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A small tear tried to work it’s way down the cheek of normally stoic trainer Tim Rycroft. But Rycroft quickly wiped it away. “I just got so emotional when I could see Trooper John was going to win his last start, the September 27 Century Mile. I just started hollering.”
It was Trooper John’s 11th career victory. But this one was different. Much different. “People had written him off,” said Rycroft, once again Alberta’s leading thoroughbred trainer, who will send Trooper John back out in this Sunday’s Don Getty Handicap, the final stakes race of the year at Century Mile. “The bettors sent him off at at better than 16-1 odds. It was an insult. They forgot how good a race horse he has been. They forgot that he was a former Horse of the Year. They forgot he was a champion. “I was offended.”
One start - one lone blemish in a marvellous career - seemed to have triggered the fan’s collective apprehension - a 9th and last place finish in his previous start, the Sept. 2 Arctic Laur, also at Century Mile. But a lot happened to Trooper John in the Arctic Laur that most racing fans wouldn’t have known. “I scoped him after that race and his trachea, mouth and throat were lined with sand. He just couldn’t breathe,” said Rycroft. “I mean imagine you running as hard as you can and then somebody throws a hand full of sand in your face. You wouldn’t be able to run either.”
It wasn’t the first time Trooper John had choked on sand. “No, he’s done it a few times the last couple of years,” said Rycroft. “He runs with his head a little lower than most horses and I think the way he holds his head causes him to swallow all that sand. “It doesn’t happen when he’s right behind another horse. It happens when he’s about five or six lengths behind. That’s when he gets the most kick back.”
To prevent that from happening again, jockey Enrique Gonzalez gave Trooper John the perfect ride in the Century Mile. Breaking on top, Gonzalez took Trooper John back to seventh and then, down the backstretch, took him to the outside away from the kick back of sand and out in the clear. From there it was clean sailing. Trooper John swooped up four wide around the final turn, got the lead at the top of the stretch and never looked back returning an unfathomable $35.60 to win.
“Once they fanned out turning for home I knew they weren’t going to beat him,” said Rycroft. “I hollered ‘You got them. “Good horses - and he’s a very good horse - when they are on a mission and victory is in sight they know how to close it out. They know they can get there and they’re hard to out run. Trooper John; he knows where the wire is.”
As well as plotting the strategy, Rycroft did one more thing to assist Trooper John. He had minor throat surgery performed right in the horse’s stall to help his breathing. “Whether it was keeping him out of the kick back or the operation, it worked. It was probably a combination of both,” said Rycroft. “I scoped him after the Century Mile and he came back real good. I’ve worked him since that race too and again he was nice and clean.”
Had Trooper John not won the Century Mile - or at least not performed a lot better than he did in the Arctic Laur - Rycroft said he probably would have talked to owners Norm Castiglione and Robert Vargo about retiring the now six-year-old. “I was worried that, like an old prize fighter, maybe he had one or two many fights. I didn’t want to embarrass him. He’s done too much for us.”
Has he ever. As well as winning his 11th race in 28 starts, Trooper John has also finished second six times and third seven times for career earnings of over $390,000. “His 1-2-3 percentage is through the roof. He’s hardly ever been off the board. You gain a lot of respect for a horse like that - horses that try hard all the time and overcome a lot of stuff.
“I was pretty happy for the horse. When he was half way down the stretch I had a tear in my eye because, like I said, everybody had written him off.”
As a two-year-old in 2016, Trooper John won three of his six starts ending that season with wins in both the Winnipeg Futurity at Assiniboia Downs and then - by nine and a half lengths - in the Canadian Juvenile at Northlands Park. He would only get better.
In 2017 - his three-year-old season - Trooper John won the Western Canada, Ky Alta and Count Lathum - the latter by 9 1/2 lengths again. Then he dead-heated for second in the controversial Canadian Derby and lost by a nose in the B.C. Derby. “He probably should have won the B.C. Derby. He was fanned really wide in that race and still barely lost. But that’s horse racing.”
For his efforts, Trooper John was named both Horse of the Year and Champion Three-Year-Old. In 2018 Trooper John won both The Journal - for the first of two times - and then the Don Getty, the race he will try and repeat in on Sunday. That year’s Don Getty culminated a record-breaking afternoon for Rycroft, who won a Canadian record six wins on that card.
“Trooper John is probably the best horse I’ve trained when you consider what he’s done in his career. Win, lose or draw he’s a rock star to me. When he won the Century Mile I wasn’t surprised in the least. Like I said, the only surprise was the price he paid.”
Rycroft said “Trooper John is cool to have around the barn. He’s never any trouble. We usually hand walk him but I put him on the walker (Monday) morning and he was like a fricken colt. You train him and he does the job. You throw him a little lunch and he eats it up.”
For a monster on the track, Trooper John is completely laid back off the track. “He’s like a teenager. He likes to eat and he likes to sleep. After we’ve fed Trooper John his breakfast he likes to lay down and sleep some more. Even just before he runs we often have to wake him up. He’ll just lay down and go to sleep. He’ll be covered in shavings and look goofy.”
Rycroft has compared Trooper John to Killin Me Smalls, another champion, now retired, who was named Alberta’s Aged Older Horse three straight years. “They’re both warriors. They’re both tough. They both show up and they both will run on any kind of a track - bad, good, fast or slop. “Because he’s an old warrior you have to look after him. I use a therapeutic blanket on him and when he trains he jogs a mile before he trains so that he can stretch out and get everything warm.”
Asked how he thought Trooper John will do on Sunday Rycroft, who is superstitious first stated “I don’t want to say. I’ve done enough bragging about him and if I say anything he’ll go out and run bad.” But then Rycroft did venture a little forward. “If everything goes well and he has a decent trip he’ll run well. My only concern is the 9-furlong distance. I’m not sure he really wants to go that far.
Sixteen horses have nominated for the Don Getty which will take entries Wednesday. Rycroft said he hasn’t looked at the list which includes Canadian Derby winner Real Grace; B.C.’s venerable nine-year-old Calgary Caper, who has won over $420,000; Go Away, who was favoured in the Century Mile; the late running Shimshine, who should definitely appreciate the added distance; last year’s Don Getty winner Sir Bronx and Arctic Laur winner Whiskey Bound.
STOCK REPORT - This is the second last weekend of thoroughbred racing in Alberta. The meet ends with racing on Nov. 6th and 8th. Harness racing will then take over on weekend of Nov. 14. They will then race every Saturday and Sunday (post times 6:15) until Thursday Dec. 31. There is also a stakes race this Friday, the Red Smith, for older fillies and mares. Only four horses entered that race including Hidden Grace, also trained by Rycroft, who has won 12 of 16 starts along with two seconds and two thirds, and Raider, who would appreciate a wet surface.
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