding Off-Track Worker Award which is given to a nominee holding a paid position at an off-track thoroughbred racing, training, boarding, breeding, sales or aftercare farm/facility in Canada.

Buck, who is in her 12th year with Highfield Stock Farm in Okotoks, Alberta, which has been Alberta’s leading breeder by earnings four times, fits all the criteria.

“She’s the be all and end all of the farm,” said Adrian Munro, President of Highfield Investment Group, an investment company that oversees and manages assets across various sectors including real estate, construction, property management, oil & gas services, hospitality, and thoroughbred breeding.

“Her title is Farm Manager but she runs everything. There is no one more deserving; I’m very proud of her,” Munro said of Buck, who oversees the day-to-day operations of Highfields which includes handling successful sire Fed Biz and organizing his book of mares, foaling, yearling sales prep, and early training of yearlings before they embark on their careers at the racetrack.

“Her greatest asset is her desire to continue to learn. She wants to learn as much as she can. Her thirst for knowledge has never subsided.

“She’s incredibly dedicated to being the best she can be.”

Buck will tell you the same. She lives by the saying attributed to Arthur B. ‘Bull’ Hancock Jr. who was a famous breeder and owner of thoroughbreds at Claiborne Farms, Kentucky: “Doing the unusual unusually well.”

“I always thought that was a great quote,” said Buck, who grew up on an acreage in Bragg Creek, Alberta where there were always a mix of horses and was only 13 years old when she bred her first mare.

“Doing the unusual unusually well sums up a lot of what we do. Even if it’s just basic stuff like sweeping the barn or cleaning a stall. We don’t cut corners; we do things right.

“When I got my first thoroughbred job as a barn hand working at Glenview Farms in Springbank, just west of Calgary, I was 19-years-old and the farm manager at the time, Brian Ferguson, had me paint the nail heads on fences.

“For Brian, who came from Windfields Farms with his wife Laurie, everything had to be perfect all the time every day. And, I guess, I’m the same way.

“I was taught how to sweep barns with a corn broom. It’s amazing what I learned. It was the school of hard knocks back then.”

Buck spent two years at Glenview and then got out of the thoroughbred business for several years. “I worked polo horses; I took performing arts; I was a fly fishing guide on the Bow River - which I still do on creeks and rivers in Southern Alberta - I raised my son, Hunter… I did a lot of different things.”

But the lure of thoroughbred racing brought Buck back and she spent four years working for Mike Vanin at Alberta’s extremely successful Bar None Ranches. Again, she learned more and more.

“I worked mostly with younger horses at Bar None. The first year I helped breed 101 babies and I held everyone of them.”

Then, in 2013, Munro called to see if he could convince Jennifer to work for him at Highfield. Buck agreed and has been there ever since.

At Highfield, Buck originally worked under Cal Britton. When he retired, Buck took over.

“We’re all in this industry because we have a passion for it,” said Buck, who was a 1988 Calgary Stampede Princess.

“There is blood, sweat and tears in every corner. This is our busy time foaling and breeding mares. I love it.

“To get this award is an honour. It’s very nice to be recognized.

“It sure was a surprise. I really had no idea. Hazel Bennett, a longtime friend and client nominated me,” she said of the former stock broker and longtime horsewoman who is a member of the Jockey Club of Canada, director of the HBPA, president of the Alberta Thoroughbred Aftercare Society and many, many other volunteer roles.

“She’s involved in a little bit of everything,” praised Buck of Bennett, who is a partner in Borders Racing Stables which even had a horse, Rondure, make it to last year’s King’s Plate.

“It’s nice that the award was given to someone in Alberta - and the first as well. It’s also very nice to be recognized.

“I’ve had a lot of help from breeders, trainers and owners. A lot of people have helped me along the way.

“They have all been generous and supportive. With people like that you can’t help but succeed.

“I look back to how I started and I’m just grateful to have had the mentoring I did - the right people showing me how to do right things right.

“There we go again with doing the unusual unusually well.

“I love everything about my job. Every step of the way is rewarding. It’s tough but very satisfying and it’s all so inclusive. All part of the process which is always changing.

“We’re happy when all the yearlings are prepped for the Yearlling Sales and then sold. Happy when we can send a mare home pregnant and really happy when one of our horses - or client’s horses - win a race.

“We want to breed and raise horses that are successful athletes and have long careers.

“I’ve had a lot of compliments but the biggest was Adrian Munro saying he was proud of me. That means more to me than even the Award.

This is a particularly exciting year for Buck and Highfield as the exciting stallion Fed Biz, a multiple Graded stakes winner and two-time track record holder at Del Mar, California will have his first Alberta-crop of two-year-olds running this year.

A son of Giant’s Causeway, Fed Biz is out Wild Again stakes winner Spunoutacontrol making him a half brother to A.P. Indy stakes winner and stakes producer Spun Silk.

Fed Biz was bought from Kentucky’s WinStar Farm, where, in 2019 he was the co-leading North American second-crop sire of 2019 by number of black-type winners with five.

“The first year we had him he sired 96 foals.

“It’s going to be a lot of fun.”

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