It was the last race of this past Friday’s thoroughbred card at Century Mile. Nothing special, that’s for sure: a field of bottom claimers goings six furlongs on a wonderfully warm evening that was getting late.
And then poof. It all became magical when a horse named Entitled Star set the tote board on fire when the eight-year-old mare who hadn’t won a race all year suddenly came alive and, at odds of 47-1, won like a good thing winning by a long, open length.
So why is this special? Why does this deserve a story?
Well for starters the jockey, Meagan Fraser, not only hadn’t won a race all year either – she had never won a race, period.
“Thrilling,” said Fraser, who had ridden in only five other races. “When I realized that it was going to happen it was a little surreal.
“I wasn’t sure this mare had it in her but she did.”
But then who did?
The answer is the horse’s owner and trainer, Robert ‘Red’ Alistair McKenzie, who at the age of 95 became the second oldest trainer in the long history of horse racing to win a race at a recognized racetrack in North America.
Only Jerry Bozzo, who won with a horse named Flutterby, four years ago at Gulfstream Park in Florida when he was 97, has been older.
Before Bozzo – and now before McKenzie – Noble Threewitt, who won a race for the last time at age 95 at Santa Anita in 2006, had been the oldest trainer. Threewitt, who won 2,038 races was born in February 1927. McKenzie was a 1927 New Year’s baby, when milk sold for 14 cents a quart, making him a month older than Threewitt.
“Surprised?! Why would I be surprised?” McKenzie said arching his thick eyebrows and staring at you like it was the most foolish, dangblasted question in the world.
“Entitled Star just hadn’t had a good trip in a long time.
“Surprised?” he said again, this time shaking his head.
“She just needed a good ride and she finally got one,” continued McKenzie, who only trains Entitled Star and a two-year-old filly named Sun Drop that has shown potential.
“I put the girl, Meagan, on her. She’s been galloping the mare for two years. She knows the horse and the horse knows her. Horses are smarter than a lot of the people around them.
“She can ride; she’s got talent,” said McKenzie, who was awarded the Ken Cohoe trophy for Horseperson of the Year in 2014.
“Entitled Star was second a few starts ago and since then she had never broken well at all out of the gate.”
But Fraser, born and raised in Edmonton and now living in Alberta Beach which means an hour’s drive back and forth to the track, saw to it that Entitled Star got off to a good – not great – beginning.
“Right before they let us out she slammed her butt into the back of the gate,” said Fraser. “But when I didn’t freak out she calmed right down. She knew I wasn’t going to get mad at her. She stayed cool and stayed with it.
“Red told me to get her away from the gate and then to stay on the rail. He was confident that she would run well,” said Fraser.
“I just followed his instructions,” she said after sticking to the rail passing horses effortlessly down the backstretch until – midway around the far turn – there was only one horse, Eyespymylittleeye, in front of her.
“It just felt like a really calm gallop for her. She was just gliding and moving on the inside and I just let her keep moving,” said Fraser, 27, a graduate of the Olds College Exercise rider program, who still also gallops horses every morning crediting trainer Lionel Joseph for helping her out the most.
“When everyone else started to move I just sat. Down the stretch we were second and I realized we had a chance and I said to myself ‘I’ve got to get down and start riding.’
“Then she gave me more. It felt really easy. She gave me a chance to look really good out there and I had some fun too,” said Fraser, who also had a third-place finish on another long shot, Humboldtstrong, on Saturday.
“For Red to put his confidence in me to get it done was really neat. The big smile he had in the winner’s circle was priceless.”
Fraser, who used to run her own business breaking babies, wasn’t the only one erasing zeros.
Like Entitled Star, McKenzie, who has won over 1,600 races in his training career which began in 1945 when World War II ended with the fall of Nazi Germany and the Empire of Japan, hadn’t won a race all year either going 0-for-10.
The 1,600 wins doesn’t include the 300 races he won as a jockey mostly in the ‘bush’ meets at country fairs and little towns across the prairies.
“You had to be 16 to ride on the A tracks,” he said of the Old Western Canada Racing Association that used to take horses and trainers by train from Calgary in the spring to Winnipeg, back to Calgary for the Stampede, to Edmonton and then on to Saskatoon, Regina, back to Edmonton and then back to Winnipeg.
“I was only 13 when I started riding,” said McKenzie, who still pedals his bicycle around the Century Mile backstretch, acting like a guy half his age.
Up at 5:30 a.m. every morning, the first horse McKenzie rode was a horse named Alaska at the central Alberta town of Ponoka in 1940. He finished second. Just two days later he rode Alaska again. This time he won.
The wins came quickly. And often. As a 17-year-old he was the B circuit’s leading jockey winning 87 races.
“And that was when they used to have 25 jockeys.
“I won the Red Deer Derby twice and the Rimbey Derby once.”
But it wasn’t long before McKenzie, who started off riding at 93 pounds, got too heavy.
“By the time I was 18 I was already too big. I sprouted and I was all through as a rider.”
So, 77 years ago, he started training. And, just like it was when he was a jockey, he won early and often.
He won with horses like Chariot Chaser, who took the Canadian, Saskatchewan and Alberta Derby in 1965, Chopstick, So Long Fellas, Bonnie Brier Magic, Klondike Lil, Wind and Strife, Dobbington, Avec Plaisir, Whirling Rich… The list is endless.
But the best horse McKenzie applied his magic touch to was clearly Grandin Park, who won 29 races between 1972 and 1980 for McKenzie and owner Morris Stevenson.
“That’s a lot of races,” said McKenzie, a sports fan of just about every athletic endeavour but especially hockey, whose memory is uncannily amazing.
“He won all the big races for two-year-olds. He won all the big races for older horses. You name it. He won it,” McKenzie said of Grandin Park who finished in the top three in 60 of his 116 races.
“He should have won the 1973 Canadian Derby too but he got beat by an inch – a dirty nose – by a horse that came from the east, Wing Span, who was owned by Kinghaven Farms.”
“I’ve never met a man that loved his horses more than him,” said fellow trainer Dave Nicholson. “It didn’t matter if they were good horses or bad ones. He kept them around and he loved them.
“He’s an amazing man. He bounces around the backstretch better than half of the other guys. It’s crazy. And his mind is unbelievable.”
With Entitled Star paying $96.40 to win and setting up a $2 exactor that paid $670 and a $2 Daily Double that returned $780, the question everyone wanted to know was how much McKenzie bet?
“Not a penny,” said McKenzie, with a sour wincing look on his face.
“But my son, John, bet a little,” he said of one of his three sons who is a renowned blacksmith – this time the frown curling into a smile.
“I don’t bet anymore. Maybe $5-$5 on a few occasions,” said McKenzie, who used to shoe his own horses now leaving that to John.
Fraser’s husband, Brant, bet.
“Yeah, $5 to show which paid $7.60,” said Meagan. “He didn’t think I could win either. Now he’s kicking himself.”
“I’ve been at the track practically my whole life,” said McKenzie, who started riding horses when he was just 10 along with his sister at Curries Riding Academy on 76 avenue and 112 street in Edmonton.
“I’ve been all over North America. Twice.
“I’m as good as a guy can be at my age,” was born when the Ford Motor Company started selling the Model A for $460 and before Mount Rushmore had even been built.
“I’ve seen a lot. I’ve been around the track longer than anyone.
“I was the first guy to ever claim a horse in Alberta. Five thousand for a mare I took off Max Bell. That was in 1950. It seems forever now.
“Time goes by so fast now. The days and the years just fly past. I’ve seen everybody come and everybody go.
“You see a lot of guys going to work everyday with their ears pinned back. They hate their jobs. “I love going to work.
“Eighty-two years at the track; that’s a long time. Things have changed so much but one thing hasn’t and that’s the excitement of running a horse. It’s still the same as it used to be. If it wasn’t I wouldn’t be there.
“It’s been a good run.”