Longevity, loyalty and a deep devotion to their thoroughbreds have made Jarvis and Florence Swereda one of the most likeable, popular couples in racing in Winnipeg.

Jarvis Swereda prides himself on longevity. His marriage to Florence is going on 53 years. Starfield Auto Body, the Winnipeg business he started in the early 1970s, is still going strong and he’s been breeding and racing thoroughbreds in Manitoba for some 35 years now.

“I’m crazy, not persistent,” Swereda said, laughing. Particularly about horses. “They’re our kids,” he said.

The couple does not have children of their own, so asking the 72-year-old to pick a favourite is the same as asking a parent to pick a favourite child. Still, it doesn’t take long to realize Swereda has a soft spot for Queen Tina, the 2008 Horse of the Year in Manitoba.

“Queen Tina was my first horse that won Horse of the Year in Manitoba which is against Americans and everything,” Swereda said, his voice swelling with pride. “She won two stakes (at Assiniboia Downs) — the Anderson and the Distaff; two $50,000 races. She also won a couple of allowances and that’s how she got Horse of the Year.”

Queen Tina was also the start of some good years for the Sweredas’ Starfield Stables after plenty of lean ones. The stable didn’t win a single race in 2004 and 2006 and only won one race in each of five other years in that decade. Yet, purse earnings since Queen Tina came on the scene as a two-year-old in 2007 have exceeded $30,000 each year. In the last eight years, Starfield Stables has won 36 races, earned over $525,000 in purses and posted average earnings of $65,766. Those are respectable numbers that are even more impressive when you consider Swereda breeds and races his own horses. It’s not the easiest road to the winner’s circle said Grant Watson, the national president of the CTHS, and Swereda’s matings consultant and friend.

“The faith (Swereda) has in them is where it pays off,” Watson said. “Some people by the time they’re three years old, if they haven’t shown enough, that horse is gone. He has faith in them and he sticks with them and it’s surprising how many find really good success beyond three. They’re still running at a high allowance level as four and five-year-olds because he’s had the patience with them to do that. If a horse needs something, it gets it.”

Start of a beautiful partnership

Queen Tina was, in fact, the first horse Swereda produced with Watson’s advice.

“Grant does a lot to pick out the studs for the mares,” Swereda said.

It was Watson that recommended Swereda breed his Old Stories mare Story Book Queen to Boanerges.

“He was a Manitoba stud that didn’t do much,” Swereda said. “When Grant picked him, he said, ‘breed Story Book Queen to him and you’ll have a good horse.’ I said, ‘Okay.’”

The rest is royalty — at least to Swereda.

As for Story Book Queen, Swereda said, “she had some other winners, but nobody like Queen Tina.”

“He loves that mare,” Watson said of the winner of $113,977 who posted a career record of 3-7-7 in 29 starts. “Once he did have a taste of success with Queen Tina, it really kept him going. The babies every year keep him going.”

Swereda can’t remember, exactly, when he started breeding his own to race, other than it was “quite a few years ago.” He wouldn’t have it any other way.

“I’m proud we’re breeding them ourselves,” Swereda said.

Watson said Swereda has about eight mares in total and produces about half that many foals each year. “He seldom breeds a mare with a foal. He’s got his band of broodmares and he breeds them every other year,” Watson said. “I don’t know anybody that feeds as well as he does. I’ve kept horses with him and they get every supplement, everything humanly possible. By leaving the mare without going back in foal, everything goes into that foal. That’s what he, generally, does. He rotates his mares every second year on a breeding, which, financially is hard to do when you’re selling. But when you’re breeding to race, you can do that.”

For the last few years, most of Starfield’s runners have been trained by Tanya Lindsay. It was Harry Kube that conditioned Queen Tina and others for Swereda for many years until the trainer suffered a heart attack and stroke.

“Right now, we have 11 at the track and they’re all my own breeding. The studs might be from Edmonton, Calgary, Manitoba but the mares are all mine,” Swereda said.

Major Hurricane (Hurricane Center—Lady Shananie by Shananie) has been the star of Starfield Stables in recent years, finishing on the board in 13 of 28 starts for earnings just shy of $80,000.

Swereda take particularly pride in Major Hurricane because he plucked Lady Shananie out of a sale in Florida in the early 1990s. “I still have her. She’s 24 years old,” he said.

Watson said it’s common for Swereda to give his horses a home for life.

“If he believes in them, he sticks by them,” Watson said. “Even in his culling process, he might retire them from breeding, but they’re not being shipped off anywhere. They’re given good homes right on his farm and they live out their life into their 20s right there with him.”

Ukrainian immigrant

Swereda’s parents, Nick and Evelyn, were Ukrainian immigrants that settled in Zhoda, MB, about 100 kms southeast of Winnipeg, in 1939. Zhoda means “agreement” in Ukrainian and the rural area was settled mostly by Ukrainian farmers in the early 1900s.

Swereda’s parents bought a farm in Zhoda and used it for mixed farming.

“I inherited it and knocked everything down and put everything new here. I have a barn we can put 20 horses in,” Swereda said. “We breed them and we foal them out here at the farm.”

Swereda went to work at Birchwood Motors in 1972. A few years later, he started Starfield Auto Body.

“I’ve got a crew of 12 people in our body shop. I started it by myself and I’ve got five guys that are over 30 years with me,” Swereda said. “I started young and my painter’s 36 years with me and my manager is 35 years with me.”

Like many people, Swereda started in the horse business with a claimer. He said Florence was initially hesitant about owning horses, but “then when I claimed it I said, ‘That’s our horse’ and that was it,” Swereda said. “She’s excited about the horses now, but she always asks me, ‘Why do you have to spend all that money?’ But she’s really, really excellent about it.”

Watson said the Sweredas are one of the most delightful couples in racing and are extremely popular even with their competitors, many of which are thrilled that after 35 years in the game Starfield Stables is having success.

“(Swereda) and his wife are just such great people. They help everybody. If you didn’t have parents, these are the kind of parents you’d want,” Watson said. “Every time I see Florence I want to give her a big hug. She’s just a wonderful, wonderful person… When you’re having a down day, you go see Jarvis.

“They’re excellent for bringing new people to the track and supporting the track. When they win, everybody wins. He’ll be the first guy buying a round for people he doesn’t even know. Even with Major Hurricane and a couple of the horses, he probably spends almost his whole winnings taking 40 people — anybody that had any association with the horse — out for steak and drinks. I can’t say enough about him as a human being. Forget the racing part, he is just an amazing human being.

“If we had tons of Jarvises, this would be an amazing industry… we’d be thriving.”