On Festival of Champions day — or any racing day, for that matter — Cam Casby's large cohort of friends always knew where they could find her. The Shakopee resident would be seated at her regular table in the clubhouse at Canterbury Park, in the back row on the far end, to cheer on the horses she bred, owned and loved.
Casby's table has been sadly silent this summer, after her unexpected death from a heart attack last October. Still, she will have a presence at Sunday's 22nd running of the Festival of Champions, in the form of her gallant mare Polar Plunge.
Casby had planned to retire the popular 7-year-old last winter, but her friends Bill and Al Ulwelling chose to run the horse for one more season after buying her from Casby's estate.
Polar Plunge has won four stakes races and $253,004 at Canterbury Park, making her the highest-earning Minnesota-bred filly or mare in the Shakopee track's history. The $60,000 Minnesota Distaff Sprint on festival day, the track's annual celebration of state-bred horses, is likely to be the Canterbury curtain call for the sleek bay. Though her career is winding down, trainer Gary Scherer said Polar Plunge is as spirited and enthusiastic about racing as ever — much like her late owner.
"It's a little different feel this year without Cam,'' said Scherer, who began working with Casby in 2007 and has trained Polar Plunge through her entire career. "Keeping her horses running makes up for it a little.
"I hope Polar Plunge goes out on top. But no matter where she finishes, she'll get no less love from me. She still puts it all out there. She runs hard every time.''
Casby's horses have won 10 festival races, five for thoroughbreds and five for quarter horses. Scherer and Ulwelling both said her reputation for breeding high-quality stock raised the caliber of Minnesota-bred racehorses, forcing other breeders to step up their games if they wanted to keep up.
Many of her thoroughbreds — including Polar Plunge — were good enough to win outside of Minnesota. Polar Plunge, produced by Casby's prize broodmare Shakopee, broke her maiden at Louisiana's Fair Grounds in her debut. She won seven of her first 10 races, including three stakes at Canterbury, and is ninth on Canterbury's all-time earnings list.
"When she was born, people were saying, 'She's going to be a runner,' " Scherer said. "I thought, 'I'll believe it when I see it.' But from the time she came into the barn, we knew she was the real deal.''
Before Casby died last fall at age 63, she already had made plans to retire and breed Polar Plunge. Ulwelling had been a fan of the mare since watching her win that maiden race in New Orleans. After buying her, he also planned to breed her, then decided to keep her on the track for one more season.
Polar Plunge has one victory, a second and a third in five races this year. When Casby's horses were sold via an online dispersal auction, the Ulwellings also bought her mother, Shakopee, and Talkin Bout, winner of last year's Distaff Classic Championship on festival day.
"Our table was right by hers for years,'' said Bill Ulwelling, who met Casby in 2007 and became close friends with her. "Cam was a great woman, a star breeder who did a lot for racing. It was a shock to everyone to wake up and find she wasn't there. We miss her."
Casby's love for the sport extended to its people, too. She often brought pizza, sandwiches or treats to workers in the stable area, and she gave gifts to Ulwelling's grandchildren. Casby also shared her knowledge of breeding with Ulwelling, who with his son, Al, has built one of Canterbury's top stables.
Even after her death, Ulwelling said, Casby's legacy to Minnesota racing will continue through her horses' bloodlines. He plans to breed both Shakopee and Polar Plunge next year, perpetuating what he calls the "Cam Casby line," and their foals will give him the chance to offer another tribute.
"We already have a name picked out," he said. "We're going to call one of them 'The Great Casby.' "