Once upon a time there were three horses and three owners. Two of the partners wanted to disperse the stable; the other owner, George Gilbert, was having too much fun.
“Two years ago we each took one horse,” said Gilbert. “They were all out of the mare Otero, who we wound up selling at Keeneland, Kentucky for just $4,000.
“One of the horses was a 2-year-old; one was a 3-year-old and the third was a small yearling.
“The other two partners didn’t want the yearling so I took her. The other two horses were getting ready to start. The yearling, of course, was still at least a year away from racing.”
As luck — both good and bad — would have it, the 2-year-old and the 3-year-old never amounted to very much. But the tiny yearling who wasn’t much to look at… Oh boy; can she ever run.
Named Summerland, the now 3-year-old filly has won eight of her nine career starts with her latest victory — another powerful and convincing wire-to-wire performance — coming July 1 at Vancouver’s Hastings Park in the $50,000 Supernaturel.
“It’s unbelievable how it all turned out,” said Gilbert, 76, who has owned so many horses that he said he couldn’t begin to count them all.
“I’ve had a lot of good horses and some really good fillies, but nothing like this.
“I’ve never had a horse who can do what Summerland has done. She’s superlative. I don’t know how to describe her anymore.
“Her latest win was amazing. She took the lead and turning for home I thought, ‘Oh, no, here they come. But she just ran away from them.
“And the way I got her… I keep shaking my head in awe. She’s a bit of a freak; she just runs.”
“George got lucky,” said Summerland’s trainer Phil Hall, who now trains all 12 of Gilbert’s horses.
“He got the one that could run.”
Summerland was special right from the beginning.
“The biggest problem we had when she was training as a 2-year-old was getting her to slow down.
“She always wanted to go fast. Brad and Sarah had to teach her to relax,” Gilbert said of his exercise riders, Brad Cuthbertson — son of the late, great Alan Cuthbertson, who rode until he was 61 — and Sarah Hall, Phil’s daughter.
“The first time we breezed her she went a quarter in 23 seconds under wraps. I knew right there that she could run. Brad knew she could go, but you never know until they actually run,” said Hall, whose dad Robert (Bobby), trained the great George Royal, who, in 1964, won nine consecutive stakes races at Hastings — then called Exhibition Park — and who would go on to win the mile and three-quarter San Juan Capistrano at Santa Anita and then the Canadian International at Woodbine the following year becoming the first B.C.-bred horse to win Canadian Horse of the Year honours.
“We always liked (Summerland) but we didn’t know she was that good.”
“Absolutely not,” Gilbert said without pausing.
“I thought she might be good for Hastings.
“Even though she was tiny — she’s still small; only stands about 15.2 hands high — she did have a really long stride.”
“She’s certainly not a big robust horse,” added Hall. “She’s just a little filly that runs fast. She’s a lot of fun to have around.”
Gilbert’s son Kelly, who works with his dad at the family’s E-Z-Rect Manufacturing Ltd. which is located right across the street from Hastings and also doubles as Gilbert’s racing consultant, also liked Summerland from the outset.
“Kelly liked the breeding,” said George. “She’s by He’s Tops, who is a son of Triple Crown winner Seattle Slew.
“One of the horses He’s Tops sired was Wind Storm, who I raced from 2007 to 2011. She won a dozen races, $270,000 and a couple of stakes and was a champion in B.C.
“And the mare, Otero, was a decent racehorse. She won a stakes race.”
Since Summerland started running there has been no stopping her.
Making her debut last year on May 27, Summerland won by 9 1/4 lengths setting a track record for three and a half furlongs running in 38.85 seconds.
Surprisingly, despite quite a bit of backstretch hype — “We told quite a few people she could run,” said Hall — she went off at 16-1.
But Hall had a ready explanation.
“All the tote machines went down shortly after betting opened. In the end, nobody could gamble on the first five races. So it was all early money. Fortunately, Brad was able to bet $10 to win on her. He told me several times that she was our hidden secret,” said Gilbert.
In her next appearance on July 15, 2018, Summerland romped again — this time winning the Spaghetti Mouse Stakes by seven and a quarter lengths.
This time, the tote machines were working; Summerland went off at 15 cents on the dollar.
Following those two walk-in-the-park home runs, Hall decided to “take a shot” entering her in the Grade 2 $200,000 Sorrento Stakes at Del Mar on Aug. 5.
Hooking into multiple Grade 1 winner Bellafina, Summerland finished seventh.
Aside from the stiff competition — “As well as Bellafina there were some other very nice horses in that race,” said Hall — the veteran trainer thinks there was another reason Summerland didn’t show what she had in BC.
“I don’t think she liked the track.
“It’s a lot deeper than she was used to running on and she only had one little work over it.”
Hall ran Summerland three more times last year. She won them all taking an allowance race at Hastings by 10 lengths and widening her lead with every step down the stretch against open company; the Fantasy stakes and then shipping to Century Downs in Balzac (just north of Calgary) and winning the Freedom of the City by three lengths prevailing in a duel between horses.
“Summerland won at four different distances last year,” said Hall. “She set a track record. She beat the boys. She did a lot of stuff; I was very proud of what she did. But I was surprised that she didn’t get a nomination for a Sovereign Award for two-year-old filly of the year.”
This year, back at Hastings, Summerland is three-for-three.
In addition to the Supernatural, where she carried 125 pounds and won by 5 3/4 lengths with jockey Enrique Gonzalez taking a hold of her at the sixteenths pole, Summerland also took the Ross McLeod stakes wire-to-wire by a length and a half on May 4 and the June 1 Emerald Downs Handicap by six lengths.
It’s funny — and strange — how things so often turn out in life.
Nearly 50 years ago, George Gilbert got his first thoroughbred racehorse. It came as a wedding present from Phil’s dad Bobby.
“Fifty per cent to me and 50 per cent to my dad, Charlie,” recalled George.
“My dad and Charlie were both good friends; they were both from Ireland,” said Phll.
“Dad trained a couple of horses for Charlie. But until George gave me his entire stable two years ago I had only trained one horse for George and that was a long time ago. Back when I first started training horses.
Previously with trainer Dave Forster for more than 25 years, Gilbert made the switch to Phil two years ago. The partnership has been gold.
Since getting Gilbert’s horses Phil has been Hastings’ leading trainer two years running and he is the leading trainer again this year.
Of course it isn’t solely because of Gilbert that Hall is having another banner year; Hall also trains for Peter Redekop, a perennial leading thoroughbred owner in Vancouver who is in the B.C. Horse Racing Hall of Fame.
And Hall, 50, who has been training horses since he was 19, has always been a very capable conditioner.
He has trained 325 winners and has purse earnings of $4.5 million to his credit.
“I’ve always done okay, but having George and Peter has definitely helped me out,” said Hall. “The more horses you have the better chance of winning you have and they’ve both got some very nice horses.”
In addition to Summerland, Hall also sent out another stakes winner for Gilbert on the Canada Day long weekend with Good Luck to You impressively taking the $75,000 Shirley Vargo Handicap at Edmonton’s Century Mile.
“I don’t know why I’ve been so blessed,” said Gilbert, whose stable also includes stakes winner Ring of Kerry and a most promising 2-year-old named Catchacougar, who recently won his debut. “I’ve got a great wife, Donna, three great children and some very nice racehorses.
“At the start of the year I told Phil I wanted to win 50 stakes races. With both Summerland and Good Luck to You winning I’ve now got 48 stakes wins. Maybe I should have set my goals higher.”