You could hear them yelling from the moon.
“There was a lot of cheering going on. I had no voice left,” said Jerri Robertson, trainer and co-owner of Smart Play. The locally-trained horse recently finished third - just a length from winning it all - in the $125,000 Canadian Derby, Alberta’s richest and most prestigious thoroughbred race of the year at Century Mile.
“My throat is just getting better now,” agreed Lesley Hardy, who also owns the three-year-old along with Robertson, Tim Kane and Heather Chieffo. “At one point, at the top of the stretch, I thought he was going to win it. I thought ‘Holy man; we’re still in this. It was sure exciting.”
But it wasn’t to be. After setting the early pace and in front for almost the entire lengthy mile and a quarter race, Smart Play got caught late by grey-haired, Manitoba Derby winner Uncharacteristic, who is a story all by himself, and then runner-up favourite Myopic.
Uncharacteristic was claimed for just $8,000 by Vancouver owner Adam Isfeld; Myopic, on the other hand, was purchased for $200,000. Smart Play, meanwhile, was bred and raised by Robertson and Pierre Esquirol.
“It was such an emotional day for us,” said Robertson. “I owned Smart Play’s mother, Smile Again Theta, who won a stakes race for us in 2015. She used to throw jockey Rico Walcott off at the starting gate all the time.
“Smart Play, who is nothing like her mother - he's really laid back - is her first foal. We’re all proud of him. Just to light the board is a dream come true.
“I didn’t know if I was going to enter him in the Derby because of the distance. But Antonio (jockey Reyes) worked him five furlongs a week before the race and he really liked the way he worked so I thought why not? How often do you get a chance to run in the Derby? It was fun to even be in the race. And then to almost win it… We all had a big thrill."
Before the race, Robertson said she'd be happy if Smart Play finished in the top four.
“He probably should have been second. But then Uncharacteristic dropped in and Smart Play threw his head up for a second. That cost him second money which is a shame," he said. “But he’s a green horse. Still learning what racing is all about.
Isfeld got $75,000 for the win; Myopic, who finished a scant neck ahead of Smart Play won $25,000. ‘Jonesy,’ which is Smart Play’s stable name, returned to his owners with $12,500. So it was a costly three feet.
“Jonsey ran great,” she said of the big, sturdy horse who has never been worse than third in six career starts.
Robertson has been successfully training thoroughbreds for over 30 years, racking up some $4 million in career earnings over that time. Besides Smart Play, she has trained Smart Fix, named Alberta's horse of the year two years ago. The Devon-area trainer is described as an inspiration to other female trainers in a decidedly male-dominated industry.
"I love horses and horse racing and I can't think of anything I'd sooner be doing, or anywhere else I'd sooner be," she said.
While Robertson had run one horse before in the Derby, Hardy, who owns the tack shop in Century Mile’s backstretch, hadn’t.
“I’ve been going to the races for over 60 years,” said Hardy, who also used to deliver feed. “My dad owned horses and he would often take me along to the races. I can still remember standing at the outside railing and yelling. It’s been my life."
Of Smart Play's Derby showing, Hardy said “It was unbelievably exciting. To get that far with a horse seems pretty unbelievable. I hope not but it’s probably a once-in-a-lifetime moment.”
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