Ardell Sayler did it his way until the very end. The twelve-time leading Assiniboia Downs trainer was rushed from the Winnipeg track to the hospital on Sunday, May 26, 2019, but it was too late. The big man from Rapid City, SD had died from apparent heart failure at the age of 66.
Ardell’s wife of 48 ½-years, Janet, was at the hospital, and gently removed the wedding ring from her husband’s finger. She placed it on a necklace he’d designed especially for her decades earlier. “I wanted him to always be close to my heart,” she said, unable to hold back the tears. “He was my whole life.”
The night before he died, Ardell had won his first two races of the 2019 season, and the last winner of his life had left him in a reflective mood. “He was singing our wedding vows to me,” said Janet. “He told me that I was not only his wife, but that I was his best friend, and always had been.”
It was almost as if he knew.
Ardell and Janet originally met as teenagers in a scuffle with a couple of horses at Park Jefferson racetrack in South Dakota. “I was walking a horse and he was ponying a horse and my horse stepped on my foot and reared up and spooked his pony,” said Janet. “He wasn’t too happy with me, but we somehow ended up going out on a date. We got married that same year, on October 4, 1970.”
Ardell told Janet he wouldn’t train horses once they were married and he kept his promise in the early years, but Janet could see he longed for the horses and decided to do something about it.
“I went to the bank, borrowed the money, and bought him a horse,” she said. “It was 1978 and I gave it to him as a Valentine’s Day present. Her name was Fast Fractions. She won and he traded her for two more South Dakota-bred geldings.”
Janet had no idea at the time that her gift would turn into a prolific horse racing career that matched up in its own unique way with a few other elite horsemen who got their starts in South Dakota, including Hall of Famers Bill Mott, Steve Asmussen and D. Wayne Lucas.
Ardell compiled a lifetime record of 1,321 wins, 1,158 seconds and 1,084 thirds from 7,549 starts for purse earnings $8,426,453. He won with 17 per cent of his starters and his horses finished in the top three an amazing 47 per cent of the time on a journey that made him numerous friends at racetracks that included Lincoln Race Course, Ak-Sar-Ben, Atokad, Fonner Park, Horsemen’s Park, Metra Park, Great Falls, Columbus, Prairie Meadows, Fort Pierre, Browns County Fair Grounds, Fargo, Turf Paradise, Energy Downs, Arapahoe and Assiniboia Downs.
“He could have trained anywhere, with anyone, and won races,” said son Aaron, himself a former horse trainer. “He was always my hero and always will be.”
Born in Ellendale, ND on June 16, 1952, Ardell eventually decided to put down roots in Rapid City, SD, and later in Winnipeg. He wanted a stable environment for his children to grow up in. He didn’t want to move from racetrack to racetrack on a circuit. The summer-long meet at Assiniboia Downs fit perfectly and in 1990, it became his home away from home. He brought 40 or more horses to Assiniboia Downs almost every year for three decades and steamrolled his way to 12 titles. Some said it was because he had more horses than others, but five-time leading Assiniboia Downs trainer Tom Gardipy Jr. said that wasn’t the case.
“It’s extremely difficult to do,” said Gardipy, who sent his whole crew over to help head lad Mark McDaniel and the boys in the Sayler barn the day after Ardell died. “I had enough horses to win 60 races last year and look what happened. A lot of guys try their whole life to win a title and never get there. You have to respect someone who did it 12 times. That record will never be broken.”
“The accomplishment of 12 leading trainer titles will never be surpassed, let alone equalled,” said Assiniboia Downs CEO Darren Dunn. “That is a milestone for the ages in the history of thoroughbred racing in Manitoba. Ardell’s passing leaves a huge hole in our racing community that will be very difficult to fill. He will certainly never be forgotten. Our sincerest condolences to his family.”
Ardell led the standings at the Downs in 1994, 1997, 2000-2002, 2004-2006, 2008, 2011, 2013 and 2014. The only trainer even remotely close to him with regards to trainer titles at the Downs is Clayton Gray, with seven, and he retired long ago.
Ardell was also second in the all-time win column at Assiniboia Downs, with 1,190 of his 1,321 victories coming at the Downs, placing him 27 wins behind trainer Gary Danelson. And he ranked third for most wins in a season at Assiniboia Downs with 71 victories during the 60-day meeting of 2014, behind only Tom Dodds, who had 78 wins in the 117-day 1990 season, and Walter Adams, who had 73 wins in the 107-day season of 1984. Ardell also co-holds the record, along with Gilbert Ducharme, for most wins on a card by a trainer at the Downs with five, which he accomplished by winning with five of his seven starters on May 10, 2014.
Ardell had an exceptional eye for young horses, and the imagination required to train a good one. He also had an excellent knowledge of thoroughbred pedigrees. Every year he would go bargain hunting at the yearling sales in Kentucky and he rarely failed to find a stakes winner. The best 2-year-old trainer at Assiniboia Downs over the past 30 years, he developed numerous champions and stakes winners locally, but two horses stood out: Hey Hey Renee and Balooga Bull.
Hey Hey Renee, a filly, was purchased by Ardell for $3,200 at a Kentucky yearling sale and won six of nine starts including the Winnipeg Futurity, Chantilly Stakes, Jack Hardy Stakes and Assiniboia Oaks before being sold for $280,000. She also had a stakes race named after her at the Downs.
Balooga Bull was purchased for only $2,000 by Ardell, also at a Kentucky yearling sale, and won his first six lifetime starts including the Graduation Stakes, Osiris, Winnipeg Futurity and Golden Boy before winning the Manitoba Lotteries Derby in 2012. He won the Gold Cup for older horses that same year and repeated the feat in 2013 and 2014, becoming the first horse in history to win the most prestigious race for older horses at Assiniboia Downs not just three times, but also in three consecutive years. Balooga Bull was retired in 2016 with a record of 16-3-1 and earnings of $334,076.
“Any stakes are hard to win,” said three-time leading trainer Gary Danelson, who won the Victoria Day Stakes three years in row with Electric Fever (1984, 85, 86). “To win a stakes race three years in row with a horse, that’s impressive, that’s something special.”
Ardell started out numerous jockeys during his career, the most notable being Travis Dunkelberger, who went on to win 3,932 races and over $60 million in purses. He also helped many down-on-their-luck jockeys restart their careers. “He had a heart of gold,” said daughter Nicole. “He’d do anything for anybody.”
I met Ardell in 1990, during my first year of writing for the Daily Racing Form. We did many stories together over the years, but this season was different. A few weeks before he died, he saw me coming towards his barn and I watched him take off his right glove. It was a gesture to get over there and shake his hand. We talked about his health, and about when he was going to start taking it a little easier.
“Never,” said Ardell. “I’ll be right here (in the barn) until the end. What else am I going to do? This is all I know. Come on, let’s go watch this horse.”
We drove up to watch Balooga Bull, who he had brought out of retirement this year. “We’re going to do a good story this year,” he said excitedly. “Two old warriors make comebacks.”
We never got to finish our story.
Ardell did that on his own, in poignant fashion, with a horse owned by his daughter Nicole and her husband Dave Yuhas, in the seventh race at Assiniboia Downs, on Saturday, May 25, 2019, with the final winner of his life.