Not all the horses in the barn are readying themselves for a race. Bakardi Gold (centre) will race on Friday, Oct. 20. (Grace Kennedy photo)

Cloverdale’s Fraser Downs still racing strong

As the new season starts, horses and drivers prepare for harness racing glory

The heavy scent of horse drifts through the barn at the back of Fraser Downs racetrack. Birds fly among the rafters, hiding from pearl-grey clouds that threaten rain and twittering at the horses below.

Krystal Pistol, a small Standardbred, barely 15-hands, munches peacefully on hay in her stall. John Chappell stands by her.

“Sometimes it’s not how tall they are,” Chappell said, looking at the horse he trained and would be driving in a race that night.

“It’s the heart and the lungs; the power they have. The desire. That’s what it takes.”

Chappell is a generational horseman — like his father before him and his son after him, Chappell owns, trains and drives Standardbred horses. He has 15 horses that he races at Fraser Downs. On Thursday, Oct. 19, it would just beKrystal Pistol.

She would be competing in a claiming race for a $4,200 purse. At five or six years old — Chappell can’t remember exactly — she is too old for the big events happening that night: the qualifying races for the 2017 Breeders Stakes.

The Breeders Stakes is the biggest event of the year for Standardbred racing community in B.C.

“That’s where you get your champions,” Dianne Pennington, the breeders and events manager at Harness Racing B.C., said.

On Nov. 11, the best two- and three-year-old B.C. bred horses will compete for $100,000 in prize money. On Thursdays and Fridays in October, the young horses competed to qualify for the final race.

Yoga Pants, a nearly undefeated three-year-old filly, would be racing in one of the qualifiers that night.

“Number seven in your program, number one in your hearts,” quipped Jim Marino, a Cloverdale-raised owner, trainer and driver. He would be driving Yoga Pants in the stakes race for a $15,000 purse, as well as seven other horses in different races that night.

Marino is currently the leading trainer and the second leading driver at Fraser Downs, with a 26 per cent of horses he trained and 23 per cent of horses he drove coming in first.

Winning race horses have a routine — breakfast, exercise, brushing, rest, warm-up, race — and Marino has one too.

“I like to have a nap,” Marino said. “I’ll have lunch, go home, have a nap. Then I’ll come back. Then I’m prepared.”

When Marino walked out the barn, perhaps heading home to his pre-race nap, the clouded skies released sprinkles of rain. Six hours later, it was pouring.

The lights around the track cast a harsh glow on the puddled surface, and illuminated the newly painted and repaired fence around the perimeter. Drivers warmed up their horses on the sloppy track, limestone splashing across their faces. Horse-racing fans made their way through the brightly lit casino floor to the Homestretch restaurant.

Normally, Harness Racing B.C. executive director Carla Robin said, the Homestretch would be packed on a race night. But that Thursday, 15 minutes before the first race, there were about 30 people watching. On Tuesday, Oct. 17, there were 140 people. The Thursday before, there were 40.

Normally, racing occurs on Fridays and Sundays, which Robin says are heavily attended events. The Great Canadian Gaming Corporation, which operates the racetrack, changed the schedule for October, allowing races to be run on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays for one month. The motnh’s four extra race days are meant to make up for nine cancelled days due to winter weather last season.

But the change in schedule means fewer people know when the horses are racing, and some horsemen think Great Canadian isn’t doing enough to advertise.

“There’s no horse racing sign on there whatsoever,” horseman Allan Molloy said about Elements Casino, which fronts the race track. “There’s pictures of people having fun at a casino … and there isn’t one with a horse.”

Earlier that night, Molloy had set up a sandwich board on the boulevard at the casino entrance. The plain white sign simply read: Live horse racing, 6 p.m.

At 6 p.m., the first race began. In a container-turned-office on top of the casino roof, Dan Jukich called the race, binoculars in hand. He’s been calling races at Fraser Downs since 1978, and is known unofficially as the voice of harness racing in B.C.

Jukich has a deep understanding of the horses in each race. He knows which horses are “full of beans” and ready to go, and which horses didn’t perform as well as they could last time they raced.

On days like Thursday night, when dribbling rain turned to torrential downpour, he can pick out which horses don’t want to be racing on the sloppy track. The splash back created from pounding hooves can bother some horses, although Thoroughbreds tend to be more picky about wet tracks than Fraser Downs’ Standardbreds.

“You have to remember, horses are pack animals. Most of them will travel in a pack and they’re happy to do that. There are a lot that want to be very competitive, and —” he interrupted himself, switching on the microphone as the starting car began to move and the horses pushed forward for the second race.

Marino, driving two-year-old Dragon Slayer, won that race, bringing in a $15,000 purse. Later that night, he would race three other horses to victory, including Yoga Pants, who won her race by nearly a second.

Chappell also won his race, taking the lead by a hair.

“There’s times it looks like it’s a lot of fun and you make a lot of money, but it’s a hard business,” Chappell said before the race, back in the barn where Krystal Pistol was chewing her hay. “The horses have to perform. They have owners and they pay bills.”

But, “it’s exciting,” he continued. “You go out and we race. You do well and you get your picture taken.

“You get to feel like a rock star for a while.”

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