Deb Hilger tried to count them all, but there were too many to remember. “Polar Plunge, Talkin Bout, Silver Magna,’’ she said, reciting the names of some of Festival of Champions victors who have come through her Bleu Valley Farm.
“Today is a real trip down memory lane.’’
Sunday, Hilger and her husband, Jeff, added one more page to the scrapbook. As the Hilgers move toward the end of a 20-year career in horse racing, one of the last thoroughbreds they own — Rockin the Bleu’s — scored an upset victory at the Festival of Champions, Canterbury Park’s annual celebration of Minnesota-bred horses. Rockin the Bleu’s ended a hard-luck season with a gritty stretch run in the $60,000 Minnesota Distaff Sprint Championship, holding off Gypsy Melody under a brilliant ride by Scott Stevens.
A crowd announced at 10,126 saw old favorites and emerging talents join the list of Festival winners. Bourbon County defended his title in the $60,000 Minnesota Sprint Championship, and La Petite Cheri sprang a 28-1 surprise in the $80,000 Northern Lights Debutante. Trainer Francisco Bravo’s horses swept the top three spots in the $80,000 Northern Lights Futurity — won by Smooth Chiraz — but the Bravo-trained Hold for More saw his six-race winning streak end with a runner-up finish to A P Is Loose in the $60,000 Minnesota Classic Championship.
Rockin the Bleu’s became the seventh Festival of Champions winner owned by the Hilgers. The 4-year-old filly also is the 17th Festival victor to be born, bred, raised or rested at their farm in rural Washington County, which they are selling because of Jeff Hilger’s health issues.
“I was the first hands on a lot of these horses,’’ said Deb Hilger, who has assisted dozens of mares that have given birth at Bleu Valley. “For Rockin the Bleu’s to win was phenomenal. She has so much heart.
“We have so much history with so many horses that have run in these championship races. This is really thrilling.’’
The Festival of Champions began in 1992 as a showcase for the Minnesota breeding industry, which has weathered many ups and downs because of longtime devotees such as the Hilgers. Rockin the Bleu’s is a second-generation Festival champion; her mother, Bleu’s Apparition, won the Distaff Sprint Championship in 2005.
Bleu’s Apparition, part of a bloodline that produced many of the Hilgers’ most notable runners, died in January. They will sell their last broodmare, Chick Fight — a two-time Festival winner — in November, but they will keep her yearling filly and another horse or two to race next summer at Canterbury.
Sunday, they combined with another Festival stalwart for a victory that left Jeff Hilger wiping away tears in the winners’ circle. Stevens, who won two stakes on the first Festival day 24 years ago, is known for his strong finishes; in the Distaff Sprint, he kept Rockin the Bleu’s just off the early pace set by Sky and Sea and urged her through a stirring stretch battle to beat favorite Gypsy Melody by three-quarters of a length. Rockin the Bleu’s paid $34 to win as she earned her first victory in five Canterbury starts this season.
Stevens got the mount literally by accident. David Mello was scheduled to ride Rockin the Bleu’s, but he suffered a leg injury as part of a chaotic prelude to the third race. As the horses were being loaded into the starting gate, Dakota Native dumped Mello and broke loose, then ran around the track for a few minutes before he could be caught. Minutes later, Hattaway Big Fella followed suit; he also eluded the outrider, whose horse collapsed and died after the pursuit.
A total of $825,282 was wagered on the Festival card, with a record $501,957 bet at out-of-state locations. Other winners Sunday included Streak N Diamonds, who won the $44,650 Minnesota Quarter Horse Futurity, and Fishin In The Brook, who defeated Tty From Mr Pye in the $44,400 Minnesota Quarter Horse Derby. The $60,000 Minnesota Distaff Classic was won by Silver Magna—another horse who spent time at Bleu Valley Farm, giving the Hilgers one more champion to remember.
“We couldn’t be happier,’’ Jeff Hilger said. “To go out like this is great.’’