Be Inktricate

Prairie Compass

By Posted in - Photography & Writing / Editing on February 28th, 2013 0 Comments

Story & Photos by Kimberly Dawn
Published in Trot Magazine
September 2010

If there’s anything our sport needs, it’s a sound sense of direction. One year ago, I met two Saskatchewan men who are trying to find just that in a region fighting tooth and nail to keep local racing alive.

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He told me to be there early. As my wheels skidded to a halt on the pea gravel parking lot out front of Sherwood Animal Clinic, the clock in my rental car read just one minute past nine in the morning. Early is relative, I suppose.

I flipped down the mirror for a quick check, and fumbled around inside my purse while squinting through the windshield at what seemed to be the only building for miles. Pen? Check. Recorder? Check. Red Bull? Double check. (I was in our country’s most prairie of provinces for just a short while, and I had a lot to fit in. Sleep did not seem like the most valuable use of my resources.)

On that mid-summer morning just outside Regina, Saskatchewan, I stepped out of my car onto the gravel and headed towards the front door of the clinic. At 9:15 a.m on August 20, 2009, I had a date with 42-year-old Larry Hanson — veterinarian, standardbred breeder, owner, and business partner with the well-respected (now late) Doug Cressman.

There aren’t many people breeding harness horses successfully in Saskatchewan, and my sources told me he was the one to talk to if I expected to find out how it’s done. I had a few guesses, but I was hoping Larry would be able to offer me some real insight.

Four hours, 252 photos, and one pair of muddy Blundstones later, I’d managed to find most of what I’d come all this way looking for. And a tiger-tail milkshake to boot.

***

Before you can understand why breeding horses in Saskatchewan is more often a financial strain than a financial gain, you need to have a clearer picture of what’s happening out west. Or what’s not happening, in some cases.
Back in the 1980s, harness racing in the prairie province was hosted at Queensbury Downs in Regina. At that time, a single season often saw 95 individual cards, with as many as 400 horses stabled on the grounds over a given year. In the down time at Regina, a fair board to the north-east, Yorkton Exhibition, would offer a handful of standardbred race dates. Eventually, though, the fair dates were given over to thoroughbreds, and Yorkton ran exclusively flat horses for some time afterward.

In 2002, however — after losing race dates as a result of decreasing handle — racing in Regina was shut down. Horsemen, in a desperate situation, managed to scrounge a few dates at the fair track in Craven for 2003 and 2004, but races — and purses — were hard to come by. “That was a very pivotal time for harness racing here,” says Saskatchewan Standardbred Horse Association president Glenn LeDrew. “When Regina closed, we were very close to having no industry here at all.”

The drivers, trainers, and owners (a majority of horsemen here play all these roles simultaneously) prolonged what seemed to be the inevitable by hanging on to a few scant dates at Craven, but it was clear this was no permanent solution. As predicted, Craven soon announced they no longer wanted to be involved with horse racing, and the industry was left hanging once again.

Four hours, 252 photos, and one pair of muddy Blundstones later, I’d managed to find most of what I’d come all this way looking for. And a tiger-tail milkshake to boot.

Yorkton, in the meantime, was struggling to maintain their thoroughbred product. “They were getting fewer and fewer horses and fewer and fewer jockeys, and they were having some short fields,” recounts LeDrew. “They became open to trying standardbred racing again, which was a huge break for us. We really needed a racetrack that was committed to staging harness racing.”

At the same time Yorkton came back on board, the horsemen managed to pick up a few dates at Saskatoon as well, which is (and remains, to this day) primarily a thoroughbred track. Some decades ago, however, it too had hosted trotters and pacers. So with no lack of trials or tribulations, Saskatchewan racing was — tentatively — back on track.

“We quickly realized, though,” LeDrew grimaces, “that even in Yorkton, it was year by year. They’re an exhibition board, and exhibition boards… they change their president every year.”

And so it was, for some time — tenuous. Some left, of course, unwilling to bet their future on what seemed to be a losing battle. But there remained, perhaps against their better judgement, a passionate group of harness racing participants in the province who refused to shutter their barns.

***

“Times are changing in Saskatchewan,” grins Larry, peering over his shoulder at me as we speed through the Qu’Appelle Valley toward Craven in his red Ford pick-up. “The economy is as good as anywhere in the country. Probably better than most.”

His smile is infectious, and it’s clear why the talkative, greying veterinarian has established such a loyal clientelle. Articulate and personable, Larry was born and raised here, and like most locals, can’t imagine living anywhere else. “I have two brothers that moved away,” he says. “Both of them are in Ottawa — bureaucrats. I visit them every now and again and decide that I like it better here.”

As we pull into the driveway of the Cressman farm, just shy of an hour after leaving the clinic, I’m shocked to find that we’re surrounded by rolling hills — beautiful green peaks and valleys where morning fog is still lifting. It’s a sight unlike any I’d yet experienced in the notoriously level prairie province.

Our tires jerk to a stop in front of a small, modest barn, peppered with ivy and boasting tidy grounds — a sure sign that the farmhouse behind us plays home to not just Larry’s business partner, Doug, but Doug’s caring and tasteful wife as well. Both buildings are tucked into the valley, amongst a handful of paddocks populated by hefty bay mares and still wobbly foals.

“That’s the best colt I’ve raised,” points Larry out his window at a little brown foal leaning up against the gate.

“The one that looks awfully sleepy?” I laugh.

“Yup. He doesn’t look like it right now. But when he gets moving around… I have high hopes for Jeremes Jet I guess, since I’ve bred to him a couple of times now.”

He and Doug — who’s farm Larry has brought me to see — have been working together for some years now. Though passionate about the harness racing industry in the province, they recognize the uncomfortable situation horsemen are in, and their paychecks recognize it as well.

With no guarantee of stable race dates from year to year, the industry is, and remains, tiny — populated by only the most committed individuals. With so few numbers, purses are small, and little breeding takes place in the province, with one or two (if any) sires standing in Saskatchewan at any given time. This lack of sires means there’s little opportunity to launch a sire stake program as seen in Ontario, New York, New Jersey, and other more vibrant regions. The combination of minimal purses and no sire program result in rock-bottom sale prices, and for breeders, rock-bottom just doesn’t work.

Larry and Doug, however, found a way around this. These two began purchasing their broodmares elsewhere — from Ontario or the Eastern American seaboard — a few at a time. They apply for frozen semen from carefully selected American or Ontario sires and have it shipped to Regina, where Larry performs artificial insemination the day it arrives, right here in this barn. After raising the colts and fillies on pasture in these rolling hills, the pair then sells them as yearlings in Alberta or Ontario. The opportunity for them to manage their stock this way, in fact, was one reason they were so attracted to harness racing as a business venture.

“We wanted to have better standardbred horses,” says Larry. “I can go somewhere and buy the nicest mare that I can afford, and then I can artificially breed her from anywhere in North America if I so choose. I can’t do that with a thoroughbred. If I try the same thing — in this part of the country, anyway — with thoroughbreds, it just means I’ve got to spend a lot of time and expense on the road, travelling around to get them in foal, and the foaling them out.

“With thorougbreds cover must be live — so they’ve protected their breeding industry quite well by doing that, but what it does is limit what folks can do… especially in this part of the country!”

Paying careful attention to what opportunities are available, they can still reap the rewards of breeder programs in other regions when their yearlings cross the block. Despite their extraneous location, the foals they produce can bring higher prices elsewhere based on the jurisdictions in which they’re eligible to race.
Is it accurate, then, to call these two men Saskatchewan breeders? “We just wanted to breed better horses and see if we could sell them at reasonable prices to make a profit on a hobby,” shrugs Larry. And they seem to be making ends meet. But with just a handful of people (a couple hundred, at best) participating in a region petitioning for growth and development, what impact are Larry and Doug really having on the ‘big picture’ of harness racing in this prairie province?

Their mares and foals live and breath and sleep and eat here; they mow down on Saskatchewan-grown grain and grass and hay, have their hooves trimmed by local blacksmiths, and are cared for by local farm help. Overall, these 19 (and some odd) horses represent, every year, a significant contribution to local agriculture by consuming resources and providing work. They bring in real dollars for Larry and Doug, which are reinvested in the local economy.

They just don’t, ironically, ever see a racetrack in the province. Their bloodlines have no Saskatchewan roots, and no Saskatchewan horsemen will ever hold their lines. No Saskatchewan sires were involved in the making of these foals.

Larry suggests, though, that it’s the only way for the costs and credits of his hobby to remain in balance.
“So I have a mare called Twin B Magical, for example,” he offers in explanation. “She’s out of a full sister to Classic Wish. Classic Wish produced No Pan Intended and Bettors Delight. This mare’s mom produced Twin B Champ and all sorts of good horses. So it’s a nice family. That family itself, between two generations, has, oh, a few million dollars on their cards. How do I breed that mare to a horse here in Regina or Saskatchewan where we race for, at the most, $10,000 and then try and market that horse somewhere else in Canada?

“If you’re trying to raise better quality horses, you spend lots more money on that than $10,000. And if that’s all you’re able to get back, and you can’t make it worthwhile, then you start buying cheaper mares to breed to horses here. You end up with poor quality stock in the long run. Then what do you do?”

***

“So that’s a digital recorder?” asks LeDrew, pointing at the silver Olympus between us.

“It never runs out of memory — it just keeps recording forever?”

I nod, grinning — shushing my desire to point out that forever, obviously, is a hilarious exaggeration.

It soon becomes apparent, though, that it’s a good thing I brought the digital one. LeDrew, having agreed to meet me here in a local steakhouse after leaving his job as a retirement plan advisor, has a lot to say. You can’t blame him. He’s the president of the provincial horsemen’s association. And he’s got a lot on the go.
With Yorkton and Saskatoon back on board, he and the other local horsemen have been fighting passionately to revitalize harness racing in those communities, with evident success. Attendance has increased. Handle has increased. And general interest and participation is on its way up too.

But despite all their hard work, there still seemed to be a glitch in the plan that had yet to be smoothed over — the glitch whereby short-term comittments with exhibition tracks made owners and breeders leery of buying in for the long haul. If the industry was going to grow, something significant had to change, no doubt.

“In 2007, I was the vice-president of the SSHA and the president was resigning,” LeDrew explains, leaning over the table to gesture with his hands. “I had a very strong feeling that I was going to end up president when it came time to have the annual meeting. But I was a bit worried about that. ‘I have a pretty good idea about harness racing,’ I said to my wife. ‘I’ve been around it all my life. But how do I know what the membership wants and what’s important to them?’”

Like all intelligent wives, she gave him a blunt suggestion he couldn’t possibly misread.

“Ask them,” she offered with a shrug.

Clever words in mind, LeDrew attended the annual meeting and was inevitably named president. He immediately opened the floor for a group discussion. “What’s important to you?” he asked his members. “What do you want us to do? What do you want us focus on?”

They just don’t, ironically, ever see a racetrack in the province. Their bloodlines have no Saskatchewan roots, and no Saskatchewan horsemen will ever hold their lines. No Saskatchewan sires were involved in the making of these foals.

“We had just come through these two years where we were struggling for a place to race,” he tells me. “It was year by year. It’s so hard to build the industry because it’s hard for people to buy horses and know that they’re going to have racing the following year. One horseman stood up and said: ‘let’s make sure there is always a place to race in Saskatchewan.’ That was great. That opened up my eyes.”

Born from that was that the realization that these horsemen needed a permanent place to race. At the time, Yorkton could only give them a one year commitment. But something had to be done. So in 2008, LeDrew and a handful of interested horsemen formed an ownership group and took off running with the concept of building a new track and training centre — now dubbed West Meadows — in Regina.

“West Meadows Raceway is the answer to all of that,” offers LeDrew. “It’s not run by an exhibition. It’s run by people for whom the main goal is to always have racing. Here, you’re never going to be in a situation where you’re giving up race days, because that’s the whole goal.”

But the ambitious idea of building a new facility met plenty of resistance — mostly from those who feared the limited amount of support and funding and race dates already allotted to Saskatchewan would be further diluted and do nothing but diminish the successes horseman had managed to achieve in the last few years.

“I don’t know that they’re at a level yet, even at Yorkton, where they can actually say that they’re sustaining themselves,” Larry had told me earlier that afternoon at the farm. “They’re only racing one day a week there. They couldn’t live off the handle they’re making there. They need to make that vital and make it go before they expand into something else. If I have a business that won’t stand by itself, why would I expand something else?”

LeDrew knows he faces this sort of criticism, and he can see that side of the argument too. But he’s still adamant that West Meadows is the answer.

“You can’t control what people say and think. I can tell you here, heart to heart, that I hope we will always have racing in Yorkton. But my focus as the president of the SSHA is not just to focus on racing at Yorkton. Or in Saskatoon. Or at West Meadows. It’s to grow the industry. And we can’t grow the industry if we continue to be solely dependent on two exhibition boards.”

***

Partway back to the clinic, Larry hangs a sharp left into a small parking lot beside the highway. “Best
milkshakes in Western Canada,” he grins, hopping out his driver’s side door.

“Really?” I ask, incredulous. The box stall-sized shack teetering in front of us looks interesting, yes. Promising? No.

“Well,” he shrugs, eyes twinkling. “I don’t know if they’re the best. But they’re the only ones right here.”
It’s been a long day, and I’m running mostly on Red Bull, some two hours behind my native Toronto schedule. I double over laughing. The only ones here. Isn’t that just the truth.

***

Postscript
Writing this story almost exactly a year after I visited Western Canada was difficult, to say the least. Plenty has happened in the time since I visited and yet much has stayed the same.

While a great deal of progress has been made on the West Meadows facility, it was not granted race dates in 2010 as its supporters had hoped; it will, however, continue to apply in the future. The 24 race days in Saskatchewan this year took place at Yorkton (16) and Saskatoon (8) between May and October, thusfar with great success. At the end of this season, Yorkton will have reached the end of its current three-year agreement with the horsemen, who are working to sign another contract before the beginning of 2011.

Sadly, Larry’s business partner Doug Cressman — also a highly respected Standardbred Canada Director and past Chair of SC’s Strategic Planning Committee — passed away on September 24, 2009 at the age of 63 in Calgary, Alberta. Doug fought a courageous and valiant battle with cancer during the last 15 years of his life, beating it successfully for a long time, before it returned in his last years.

Doug and his wife Barbara, along with Larry, often used the prefix Prairie in naming their foals and frequently topped the ASHA Sale results with their yearlings. They successfully bred and raised such horses as Prairie Steel p,1.52.3, $292,022 and Prairie Storm p,1.54.3 $164,375.

Since the passing of her husband, Barbara has remained committed to continuing his passion in breeding and raising standardbreds. The seven foals I met while visiting their farm were sold as yearlings this August in Alberta, and three more foals arrived this past spring.

***

[This piece was named best magazine feature by American Horse Publications in 2011, the same year that Trot became the first Canadian title to grab top honours as North America’s Best Equine Publication. Read more about the accolades and the rest of Trot’s success in San Diego here.]

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