Trainer Don Schnell is coming off a career year in 2017 with $475,012 in purse earnings, but it was even better than that for the 64-year-old veteran horseman from Alberta, who has now compiled a record of 845-757-754 from 5,020 starts and purse earnings of $5,942,314.
Schnell just missed the elusive triple crown trainer title at Assiniboia Downs for the second year in a row in 2017. He also had the pleasure of training star filly Escape Clause to win eight of 11 starts including seven stakes and a runner-up finish in the Manitoba Derby.
Although he has been cleaning up in both the Manitoba-bred and open stakes at Assiniboia Downs for the past three years, the last time Schnell went on a serious roll with a horse as good as Escape Clause was when he saddled Majestic Horizon to win seven stakes including the Alberta Derby in 1990.
Majestic Horizon gave Schnell another good year in 1991 when he won three more stakes including the Speed to Spare at Northlands Park and helped him set a personal record of $425,682 in purse earnings that he wouldn’t best until last year.
In 2015, Schnell broke his old record for purse earnings, winning $453,667 and compiling a record of 39-35-40 from 200 starts at Assiniboia Downs and Turf Paradise. In 2017, he eclipsed that mark with the previously mentioned $475,012 and a record of 46-24-45 from 154 starts racing at Turf Paradise and Assiniboia Downs. Last year’s training accomplishments could be tough to beat, but if Schnell’s numbers keep improving, he could finally secure the elusive triple crown training title at Assiniboia Downs that includes most wins, highest purse earning and best percentage.
In 2015, Schnell finished fifth in the standings at the Downs by number of wins with 21, but led all trainers in purse earnings with $234,479 while winning at a 20 per cent clip. In 2016, he finished second in the standings with 34 wins and second in purse earnings with $239,285 while winning at a 31 per cent clip, good enough for a tie in the percentage ranks.
In 2017, he just missed the triple crown trainer title again at Assiniboia Downs, topping all trainers with $304,435 in purse earnings and winning at a 38 per cent clip, but just missing the win title, finishing second to Tom Gardipy Jr. for the second year in a row with 34 wins.
There’s one gap in Schnell’s 41-year training career, from 1998 to 2003, when he took a break to raise cattle, but since 2004 he’s only failed to crack the $100,000 mark once — in 2008. And since 2013, Schnell has been on a steady rise with purse earnings of $255,340 (2013), $314,627 (2014), $453,667 (2015), $390,190 (2016) and $474,012 (2017). Those numbers become more impressive when you consider Schnell is a partner on many of the horses he runs.
Like many top trainers throughout history, Schnell seems to be figuring it all out as he enters his fifth decade as a trainer. Not that he didn’t get it years ago when he was conditioning stakes winners such as Majestic Horizon, but after more than 40 years of winning races at tracks that include Santa Anita, Woodbine, Prairie Meadows, Canterbury, Arlington, Remington, Turf Paradise, Sunland Park, Zia Park Northlands Park, Stampede Park and Assiniboia Downs, among others, no one, including Schnell himself, will argue that experience plays a major part in the success of a horse trainer.
Schnell has found himself a garden spot at Assiniboia Downs, particularly with Manitoba-bred stars bred by top local owner-breeders such as Barry Arnason, Cam Ziprick, Charles Fouillard and True North, to name a few, and he’s found himself a great place to develop his young horses, which has become the most enjoyable part of the game for him now. He won a few training titles in Alberta many years ago, and he’s likely going to win the Assiniboia Downs win title one of these years, but that’s not what makes it worth getting up for anymore. It’s having fun developing the new arrivals in the barn every year. Teaching and watching, looking for that special thoroughbred heart that brought him Majestic Horizon, Sonoma Storm, Escape Clause, Aware, Langara and Cool Pacific among others.
Schnell has a reputation as a tough taskmaster, and he’s not afraid to get his hands dirty bathing and grooming horses, cleaning stalls and watching intently to make sure his horses do exactly what he wants them to do, especially the 2-year-olds that are going out in sets. As with all trainers of the modern era, help is always a challenge, but last year he had a solid crew led by Laura Garrett. He simply expects his help to live up to what his father once told him.
“Work hard and show up on time.”