Nothing special here – just a couple of guys checking out a paddock near Gibbons, Alta., slurping morning coffee and shooting the breeze.
And, no surprise, they get to chatting about horses.
One in particular.
A thoroughbred that Cody Ridsdale’s friend is looking to unload. He knows of a girl who might want it. The horse appears to have leg issues, so he’s never going to make it to the race track.
In other words, a useless specimen – to the owner, anyway.
Ridsdale, a blossoming wagon driver, perks up: “Well, if you’re going to give him away, we’ll take him and try him.”
After all, what did he have to lose?
So Ridsdale, in off-season workouts at home, auditioned Wild, a big bay.
“His reputation was … he’d act like he was going to go good, then he’d try to run away – like, randomly,” says Ridsdale. “Sure enough, we were out in the field, and he tried to test me and run away.
“But we were training in probably two feet of snow at the time. So every time he tried to run away, I’d just drive him into the snow and he’d be hopping along like a deer.
“And he could run.”
Wild certainly hasn’t stopped.
Ridsdale, making his debut at the 2017 GMC Rangeland Derby, knows he owes a lot to the horse he got three years ago – for free.
“He’s the kingpin of my operation right now,” he says of his left leader. “An amazing horse. This is the only horse I’ve had that is as good as he is. He just makes my whole outfit pretty good.
“If it wasn’t for that morning drinking coffee, I wouldn’t even have the horse in my barn, right?”
The sentiment isn’t uncommon.
Talk to any driver at the Calgary Stampede and hear about the horse no one else needed.
Everyone’s got a tale – about low-budget horsepower, about barnyard bargains.
Some horses cost as much as $30,000, but the majority fall into the $1,500 to $6,000 range. So if you can round out your team with a productive cheapie, why not?
“You find horses like that, for sure,” says Ridsdale. “Everyone will have a story.”
Like Dustin Gorst’s.
During breakfast at a diner near Canterbury Park in Minnesota, a lady approached his travel partner with a sales pitch. Wary, they trooped over to the barn, peeked into the box stall, and there he was.
Small – only 14 hands – and skinny.
“But she brought him out and he was full of energy,” says Gorst. “We put him in a round pen and I just liked the way he played. Very athletic.”
Piqued, Gorst looked up his track record – five wins and a growing pile of second-place finishes, 13.
“They kept dropping him and dropping him and dropping him and dropping him (into smaller claim races),” he says, “and he couldn’t win anymore.”
Gorst also discovered that this horse – General Lafayette – was from highly regarded stud Lionheart. He sold for $75,000 as a yearling, $350,000 as a two-year-old.
Now he was seven – and free of suitors.
The owner said: “Well, can you make me an offer?”
Gorst handed her $500.
And? General was a natural right leader.
“He was my best horse for about two and a half years,” Gorst says. “He really hunted the track. He did it on his own.”
Providing bang for the buck on Troy Dorchester’s wagon was Go Pepper Go, who never won a dime at Hastings Racecourse.
“My uncle Dallas bought him, brought him home, broke him,” says Dorchester. “Then we bought him cheap – $1,500 or $2,000 – and he was unreal. Pretty cool horse.”
For Rick Fraser, two economical right wheelers spring to mind.
One named Earwhig – and promptly renamed Dalton – cost $1,000 in Vancouver.
“Nobody wanted him out there, nobody wanted him anywhere,” says Fraser. “But he was the star for years on our wagon outfit.”
Ditto Zorba, another $1,000 acquisition.
“Everyone has that one special horse that comes along, was really cheap, that nobody wanted,” Fraser says. “And, all of a sudden, he turns into a star.”
Jason Glass’s portside mainstay – wheeler or leader – is named Haystack. He came off the track in Lexington, Ky., as a two-year-old after hurting his leg. He raced only once.
“He’s not that cheap, but he’s cheap for what he is – I paid $10,000,” says Glass. “But if he would have continued on the race track, who knows what he’d have been worth? He’s a very special horse. You know, $10,000 don’t sound cheap, but for a horse of his calibre? Potentially, they’re million-dollar horses.
“If he had stayed healthy on the race track, you might’ve been watching him on TV in some real big races.
“A horse like that you can’t really put a price on. He’s priceless for me.”
And sometimes, well, sometimes you have to shell out for someone else’s legwork.
Take, for instance, Bobby, the chestnut ace of Kelly Sutherland’s prime.
Bobby was profitably paired with a grey named Ralph (after the former premier of Alberta). Together, they managed to capture Dash for Cash championships off every barrel and, by the end of their racing careers, had stuffed winnings of more than $750,000 into Sutherland’s dungarees.
Which makes Bobby’s backstory even more extraordinary.
“He actually came out of a meat pen,” says Sutherland. “He was sold in Saskatoon for slaughter and Bobby Dimmer bought him for $750 and shipped him back up from Spokane.”
A pause. A chuckle.
“Needless to say, I paid a lot more than $750,” says Sutherland. “I paid $8,000 – and traded three horses to boot – for him. But he was just incredible.
“He went on to have a full career. He was four years old when Bobby bought him, and that horse lived to be 19 or 20 years old.”