Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Just short of a miracle

Local trainer Buffalo gives Asmussen a scare with Storm Chance

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Steve Asmussen: 6,830 career wins. Marvin Buffalo: 120.

If it was a boxing match they would have stopped it. Or never have scheduled it. Because there was no way local trainer Marvin Buffalo was beating Eclipse Award winning trainer Steve Asmussen in last Monday's Manitoba Derby.

But horse races aren't boxing matches' underdogs win every day.

Buffalo didn't beat Asmussen in the Manitoba Derby, but he certainly gave it one heck of a try with Hy Road Stable's Storm Chance, and it was much, much closer than anyone expected. Actually, Storm Chance probably could have won the race.

"I thought we had a good chance," said the 46-year-old Buffalo. "You get on enough horses and you get to tell the good ones from the not-so-good ones. He's a strong horse and he's still learning and maturing."

Storm Chance was on the lead heading into the final turn in the Manitoba Derby when he nonchalantly decided to take a break from the proceedings and drifted out. That allowed race winner Street Prancer, trained by Asmussen, to open up a clear lead into the stretch. Storm Chance then decided to rejoin horse world and came flying down the stretch to finish third, only 21/4-lengths behind the winner. He probably lost three to four lengths on the turn.

In other words...

"I got beat by Asmussen and Pletcher," smiled Buffalo, who was thrilled with the effort he got from Storm Chance. Asmussen and Todd Pletcher have both won multiple Eclipse Awards as champion trainers in North America. Marvin and his wife Debbie won't be winning an Eclipse Award any time soon, but they do take excellent care of their horses, and they love what they do.

Both come from horsey families. Debbie's father was Max Graham of Sunshine Riding Academy. She's worked with horses all her life -- show horses, pony horses, race horses.

"That's what we did," said Debbie. "There was never anything else."

Marvin grew up with horses on Day Star First Nation Reserve in Saskatchewan, and started getting on racehorses at age 13 when his father Sydney, also a trainer, was away.

"He had cheaper horses that nobody else wanted to spend the time on," said Buffalo. "Fixer-uppers. People said they didn't belong, that they shouldn't be at the track. But we learned a lot from them. And he won with them."

Buffalo recalled asking his father why he stuck it out at the track after overhearing someone tell his dad that his "skinny dogs" didn't belong, among other things.

"He told me he loved horse racing and horses," said Buffalo. "I watched him win and gain the respect of others at the track. I've always wanted to do the same, to carry on that family tradition. As I get older, I understand why he kept at it. I'm the same way. I just love horse racing and riding horses. And what could be better than doing something you love every day and getting paid for it."

Marvin met Debbie in 2002 and got to know his future wife by exercising horses for her. He had a small string of his own and exercised up to 25 horses a day for others. The couple married in 2008, but Debbie remembered in particular how impressed she was with Marvin's parents, Sydney and Monica.

Debbie said there was a certain sense of "good" that came through in their words about honesty, hard work and integrity. She went on to spend some time on the reserve and was not well accepted, at first. She started offering hot lunches in the band office and once people got to know her, they warmed.

"Now when we go there it's 'Where's Debbie?' " said Marvin.

A genuine match, Debbie helps Marvin in the barn with the horses and deals with the business side of things, while Marvin exercises all the horses, among his other training responsibilities. When not at the track, Debbie owns and runs Graham's Pony Rides with her stable of 15 Welsh and Shetland ponies.

"Dad started the business 40 years ago," said Debbie. "I've been doing it for about three years now as the owner. We offer pony rides at birthday parties, fairs, churches, daycares, schools and other functions."

Debbie also has a carousel, which is basically a live version of a merry-go-round.

"I'd like to acknowledge and thank the Manitoba Jockey Club for all the work they did to keep the track alive," said Buffalo in closing. "If racing was finished, I don't know about others here, but for me it probably would have meant the end of my training career."

"They saved our jobs."

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition August 8, 2014 C5

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