They met at a long-ago county fair in rural North Dakota, lured there by a mutual interest. The horse races brought Alvin and Marlys Goebel together, when she came to cheer for her brothers' horses and he tried to win a race or two with his own.
Their love for fast thoroughbreds never dimmed through 58 years of marriage. Though Alvin Goebel's seven decades in racing ended with his death last year, the legacy he and Marlys built has stretched into a second generation—and it is taking hold in a third. Marlys and daughter Claudia co-own Speakfromyourheart, a 4-year-old gelding who will run in Sunday's Festival of Champions at Canterbury Park, and son Jon operates a breeding farm in Kentucky.
The Festival of Champions, a day of races for Minnesota-bred horses, is particularly dear to the Goebels. Marlys and Al were among the horsemen who spent countless hours at the State Capitol in the 1960s and '70s, lobbying for pari-mutuel wagering to be legalized. Their efforts helped lay the groundwork for the industry the festival has celebrated for 20 years.
Speakfromyourheart is entered in the $55,000 Minnesota Sprint Championship, a race the Goebels won with Careless Navigator in 2006 and 2007. Marlys, 79, and Claudia, 50, will be there, cheering for Almar Farm to add to its record of six victories in Festival of Champions races.
"It's very, very gratifying to have our children involved in this sport we enjoyed so much,'' Marlys said. "Racing became a way of life for our family. Once we got into it, we couldn't let go.''
Alvin Goebel grew up on a North Dakota farm, with a father who didn't see much use for any horse that couldn't pull a hay wagon or a plow. Captivated by sleek, speedy thoroughbreds, Al bought his first racehorse when he was 19.
He and Marlys began farming near Cottage Grove in 1948, cultivating crops, beef cattle and horses. After starting out at the bush tracks and county fairs, they began racing at Canada's Assiniboia Downs, where many other Minnesotans ran their horses in the days before Canterbury. "We used to take family trips built around the races,'' Claudia said. "We all loved it.''
Almar Farm grew to include as many as 30 broodmares and 13 horses in training at its peak. It produced 12 stakes winners, including Careless Navigator, who also won the 2004 Northern Lights Futurity, and Madam Speaker, winner of the 2003 Distaff Sprint Championship. The Goebels' top horses raced at Keeneland and Arlington Park, though they were never prouder than they were the day Canterbury Downs opened.
Like their parents, Jon and Claudia were smitten with horses when they were young. Jon's experience on his family's farm led him to Kentucky, where he managed horse farms before buying his own 75-acre spread.
Under the Almar Farm name, he breeds horses for the sales and boards broodmares for outside clients. He also races one or two each year, maintaining his Minnesota connections by running at Canterbury. Jon and Claudia Goebel both said the track's increasing purses have encouraged them to race more horses in Minnesota; in two weeks, Claudia will go to the Keeneland sale in Kentucky, looking for yearlings to add to her stable.
Al died in January 2012 at age 89. As his health declined, Claudia said, he still was excited to see photos of the family's horses in the winners' circle. "The horses gave me and my dad a really special bond,'' she said. "Jon and I will always be involved, in racing and breeding.''
Al also was delighted to know his passion has continued to trickle down. The eldest of Jon's four children has begun showing horses, and Jon's twin sister, Kara, has a son who also is interested in racing.
"Horses were part of my life growing up, and now they're part of theirs,'' Jon Goebel said. "To build something and pass it along to your kids, that's what every parent wants.''