They're like Mississippi riverboat gamblers -- holding their cards close to their vest in a high-stakes game of Texas hold 'em. Only in this game, the cards are thoroughbred horses and the players are the men who train them. With Sunday's opening day looming, Assiniboia Downs is where the game is about to unfold.
"You just don't know (what to expect)," said the Downs' nine-time trainer of the year, Ardell Sayler. "This game is tough. One year you win it all and the next year nothing goes right."
Last year Sayler finished third behind co-winners Tom Gardipy Jr. and Carl Anderson, who had 45 wins each. Sayler picked up 42 trips to the winner's circle.
"I have much the same (number of horses) as last year," said Gardipy. "I had about 25 steady last year, sometimes more, sometimes less. I bought a few decent horses (over the winter), but no surprises. They'll be OK here, but not stake material or nothing like that."
Gardipy said he was still looking for a derby horse. "We just couldn't find that right horse."
He expects that the usual suspects -- Sayler, Anderson, Jared Brown (fourth in '09 with 35) and Chad Torevell (fifth with 22) -- will be the ones to beat again this year. "They're all good horsemen."
Anderson has been singing the praises of this spring's unseasonal weather.
"We've haven't missed any days (training) so we're in good shape in general. The horses that have been running (down south) will still have the advantage, but after the first race we are on par with that," says Anderson.
Back for another season is five-year-old mare Smiling and eight-year-old gelding Brinello, who has won the Agassiz Stakes three years in a row, as well as four-year-old fillies Bound To Thrill and Advancia.
Gardipy does have a three-year-old filly in his barn, Honorable Lady (trained last year by Clayton Gray), who might surprise a few. "She won a stake (Graduation) last year, but it's different winning a stake as a two-year-old than as a three-year-old. It's a whole different game."
Gardipy and Anderson have different training styles. "If they are not competitive, I move them to another track where they will be, and bring in new horses," said Gardipy last year.
Anderson likes taking on two-year-olds and trying to build a stable of "young, promising horses," but he isn't afraid to keep older horses around, like Brinello, an eight-year-old gelding.
"We won the Agassiz Stakes three times in a row with him, and that is rare. You can go around the world, and you'll never see another horse win the same three stakes in a row," he said.
Brown has cut back on his inventory and will keep about 30 horses this year, about half last year's number. He has a few returning favourites, but at the moment no stakes horses.
"I do have a couple of nice horses coming in, but we'll talk about them if they show up," says Brown.
As for Torevell, "We're loaded up with maidens, which is not a bad thing. Usually you can try to win two or three races with those. There are five or six that I haven't even run yet."
As far as derby horses go, Torevell isn't making any predictions.
"It's tough to say at this point. There's always those you hope will be good enough, but until the gates open you really don't know. Theglow is back in the barn and he's been running really well so we're excited about him." The four-year-old colt won the Golden Boy Stake last year.
"I don't strive to be leading trainer," said Torevell, "but if it turns out that way, that's great."