AARON REISS • Photos by • Star Tribune
An appreciation exists for horses who lie down on race days. They take care of their bodies.
So it was a good sign Saturday when one of Pete Mattson’s favorite horses, Fireman Oscar, rested on his stomach in a stable.
It was a bit after 9 a.m., almost eight hours before Fireman Oscar was to participate in the Minnesota Derby. The race held an $85,000 purse, tied for the largest of the day.
Fireman Oscar looked away from Mattson and faced the sunlight.
“Come on, Oscar,” Mattson said, encouraging the horse to move.
He tried again.
“Oscar, can you get up?”
Still no luck. Mattson moved to another stable, where 2-year-old Classy Shackles stood. Mattson tugged at a strap over Classy Shackles’ face. The horse’s first race was today, and Mattson said he mostly felt nervous.
“You going to be ready to go?” the owner asked.
Young horses breed new hope for people such as Mattson, but being a horse owner mostly just turns enthusiasts into cynics. Investments often produce few returns — and good moments are fleeting.
Mattson believes there might be a Horse God, who is only sometimes on your side.
And Saturday, when Mattson had three horses competing in races with purses totaling $157,000 — including one running for the first time — the Horse God proved fickle.
From the third-floor box Mattson shares with a few friends each racing season, there’s a clear view of both streets that feed into Canterbury’s parking area.
The lines were almost bumper-to-bumper before the first races.
Canterbury was hosting corgi races. There was a cupcake festival, too. Some estimated more than 20,000 were in attendance.
“Look at that line,” said Barry Butzow, Mattson’s friend. “You’d think it was Fourth of July.”
In the morning, Mattson bemoaned local television previewing the corgi races with a live shot outside the racetrack. The crowd was a concern.
There’s no way to train a young horse for crowd noise, said one of Mattson’s trainers, David Van Winkle. But that’s true whether the crowd is 5,000 or 20,000.
As Mattson rode an escalator down toward the paddock to saddle up his first horse racing that day, Cozy Owen, the cupcake festival was to his right. Multiple stands offered sweets. It was innocent, but with money on the line in an unpredictable sport, anything can be worrisome.
“One thing at a racetrack,” Mattson said, “there’s no shortage of things to complain about.”
• • •
Mattson hunched over. His elbows rested on his thighs. He squinted, clenching his jaw.
As Cozy Owen galloped into second place near the home stretch and briefly pulled into the lead, Mattson popped out of the chair. He was next to his son and two grandchildren — one of whom, Owen, is the horse’s namesake.
“Come on, Owen!” the owner yelled. “Come on, Owen!”
The horse finished second. Mattson said it was Cozy Owen’s best run ever.
As Mattson made his way back into the food court, the public address announcer said there was a claim that the winning jockey had made an illegal move.
A replay on the infield video board showed the winner, Tri Spot, had pushed another horse far off the edge in making a move for first.
The pushed horse’s name? Sabotage.
As Mattson waited for the decision, he walked to the winner’s circle’s fence. Then he backed away and stood with his son and grandchildren, practically pacing.
After a few minutes, the decision came through the speakers: Tri Spot was disqualified. The winner: Cozy Owen.
Mattson threw two fists into the air before celebrating with his family. The excitement stuck with him for a few minutes.
“That doesn’t happen very often,” he said to friends who greeted him in a food court. “To me, like ever.”
“You’re living right, Pete,” said Percy Scherbenske, one of Mattson’s former trainers.
The disqualification, in which Mattson and Cozy Owen played no role, gave Mattson $12,800 more in purse money.
Praise the Horse God.
• • •
About 90 minutes later, Mattson and his supporters sat in the stands again, which were now lucky because of Cozy Owen’s win. Even luckier: Two horses scratched.
But this time Mattson’s horse finished last. His face tightened as the race progressed. He eventually left his hunched position and leaned back into his chair near the end, a sign of resignation.
He didn’t think Classy Shackles would win. He even admitted he thought the 5/2 betting odds for his horse were too good.
While Mattson watched the replay, he decided Classy Shackles had tired. He was glad the jockey didn’t push too hard. But last was still frustrating.
“Take care, Mr. Mattson,” a man said. “Good seeing you.”
Mattson, arms crossed in front of his chest, didn’t respond or even turn the man’s way.
• • •
On the paddock, after a jockey saddled up on Fireman Oscar and the PA announcer declared him the clear No. 2 bet for Race 8, Mattson said he’s “too old for butterflies.”
There’s the cynicism. Fireman Oscar spending his morning lying down no longer mattered.
Again, Mattson hunched over in the bleachers — elbows on thighs, tight jaw, pursed lips.
Fireman Oscar finished third, and Mattson flashed three fingers to one of his grandsons afterward.
He resumed the routine. He went to the food court. Only one other person in the area seemed to be standing in front of a TV.
Mattson put his hands on his hips. He watched an interview with the winning horse’s owner. He displayed some mixture of exhaustion and envy.
“Show us the reruns,” he said.
The race played a moment later. Fireman Oscar was close but never seemed in true contention for first.
Still, Mattson’s two horses that placed earned $28,550.
When the replay finished, Mattson said he “paid a lot of bills.” He didn’t smile. He just said he felt thirsty