Getting back on track in the desert

Trainers and jockeys saddle up for another season of horse racing

Trainer and owner Clint Willson readies one of his thoroughbreds for some track time in the stables at Desert Park Raceway in Osoyoos. Each year in late winter and early spring the horses come to the track to prepare for the upcoming race season.

Trainer and owner Clint Willson readies one of his thoroughbreds for some track time in the stables at Desert Park Raceway in Osoyoos. Each year in late winter and early spring the horses come to the track to prepare for the upcoming race season.

OSOYOOS — As the stable doors open, the glare from the bare light bulbs and stark shadows inside fade with the sun’s encroachment.

From the long rows of wooden stalls comes the rustling sounds of waking animals, and the familiar odours of horse and hay rise up to greet Diana Feurehelm as she begins her day.

To the thoroughbred trainer and owner from Olds, Alta., it’s the smell of success.

While the long hours, low pay, and no guarantees did not offer good career odds, in 2006 she decided to leave a $70,000-a-year engineer’s job to take on the challenge of producing winning race horses.

“I did a lot of stupid things at first and I had to learn a lot of stuff the hard way but this is something I love, it’s a passion,” said Feurehelm, whose winnings have gone from $15,000 her first year to over $90,000 in each of the past three seasons. “Horsemanship is not sold in a bottle, it comes from years of experience.

“I guess the best way to describe it, is that the highs are so incredibly high and the lows are so incredibly low. It’s like a roller coaster but I love it.”

The highs for her include taking an untrained horse or one that has been abused or neglected and putting it in the winner’s circle.

The low is seeing a horse that has been nursed back to health, snap a leg 10 strides past the finish line and die on the track.

“Yes, it’s a different game and it’s taught me a lot but there isn’t anything like it,” she said, waving a hand to wipe away the bad memories. “You get up in the morning and you’re galloping around the race track — you can smell the sap in the trees, feel the wind, and even on a raining day how it  smells so good. You feel the horse underneath you and they’re doing everything right and you feel this incredible amount of power that’s just ready to turn loose.”

In any given year at Desert Park Race Track there are between 60 and 200 thoroughbreds preparing for the upcoming season with their trainers and handlers.

For people like Feurehelm, the track is a hidden jewel in the desert.

“It’s awesome here, and without Osoyoos I would have no success because right now we are two months ahead of everybody else,” she said. “It is critical to be able to come down here and put on all these slow miles, building up the stamina. It takes so long to build that muscle on a race horse and it’s the hardest part of the season because you go at it all day, everyday.”

Clint Willson, is now in his 70s, purchasing his first race horse in 1954 and beginning training full time about 20 years later.

When asked where home is, he points a pitchfork in the direction of a white fifth-wheel trailer in a small spot near the park entrance.

He and partner Judy Bradley usually begin working the racers here in late-November and stay on until mid-April before returning to Alberta for the season.

“I’m not sure why I enjoy it so much,” said Willson, as he stopped his haying chores briefly. “I guess you might say it is a passion I have for the horses, I really can’t put my finger on it, sort of like an obsession.

“You definitely don’t do it for the for the money, although I’ve been very fortunate to make some money over the years.”

His greatest enjoyment?

“Winning,” he said, as the smile on the weathered face spreads. “I may not be able to afford the best horses but I’ve outrun a lot of millionaires in my day and there’s a definite satisfaction in that.”

Trainers are as individual as the horses they work with. Willson rarely gets emotionally attached to his animals, while Feurehelm says she can’t avoid it.

Regardless of technique, the success at the end of the season comes down to the bottom line, which is why this time of year is so important.

“Plain and simple, if you don’t get this part right, you don’t win races,” said Willson.

Although trainers and staff work in close proximity and even though they know each other only too well, there is little communication back and forth, it’s all business.

A nod of the head on the way to the track or a hollered jibe from a stable-length away is about it.

“Oh yeah, it’s cutthroat, there are no friends in this business,” said Feurehelm. “Sure, you help each other out once in awhile but that friendship stops at the stall door. There are a lot of unspoken rules, dos and don’ts that you learn very quickly.”

Although not a full-fledged trainer, Wayne Supernant’s skills are highly valued at Desert Park.

He is a retired professional jockey who has a proven knack to bring horses to race readiness in the pre-season.

Not surprisingly, like many others in the business, his first riding memories were as a youngster.

“My grandfather used to strap me to his logging horses and we went tootling off through the bush with nobody hanging on me,” said the 56-year-old, laughing at the image from the past. “From then on I’ve always had a pretty good feel for horses, some people have it, some people don’t. It’s all in your hands and if you have light hands you do pretty good.”

After training under some of Canada’s best jockeys in Ontario, Supernant began a successful 20-year career out west which lasted until 1992.

“I had to stop because my body just couldn’t take it any more,” he said. “It’s a pretty hard life and a hectic one. You make some good choices and you make some bad choices, fortunately I made pretty good choices during my riding career and did well.”

Back then one of his favourite race venues was Desert Park when it was still in operation and where he is riding once again. Horse racing is scheduled to return to Osoyoos for June 15 and Aug. 31 and will bring 64 horses each day into the 120 stalls at Desert Park

These days, Supernant keeps pretty much to himself, and when he’s not on the track, can be found sitting at the entry way to the stable.

And even though the rides are a little slower now and the dilapidated grandstand is empty, his love of the horse business remains just as strong as ever.

It’s also why, when he closes the stable door each night, he looks forward to the morning and getting back into the saddle one more time.