Marlene Colvin wasn’t thinking about the end of Heliskier’s unbeaten streak last June, when her cherished gelding stumbled hard out of the gate at Canterbury Park. “I’ve been around the racetrack long enough to know that when the horse ambulance travels up to your horse, it’s usually bad news,’’ she said. “It was very scary.’’
Heliskier fell to his knees at the start and was vanned off the track that day, leaving Colvin in tears. Sunday, she was engulfed in happy hugs in the winner’s circle, as Heliskier romped to a sharp victory in the Minnesota Festival of Champions. The most popular horse at Canterbury Park drew a loud ovation from a crowd of 15,023 as he trotted in front of the packed grandstand, taking the $55,000 Minnesota Sprint Championship at the annual celebration of state-bred horses.
Trainer Mac Robertson won four stakes races Sunday, including the Distaff Classic with Congrats and Roses; the Distaff Sprint Championship with Somerset Swinger; and the Classic with Coconino Slim.
None was as emotional as Heliskier’s. Colvin, 75, kept the horse after the sudden death of her husband, Bun, and saw him win the first seven races of his career.
That Father’s Day stumble left Heliskier cut and bruised but not seriously injured. After a month off, he returned to finish a game second before wrapping up his Shakopee summer with a pair of victories, continuing to fulfill Bun Colvin’s prophecy that he would be the best horse he ever bred.
“This is a thrill,’’ said Marlene Colvin, who lives near Ethan, S.D. “My husband and I were a team; we did everything together. [His death] was so unexpected, the shock is still there.
“I’ve had so many people behind me, wishing me luck. This was really fun.’’
Bun Colvin, a longtime Canterbury trainer, died in late 2010 at age 74. He broke all his own horses, and Heliskier was the last.
He grew into a grand bay that now has nine victories in 11 starts and career earnings of $242,668. Like his mother, Plana Dance — another Canterbury favorite who won the Distaff Classic in 1997 and 1998 — Heliskier now has two Festival championships, adding the Sprint Classic to his triumph in the Northern Lights Futurity in 2011.
On Sunday, Heliskier shot out of the gate like an arrow, settling behind Desert Alley through the early going. When jockey Justin Shepherd asked him to run, he accelerated powerfully to the front and pulled away to win the 6-furlong race by 4¾ lengths. “All I had to do was hang on,’’ Shepherd said.
Robertson’s string of victories kept him atop the Canterbury trainer’s standings, keeping him in position to win his ninth consecutive training title. Somerset Swinger bested favorite Polar Plunge in an exciting stretch duel to win the Distaff Sprint Championship by a head. Congrats and Roses and Coconino Slim both led gate to wire as they defended the titles they won last year; Congrats and Roses dusted her rivals by 7¾ lengths, while Coconino Slim won by 5 lengths.
Robertson also won an allowance race Sunday and now has 43 victories this season, 13 more than second-place Bernell Rhone and Mike Biehler. Jockey Alex Canchari also had a fine day, guiding Somerset Swinger, Coconino Slim, and Congrats and Roses into the winner’s circle.
Dean Butler, who leads Canchari by six victories in the jockey standings, won both Festival races for 2-year-olds, taking the Northern Lights Futurity aboard Appeal to the King and the Northern Lights Debutante on She Can Ski. A total of $878,092 was wagered on Sunday’s races.
Heliskier’s victory kept him undefeated against Minnesota-bred competition and gave him his sixth stakes victory at Canterbury. The track’s 2012 horse of the year will spend his winter with the woman who loves him best. Colvin still brings him home to her farm and cares for him when he is not racing, doing all the work herself.
She said he likes to hang out in the pasture with stablemate Gypsy Melody, who ran third in Sunday’s Distaff Sprint. On the track, he continued Sunday to bind Colvin to her husband’s memory and create new ones as well.
“We looked at some advertising on heli-skiing, and it said it would give you the biggest thrill of your life,’’ she said, explaining her horse’s handle. “He’s lived up to his name.’’