Derek Corbel is always starting something. But, in this instance, that’s a very good thing for everyone involved in the racing scene at Assiniboia Downs.
The man who has held the position of Starter at the Winnipeg thoroughbred oval since 2000 – he was 25 — depends on a steady hand and watchful eye to ensure the beginning of any race goes smoothly.
“Well, you definitely have to be personable, a good communicator with staff and horsemen,” said Corbel. “You have to compromise and not be a dictator and hard headed. I’m a very calm person and I believe I have treated everyone fairly and have earned the respect over the years. I have a shipload of people at the track that I consider my friends and it’s made this industry and my life very gratifying.”
Corbel, who hails from Ste. Rose du Lac, a town dubbed the Cattle Capital of Manitoba, was destined for a life with horses.
“My father came here in 1984 to train thoroughbreds,” he said. “I was 10. I started helping out in the barn at 14 as a groom, then worked my way up to exercise rider at 18. I started working on the gate when I was 19. So, I’ve been here for about 26 years.
“He used to run all over Manitoba and a little in Alberta with Quarter Horses when I was young,” continued Corbel. “We used to come to Winnipeg and race when the Quarter Horse races were offered and he was pretty much the king. He won a lot of races here and decided to try thoroughbreds in 1984.”
The younger Corbel has also made trips to the winner’s circle.
“I rode amateur races back in 1994-95,” he said. “I had six starts, won two and finished second once. I had an amazing day in September of ‘95 when I rode the two amateur races we had at Assiniboia and won them both. One was special as it was for my father. It still brings a tear to my eyes. Winning those two races made me the No. 1 amateur rider in Canada, so I was sent to Aqueduct in December to compete in the world finals. It was embarrassing as my horse was so slow. There was a horse that was pulled up in the lane and they already had it untacked by the time I came by him.”
Corbel has still managed to make his mark at the racetrack.
He recently added the Assistant Director of Racing title to his impressive resume.
Hectic at times, yes. But, he’s not complaining.
“Race nights as the paddock judge and starter, I always have to be aware of minutes to post as I call horses to get ready and also to bring them over,” he said. “I’m also watching time to call riders out and to call test horses after the race. My phone is very busy. It has been tough this year to find help to work, as the foreign workers were not available to us this year. We have struggled, but have made it work with very few people to choose from. One of the most rewarding things is to have the two-year-olds behave at race time at the gate. We take our time with them in the morning schooling and it’s really nice to see them act professionally in the evening.”
There’s a possibility the Corbel name might be a fixture at Assiniboia for years to come.
“I’m the proud father of two kids, Ashley, 13, and Colton, 6. Ashley is just starting to get into the behind the scenes at the track and Colton, well, he’s going to be a chip off the old block. He’s already learning to read the program. He may not take the same route as his dad, though. He loves to announce his races on his board game and in the shower. Might be a press box future for him.”
And, if Corbel hadn’t become so deeply invested in horse racing, what would he be doing?
“If I didn’t have the opportunity in this industry, I’m 100 per cent sure I would have gone the culinary route. It makes me happy to cook for everyone and see the smile on their faces.”
Corbel doesn’t need to lament his decision. After all, he’s already found the recipe for success.