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The horses come first in life

Jun 30,2020 Curtis Stock for Horse Racing Alberta

They are partners: the horses and the trainer, Dave Nicholson. More than anything else in his life, the horses come first. Everything else is in a dead-heat for second. This is the way it is now. This is the way it has always been. And it has been this way for a long time.

“I was nine years old when I first worked on the track,” said Nicholson, now 57-years-old with a ready smile and looking a dozen years younger than his age. “I’d go to the track in the mornings. Mostly on weekends but sometimes on school days too. I’d start at 5 o’clock in the morning. Work for about three hours, go to school and then come back at night to cool the horses out."

"Usually I’d ride my bike. We only lived a few miles from Northlands Park. Other times my mom would drop me off at the track,” he said of his mother, Maureen, who claimed her first horse, Forest Heights, in 1972 — which is what brought Nicholson to Northlands Park racetrack in the first place.

The trainer Nicholson worked for in the beginning was George ‘Goodie’ Goodwin — an iconic trainer in Western Canada, who died in 2001 at the age of 84 in his motel room not far from Northlands Park. “Goodie became like family to me,” Nicholson said of the big man with a big heart and a white beard who trained two Canadian Derby winners (Winning Red in 1972 and Progressive Hope two years later), multiple other stakes winners like Just Jeff, who would go to the front in stakes races in the '90s and simply laugh at them, and easily one of the best horses to ever come out of Western Canada, Pole Position.

“I was just a kid walking and brushing horses,” said Nicholson, who spent about 10 years with Goodwin. “I loved it. Still do. It’s all I ever wanted to do.”

Nicholson is still waking up at 4:30 every morning. And, like this past weekend when Friday night’s card at Century Mile didn’t run until 10:20 p.m. and he had a horse in the last race, was still there after midnight, walking and waiting for the horse to cool down before it could be put in it’s stall for the night.

On days like that he is lucky to get four hours sleep. “You don’t ever want to calculate the hourly wage,” he said with a grimaced grin. But you’ll never hear him complain. “You’re not in it for the money. You’re in it for the horses and the enjoyment they provide,” said Nicholson, who has just six horses in his barn and won with two of them on last Sunday’s opening day card.

A Ring ’n a Rose, a four-year-old filly who had been training like a champion, won the sixth race by 10 1/2 lengths after pressing the pace and disappearing into the warm evening air for owners Arnold and Linda Souster. Two races later he sent Deuces Are Wild, a four-year-old maiden who hadn’t raced in 16 months, to the gate. This one, owned by Frank and Terri Bodell, won by 8 3/4 lengths and set a track record for five and a half furlongs winning in 1:02.21, shaving almost a full second off the old record held by older stakes horse Stone Carver last year.

“I liked A Ring ’n a Rose’s chances. I wasn’t sure of Deuces Are Wild because he hadn’t run in such a long time. Both horses came back bigger and stronger this year. It was like watching kids grow. A Ring ’n a Rose was a different horse this spring. She ran second in last year’s Alberta Oaks and third in the Three-Year-Old Sale Stakes but I think she’s a way better horse this year."

“Deuces Are Wild raced in Florida two winters ago for no tag but didn’t show much. And when he came back from Florida you couldn’t do anything with him. I couldn’t figure out what was wrong with him other than he really needed some time off; we ended up turning him out for the year. A year ago you’d have bet your life he’d never make it. But he trained good this spring and he won for fun. They gave him an 88 Beyer Speed Figure for that race. They don’t give Beyers out like that around here very often. Killin Me Smalls I think got a 90 Beyer a few years ago,” he said of the former Alberta Horse of the Year.

A consummate horseman, Nicholson personifies why people like him grow up around horses and never leave. Goodwin was like that: spending hours upon hours rubbing his horse’s legs with his secret brace recipe or soaking their ankles. Now so is his protege. “I’d rather be around horses than most people,” said Nicholson, who also loves playing golf. “It’s long hours and a lot of work but there isn’t a nicer place than the backstretch on a warm summer morning. Everything is quiet. It’s just you and the horses. And most of the people at the track are good people. We’re all trying to do the same thing: win a few races and keep going."

“But the horses are the key. Every horse is different. They all have their own personalities,” said Nicholson, who, after he left Goodwin, worked for a couple other veteran horsemen: Fred Melnechuk and Floyd Arthur.

“I learned a lot from Goodie and I learned a lot from Fred and Floyd too. They were both very good horsemen. “Freddie was tough to work for but he paid me a full groom’s wage even though I was still going to school and had to leave the barn early. Then I’d come back after school was done.

“Floyd was great. He really knew how to spot a horse - put them in a race where they had a good chance to win. And oh God he had some nice horses.The Greek Con. The Bagel Princess. I Want Fifty Six. Special Spirit…”

Nicholson, who is never too busy to lend a hand and help other small-stable horsemen by paddocking their horses, has had some nice horses himself. He trained the late charging Royal Warrior, who used to walk out of the starting gate and then fly down the lane to win the Harvest Gold Plate, the Speed to Spare, an allowance race and an optional claiming race in 2016.

Like Deuces Are Wild, Frank Bodell, who owns Frank’s Victory Plastics - an injection moulding company that employs Nicholson and many other horsemen in the off-season — owned Royal Warrior too. Still does for that matter. Only now the horse is living out his retirement on Bodell’s farm 10 miles west of Airdrie. “Frank didn’t want to run Royal Warrior for a claiming price so he retired him. He’s nine-years-old and now runs around the farm with about 35 other horse Frank has retired.”

Nicholson also trained Adelantar - his first stakes winner who won the Count Lathum in 1998 - Dowhatyouthinksright, who won the Two-Year-Old Sales Stake and the Alberta Fall Classic in 2002 and had to compete with the great Raylene, who won the Canadian Derby in 2003. “We hooked into Raylene a couple of times but were always second best.”

And then there was Youbetteryoubet, who won the Three-Year-Old Sales Stake. But his favourite horse was Manhattan Wolf. “He never won a stake. He was a $30,000 claimer that raced 36 times and won 12 of them. He had real bad feet but he was sure a nice horse.”

Nicholson was 22 and working for Arthur when he claimed his first horse, Spunky One, in 1985 for $4,250. “I claimed him off of Dale Saunders and Floyd was wild. He and Saunders had a claiming war going on. They claimed 37 horses off one another and things had just settled down between the two of them. “Then I went and claimed Spunky One without telling Floyd what I was going to do. Like I said, Floyd went crazy. He kept asking me if I wanted to start the feud they had going again. “I said ‘Floyd I claimed him for myself; not for you.’ But it still took a full day before he calmed himself down. I had to borrow the money from the bank to claim that horse. My step mother was a bank manager and she told me that instead of telling the bank I was using the money to buy a racehorse I’d be better off saying I was going to buy a truck. So that’s what I did.”

Spunky One paid immediate dividends winning his first start for Nicholson, who took out his trainer’s license and went out on his own. “Nancy Jumpsen rode her. She got stopped twice. I nearly had a heart attack but Nancy got her out and won. “She ran second the next time, had a couple of thirds and I lost her for $5,000 so it worked out well. I was able to pay off the bank loan in a short time.”

When Nicholson started on his own he only had a couple of horses. He’s had as many as 25 horses in his barn but now he’s back to six. “Twenty or 25 horses is too many. I like having five or six in the barn. Then it’s hands on and I can do it by myself. Danny Jones has a couple of horses and he helps me out and I help him out,” he said of the son of the legendary Fred Jones.

“We do things together and it works out good,” said Nicholson, who left school in Grade 10. “I knew what I wanted to do and it wasn’t going to school. As far back as I remember the only thing I wanted to do was work with horses. I was always late for school anyway. I remember one day the Biology teacher asked me why I was never at school on time and I told him it was because I work in the morning. The Biology teacher asked me what I could be doing that early in the morning and I told him I worked at the track. He said ‘Well I like going to the races. If you hear anything let me know.’”

When Nicholson, who left school in Grade 10, worked for Goodwin he made a couple of trips south to Maryland and California. “It was shortly after Pole Position retired. Those were fun times. You’d get in the van with the horses and away you’d go. “I saw Pole Position run but I never got to work with that horse which is too bad because he was so good,” he said of the horse which was purchased for $13,500 by four meat packers, an electrical contractor and a painting contractor — all from  Edmonton — who couldn’t be beat in Alberta and didn’t get beat in many other places either.

In 1979 Pole Position won California's San Felipe and Santa Catalina stakes. Chris McCarron rode Pole Position in the Santa Catalina; Sandy Hawley rode him in the San Felipe — two of the best jockeys who ever climbed into a saddle. In the San Felipe he defeated Flying Paster, who would go on to win over $1 million and was the second favourite for the Kentucky Derby behind the eventual winner Spectacular Bid.

Pole Position would also set the track record for a mile and a sixteenth at Santa Anita. And he equalled the track record running seven furlongs in 1:22 1/5, while winning the Capitol Handicap at Laurel, Md. High-weighted at 126 pounds Pole Position also won the John B. Campbell at Bowie, Md., a track where he also won the Native Dancer by three widening lengths.

“He won from coast to coast,” said Nicholson. Christ he was a nice horse. He never got out broke.” When Goodwin passed away he gave Nicholson Pole Position’s halter. “I kept it hanging on my door handle. I never used it until last weekend when I used it on both Deuces Are Wild and A Ring ’n a Rose. It turned out to be a good luck charm and you can’t have enough luck in this game.”

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