Mac Robertson was in his office inside Barn C0 at Canterbury Park on Sunday morning, preparing for the return of a magnificent champion, Heliskier, to competitive racing.
Heliskier, sidelined for two years after suffering a pair of knee injuries, was penciled for a comeback in the Sprint Championship at Canterbury’s Festival of Champions, an annual showcase of Minnesota-bred horses.
Robertson, a Hall of Fame trainer, was explaining Heliskier’s road to recovery when a worker poked his head in the door and literally stepped on a black cat that was wandering the stable.
The cat screeched and scampered away.
“That’s real good luck,” Robertson said sarcastically.
He had better luck than did Scott Rake, owner of Bourbon County. Rake missed the race after having his flight delayed from Iceland, where he competed in a mountain bike race.
Rake watched the Festival race on his phone while standing in line at U.S. Customs at MSP.
“I hope they didn’t think I was suspicious,” he said. “I wasn’t yelling.”
None of the announced 7,622 fans in attendance who witnessed the race would’ve faulted him. Heliskier set the pace before fading down the stretch as three horses roared toward the finish line in the $60,000 championship.
Hold For More edged two-time champion Bourbon County by a neck. Bourbon County finished just ahead of Smooth Chiraz. Heliskier took fourth. The Festival Day lineup featured 11 races, the fourth serving as the headliner. The final stretch — four champions, all pushing each other, crowd going nuts — justified that top billing, leaving veteran Canterbury officials downright giddy.
“Watch that finish,” Hold For More owner Dale Schenian shouted. “One of the best races we’ve had.”
Not even a narrow loss dampened Rake’s excitement over what the race meant in a larger sense — that Minnesota is capable of producing top-flight horse racing.
“This was the vision,” Rake said. “I don’t care who you are, any horseman around the country, if you watch that race and you didn’t think that was a good race, then you’re not paying attention.”
The race had the smallest field with only five horses, but it didn’t lack compelling angles. Heliskier, two-time Canterbury Horse of the Year, was a sentimental choice. Hold For More is the reigning Horse of the Year. Bourbon Country was attempting to three-peat in the race. And Smooth Chiraz was the favorite.
The race is named after Crocrock, the all-time winnings leader at Canterbury. Crocrock was owned by Schenian, making his win a full-circle moment that he celebrated by reliving his emotions as he watched replays on the giant videoboard.
“Right here, I’m thinking, ‘Uh-oh, maybe we don’t have the horse,’ ” Schenian said as Hold For More ran fourth, pinned inside behind Heliskier.
Jockey Dean Butler found an opening on the final turn. Then, the hellacious stretch, and Schenian’s excitement reached a boil again watching for a second time.
“Look at this. Look ... ooooooh!” he cheered.
Heliskier’s late fade prevented a similar exalt. The 7-year-old gelding had missed two full years after suffering a hairline fracture and then injuring another knee in a paddock mishap.
“It was bad luck followed by worse luck,” Robertson said.
Heliskier became one of Canterbury’s most popular horses pre-injury because of the way he dominated races.
“He’s a Minnesota-bred that looked like he could compete with anybody,” Robertson said. “And his name is a good name.”
Still, a two-year hiatus created uncertainty about how he would race again. Robertson compared it to a football player returning from a knee injury. Most are not the same.
“Fortunately for him, he had enough talent that he doesn’t have to be the same,” Robertson said. “He just needs to be close to the same.”
The field was a little too strong, and Butler showed why he’s the leading jockey at Canterbury this season.
Butler won back-to-back races under trying circumstances. In the third race, his horse, Darrenator, looked like a 2-year-old throwing a tantrum before the race.
Darrenator thrashed wildly and refused to budge as handlers labored to coax him to the gate. The horse wanted no part of racing. At one point, Butler was tossed off the horse in a scary moment.
“He’s done that to me before,” Butler said. “Then I get back on him, and he’s all right. He likes to throw his antics.”
I would’ve bet the mortgage against that horse. Naturally, Darrenator won his race. And then Butler rode Hold For More to victory the next race.
He must not have stepped on a black cat.