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Horses in top trainer's blood

Assiniboia Downs is Danelson's favourite place to race

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Gary Danelson, the all-time leading trainer at Assiniboia Downs, saddles Dyna Ice. Fifty-five years ago this week he saddled his first winner at the downs.

PHIL HOSSACK / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS Enlarge Image

Gary Danelson, the all-time leading trainer at Assiniboia Downs, saddles Dyna Ice. Fifty-five years ago this week he saddled his first winner at the downs. Photo Store

What were you doing 55 years ago today, Aug. 29, 1959?

Remember, when a loaf of bread was 20 cents, a gallon of gas was 25 cents, T-bone steak was $1.09 a pound, Bonanza made its television debut and Bobby Darin sang Mack the Knife on the radio? Oh, and the average yearly wage was $5,010.

Assiniboia Downs' all-time leading trainer Gary Danelson knows exactly what he was doing that day -- saddling a winner named Coherence in the paddock at the Downs.

The fourth race tonight is named after the 77-year-old Danelson, who is not just the all-time leading trainer by number of wins at Assiniboia Downs, but also one of the sharpest horsemen ever seen here. He currently has 1,157 wins at ASD.

Born in Yuba City, Calif., Danelson grew up on a wheat farm. His father was a horse trainer and his mother grew up riding horses on a ranch in Montana. In other words, he had horses in his blood from the beginning. He began riding for his father in the bushes and lost the first race he ever rode for him before winning six in a row, but he soon grew too heavy to be a jockey.

Danelson took out his first trainer's licence in 1956 and won his first race on Aug. 29, 1959 at Assiniboia Downs with a horse named Coherence he purchased from Hall of Fame trainer Jack Van Berg.

"He had an ankle the size of small dog," said Danelson. "But it didn't bother him. And it scared everyone away. He won 24 races for me."

Danelson had taken a year off from college around the time and was expecting to return of school, but Coherence just kept winning and changed his mind. It was as good an education as you could get in the horse racing business -- travelling with a bad-legged claiming horse and living in a tack room -- but Danelson's success as a trainer probably best stemmed from a lesson he got from a trainer named Cass Nicholson.

Nicholson claimed a horse for $1,000, trained it for 30 days without a rider on its back, and set a track record with it in its first start back, going 11/2-miles and winning by the length of the stretch. Danelson tried the same thing with another horse and flopped. Nicholson explained to him every horse was different. His was a light horse that didn't eat much and didn't require heavy training. The horse Danelson claimed was heavier and a big eater. He needed more training.

Danelson learned every horse is different and requires a different type of training, a lesson most horse trainers never learn. This simple yet elusive knowledge came at a critical time during Danelson's formative years as a horseman, and it has won him a ton of races in 19 states and four provinces over six decades.

Danelson's list of local stakes winners, many of whom were reclamation projects he patched up and counselled to become stars, includes Cosmic Tip, Electric Fever, Baladi, Smart Figure, Car Keys, Smoky Cinder, Lee Ann Chin, River Lord and Slew Kandu. He's won the R.J. Speers five times, the Victoria Day Stakes three times (in a row) and the Gold Cup twice, among many other stakes wins.

While he has never had a large stable, Danelson tied for the local training title in 1969 with Bob Watt and again in 1970 with Clayton Gray. He won the training title at ASD outright once, in 2003, but while his win percentage has always been high, leading the trainer standings has never been big on his list of priorities.

Getting the best out of his horses is his priority.

As a true horseman, Danelson doesn't think it's any tougher to win races now than it was in the past. He said it just depends on your stock.

You can tell he misses the early years though, when racing was more family oriented and less business. There were more owner-trainers when he started and more community-style get-togethers. In that vein, he really appreciates the people of Winnipeg and Assiniboia Downs.

"Winnipeg is like a second home to me," he said. "I have a lot of good friends here. I know the people here better than the people back home. I've spent over half my adult life here. Assiniboia Downs is my favourite place to race."

Danelson and his longtime partner Bonnie McCrory spend their summers in Winnipeg and winters in Phoenix. They return to his ranch in Scobey, Mont., in the spring and fall for a few weeks, but you can tell he needs the horses.

"I'll continue to train horses for as long as I enjoy it," said Danelson. "I don't do as much now as I used too. I have excellent help, Steve Williams from Jamaica and Marco Velazquez from Mexico. You're only as good as your help in this business and I couldn't keep doing this if it weren't for them. I'm at the barn early in the morning and I still feed at night.

"I have to make sure they get the right hay."

Which, in itself, speaks volumes.

bgwilliams@gmail.com

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition August 29, 2014 C5

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