Talk about getting an early start in life. Robbie Atras, 26, claims he got his start in the racing business before just about anybody. At least he's never found, or heard of, anyone getting into the business earlier.
"I've been coming to the track since I was quite young," he said from his office, located in Barn D at Assiniboia Downs. "Actually, since I was in my mom's stomach. My mom (Tanis Atras) owned a few horses with Jack Robertson (also a trainer at the Downs), and she worked for him a little bit on and off, so she was always around horses."
Atras, who now has his own stable of 18 horses, with a few more coming in soon, didn't miss a beat once he was able to walk on his own. He continued hanging out with his mom at the Downs, and eventually began working for Robertson.
"He really didn't have much choice, he went with me just about everywhere," chuckled Tanis, adding she never worked at the Downs full time, but simply helped her friend Robertson whenever she could.
"I was mucking stalls and riding too (even while pregnant with her son), but it was just pleasure riding. When Rob was four years old he could already name every horse in Jack's barn."
A typical mom, Tanis thinks her son works too hard.
"He's so passionate about it, but it's a lot of hard work. He lives in the barn, and works seven days a week. It's a tough go, but he loves it."
Into his third year training his own stable of horses, Atras shocked a lot of people back on May 25 when he claimed Grow Up, a six-year-old Kentucky-bred bay gelding by Victory Gallop, out of Our Sophia by Belong to Me from former owners Ted Konyk, Ted McQueen, Barry and Albert Blake, who was also Grow Up's trainer.
The horse's blood line is impressive. In 1998, his sire finished second in the Kentucky Derby and Preakness and won the Belmont Stakes, and earned a lifetime total of $3.5 million. Last year Victory Gallop was inducted into racing's Hall of Fame.
In 2009, Grow Up won the 1 1/16th miles R.J. Spears Stakes, and last year he finished second (with Vicky Baze up) behind Wooden Ya Know It (Janine Stianson up), in the Free Press Stakes.
On Sunday, Grow Up will get his chance to prove his worth in the $25,000, six-furlongs Free Press Stakes for colts and geldings three years and older. This time, Stianson will be in the irons.
The Free Press is the second derby race of the weekend. On Saturday, the six furlongs, $25,000 La Verendrye Stakes goes for fillies and mares three years and older.
Neither Atras, nor Downs CEO and veteran announcer Darren Dunn can recall any horse ever being claimed for $20,000 at the Downs before. "He'd (Dunn) know more than me, but I can't remember," said Atras. "There has been a couple of $15,000 claims."
Grow Up has had two outings so far this year. On May 13 Juan Crawford rode him to a five-furlong win over Hilton's Cherokee and Sea Web. On the night he was claimed, he ran in second (Crawford up again) after stumbling out of the gate, over 5 1/2 furlongs, behind Hilton's Cherokee and Draw.
Atras has had his eye on Grow Up for some time now.
"When the horse first came in I was working with Blake, and I groomed him for about a year and a half. I thought he was one of the top older geldings here, so I thought I'd take a chance to improve my stock, and take a shot at some of the stakes.
"It's a big-time gamble," he went on. "There's some top horses out there in Cherokee's Gold, Monsoon Rain, Southern Alliance and Vindgari, but I think he ranks up there with them."