The power went out at Assiniboia Downs after the fifth race on Wednesday night, probably short circuited by the hot riding of Poundmaker Cree Nation jockey Sheldon Chickeness, who won two races before the lights went out.
The 39-year-old Indigenous jockey from Saskatchewan is off to his best start ever at Assiniboia Downs, and not only does he have the highest average win payoff at $27.30, but he’s also winning in different styles.
On Wednesday night he duelled inside aboard Free Music to post an upset in the first race, and in the third race he stalked outside and came with a stretch-long rally to be just up aboard Belle Strike. The night before he rated Home Early Shirley to win the second race, and on Monday night he snuck up the rail aboard Sue’s Easter Girl to post another upset.
If you have a rider who can adjust to any type of pace scenario and give your horse a chance to win every time, you’re in dreamland — you’ve got options. And although all the aforementioned winners came for trainer Jerry Gourneau, last week Chickeness also showcased his Forego/Willie Shoemaker skills aboard West Princess for trainer Marvin Buffalo, exploding home from last to first to win at 25-1.
"I like riding those kind," said Chickeness, who is sneaking up in the standings with eight winners so far. While jockey Jorge Carreno has opened daylight on the field with 18 winners, Chickeness is now only three wins behind runner-up Stanley Chadee Jr., who has 11 victories.
Chickeness officially started riding in 2001 at Marquis Downs. He credits Andy Scarlett and Tim Moccasin for teaching him the riding ropes, and the former for constantly lecturing him on the dangers of drugs and alcohol, but he actually cut his teeth on bush meets throughout Saskatchewan shortly after the age of 12.
"A guy asked me if I wanted to try it and I think we won four out of five races my first time out," said Chickeness. "After that I was hooked. There was a lot of fighting. You learn to pick up your lines fast. One guy would pull your feet right out of the stirrups. They were hard teachers and they rode tight."
Chickeness has now compiled a career record of 242-261-296 from 2,387 mounts and earned nore than a million dollars in purses, and that doesn’t include quarter horses. His favourite horse was tough allowance winner Victory Call for trainer Lorna Gray, but his biggest win to date came in the 2017 Saskatchewan Derby aboard Dublin Day for Poundmaker Cree Nation Chief Duane Antoine and trainer Robbin Martens. He’s also managed to avoid serious injuries.
"A broken arm and a broken leg," said Chickeness. "Nothing too serious."
Chickeness has had his ups and downs over the years, and admits he went through a partying phase when he hit legal age, but he appears much more focused on being a winner now. Many people return to their psychological roots as they get older, and Chickeness credits his parents Larry and Darlene with providing a good upbringing and solid foundation to fall back on.
"Growing up was good," said Chickeness. "There was a lot to keep me busy. Hockey, soccer and horses. It was a good place to grow up. And a good family. Mom was the hard ass. It was always tough love with her. My parents are getting up there now and I’d like to spend more time with them, but I’m always at the racetrack and with COVID there’s even less time.
"My sister passed away last year at 44. I think it was COVID. That was pretty hard on the whole family. We just didn’t get to spend much time together. I was busy and she was busy. We were close though. We talked a lot. That was probably the toughest thing I’ve ever had to deal with in my life."
Chickeness battled with his weight last year and took a year off from riding. He spent the past two winters exercising horses for Gourneau at Remington Park, Sam Houston and Fonner Park, but saw how the purses had increased at the Downs this year and decided he’d take a good run at getting his weight under control. Jogging, a personal sauna and exercising horses everyday now have his weight where it needs to be.
And when a rider gets hot, trainers take notice.
Chickeness should start to see more mounts coming his way outside of the Gourneau barn now, where he shows up every day at 4:45 a.m. And he’d better show up, as he’s married to Jennifer Tourangeau, Gourneau’s assistant trainer. The couple have six children, and Chickeness credits his wife for much of the success he’s had recently.
"She’s a hard worker," said Chickeness. "She keeps me in line. This is her second year as the assistant for Gourneau. She has her trainer’s licence too. Someday I think we want to settle here, buy a house and train some horses. People in Winnipeg have been good to us. We really enjoy it here.
"We just have to keep winning."