Wednesday, 08 May 2024 23:42

Trading Horses for Cows: A Trainer's Unconventional Path to Success

American Blaze winning the Count Latham on July 22, 2023 American Blaze winning the Count Latham on July 22, 2023 Coady Photo/Ryan Haynes

Tom Rycroft sipped on a nonalcoholic beer at Century Mile reminiscing.

“I got my first racehorse when I was 23,” said the trainer of last year’s Horse of the Year, American Blaze.

“Traded him to Rex Ireland for one of my cows.”

Long pause.

“You what?”

“Traded him for one of my cows,” Rycroft, 84, repeated gruffly.

“His name was Junior Todd.

“He was in the horrible fire at Northlands in 1960. Twenty five horses died. Junior Todd was one of the lucky ones. He got out. But Rex Ireland didn’t. He died in that fire,” Rycroft said of the owner and trainer.

Rycroft said Junior Todd turned out great.

“They couldn’t beat him in the bushes,” he said of the ‘B’ Circuit meets in Alberta, B.C. Manitoba, and Saskatchewan.

“I took him to Dawson Creek,” he said of the small city in northeastern B.C.

“He won his first start there. Paid $27 to win. “Happy (former successful jockey Ron Burrell) rode him bareback.”

Another long pause.

“Bareback?”

“Yup. No saddle.”

Rycroft bet him. He also bet $2 with everyone he could find that Junior Todd would beat their horse. “When they heard that he was going to run bareback they lined up to bet me.

“He won that race, and he won six more.

“I took him to Prince George, B.C. too. He was the best horse up there too.

“I was farming then around Teepee Creek,” he said of the small hamlet in the county of Grande Prairie. “Mostly grew hay as feed for the cattle. I had about 100 cows on a half section of land that I bought for just $4,500 in 1964. The next year I bought another quarter section for $2,700. A few years later I bought a little more land.”

Rycroft, who sold his farm that totaled seven quarters in 2017.

“I grew up with horses.

“My dad Eric – they called him Shorty – always had horses. He was one of the first to homestead in the county of Grande Prairie.

“We rode horses to school. There were nine of us kids and we had to get to school somehow. They never snowplowed the roads in the winter.

“My dad drove a team of horses 32 miles round trip twice a week hauling mail. The government paid him $27 a month for doing that. In those days – it’s hard to believe – that was quite a bit of money.

“You couldn’t find a dollar back then. I found a 10-cent piece one day and I bought a five-cent Orange Pop and an O’Henry chocolate bar. I thought I was rich.

“There was just no money. Nobody had any money. Sugar was rationed. We had to get coupons to get food. But we never went hungry. My mother grew a big garden and we always ate well.

“While we were farming, I always trained a few thoroughbreds to make a few extra bucks.”

Tom never stopped training. Over the long years he has saddled 460 winners for earnings of over $3 million including newcomer and first-time starter Cape Comander who won on Century Mile’s opening day card.

It’s also always been a family affair.

Tom’s son Tim, who has been Alberta’s leading trainer five times, has won 793 races for purses over $3 million.

Another of Tom’s sons, Riley, is a jockey’s agent and will be the starter in Grande Prairie this summer.

A third son, Clint, was a jockey. “He was king of the quarter horses in the bushes,” said Tim. “But he got too heavy.”

“Horse racing just gets in your blood,” said Tom. “Once you start in this business you never want to leave.

“But the game has sure changed.

“I had a horse named Crows Mile, who I got off of Red McKenzie, who won the feature race at Lethbridge in 1973 setting a track record for seven furlongs; I got $370 for the win. Cape Comander, who I bought in Toronto last fall, won $15,000 on Saturday.

“There was a lot less money but it seems to me that we had more fun back then.”

As well as farming and training thoroughbreds, Tom also worked in the oil patch doing everything from being a roughneck - whose job includes anything involved with connecting pipe down the well bore – to being a driller, who oversees the well drilling process.

“I started in the oil patch when I was 19. I did that until I retired when I was 55,” said Tom.

“It’s been a go around. We made a living. We survived.”

Tom said that Born in a Breeze, who won the first race ever at Century Mile on April 28, 2019 - former Horse of the Year Trooper John was second – was probably the best horse he ever trained.

In 40 races Born in a Breeze was first, second, or third 25 times and won $332,401.

“He was a real nice horse.”

So is American Blaze. But last year’s Horse of the Year is in Kentucky for owners Terry Hamilton and Murray House these days. Hamilton wants to run him in a stake race and see what kind of a horse he really is.

American Blaze won the Count Lathum, a pair of allowances races and was runner-up in the Western Canada Handicap. But his best race was probably the Canadian Derby where he was a strong second despite ducking out twice. But then he showed little in his next race in Toronto in October and hasn’t seen the starting gate since.

“I hope he comes back to Alberta,” said Rycroft, who currently trains a stable of 12. “He’s a nice horse to have in the barn. I’ve got a stall open for him.”

Rycroft said when American Blaze first came to Alberta, he was tough to gallop.

“Jill Clubi, who I think is the best gallop girl in Alberta, was on him in the mornings. Once she got used to him and let him find his own gait, he was alright.

“He was a horse that you couldn’t fight. You had to let him go as fast as we wanted to go.” But Jill isn’t here these days. “She had a baby boy in January,” said Rycroft. “She was with me for five years.”

As well as Cape Comander, Rycroft has two other horses he purchased last fall in Ontario. One of them, Silent Runner, who won two stakes races in Ontario, runs on Friday night at Century Mile.

“We’ll find out whether those two can win. I hope they can. Otherwise, it’ll be a long time getting out of debt.”

STOCK REPORT – Allen Goodsell, Century Mile’s Racing Manager, wanted to plug his friend Jason Palmer’s new book The Finish Line.

“Jason has run several good quarter horses at Century Mile,” said Goodsell. “The book I understand is really good.”

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