Riding instructor Roy Sturgeon

Riding instructor Roy Sturgeon

Up at Downs

Few teenagers will experience racing a thoroughbred. But 17-year-old Cassidy Meston gets to live it each week at Canada’s largest one-mile racetrack.

Few teenagers will experience racing a thoroughbred.

But 17-year-old Cassidy Meston gets to live it each week at Canada’s largest one-mile racetrack.

On Wednesday nights, Meston heads to Alberta Downs near Lacombe, where he trains with several other young people under Roy Sturgeon, a retired professional jockey who is leading a unusual and free amateur racing program.

Meston grins and says he likes the speed of racing this breed of horse.

Since thoroughbreds can clock more than 50 km/h, he’s picked the right animal.

Growing up on a farm between Alix and Tees, Meston normally rides western style. With the help of his father, Meston trained his own quarter horse, Badger, three years ago.

He sought another challenge and found it at the track. The racing saddle has no horn to hang onto so balancing is tough.

“There’s different things we have to do to make sure the horses go around the track safely,” said Meston, while in the stable grooming J Alta, the horse he had just trained with.

He’s learned the importance of having the race horse switch its lead, so its outside lead or leg is used on the straightaway and when it goes into the turns, it switches to its inside lead.

“You have to bring their head out and kind of step down and they’ll switch leads for you, so there’s a different posture you have to be in,” said Meston.

Meston calls the program a lot of fun because he gets to go so fast on the track. Plus he loves horses. His family farm has 10 riding horses, plus his grandfather has about 100 wild horses for rodeo stock purposes.

“I would love to be a pro jockey, but there are restrictions on height and weight,” said Meston, who stands about 1.73 metres tall (five foot eight) and 59 kg (130 pounds).

When he’s older, Meston could always get a job exercising racehorses at tracks, like Northlands Park in Edmonton.

“I love working with Roy and he’s really good at teaching and he always makes sure that safety is first,” said Meston. “And we also have some fun, racing on weekends.”

Sturgeon climbs onto his horse and with Meston, he races around the oval, slowly at first before heading down the final stretch. He’s talking with Meston the whole time, from the moment they leave the starting gate.

“You can’t let them go full out, they can only run so far at top speed,” said Sturgeon after the training session is done. “And that’s what the kids don’t realize. So we take a hold of the horses so their heads are pretty much side by side, and then hopefully when it works right, a few jumps before the wire, you let them run and whoever wins, wins.”

Sometimes the young riders are pulling too much, sometimes not enough. It takes time to learn.

Sturgeon is patient.

“The biggest thing is safety because you are going so fast,” he said.

Through training these riders, Sturgeon hopes he’ll see some of them continue in the horseracing industry. He keeps busy himself as an outrider, assistant race secretary and paddock judge.

“Eventually, we’d like to turn this into a school,” said Sturgeon. “Whoever wants to come, we’ll show them as much as they want.”

Sturgeon said if any participants bring horses, he tests them to see if they are suitable for racing.

While on her own gelding named Duke, Haley Scott will carefully lead a race horse from the paddock to the starting gate. She initially met Sturgeon’s daughter, who was part of the same 4-H club, and then she ended up working for Sturgeon one winter. Since then, she’s been hanging around the track.

“I’m learning more about the industry and how it works, but I don’t actually ride the racehorses — not yet,” said Scott, who’s been riding since she was 10. “People do really care about their horses in this industry and it’s a big part of Alberta agriculture.”

The 20-year-old Lacombe-area resident hopes to become a veterinarian focused on large animals and agricultural production.

The amateur racing program was started last year. Riders as young as 16 can learn how to drive harness horses or race thoroughbreds. Most of the youth who take up harness racing are already in the industry because their parents are involved. They receive training through volunteer drivers and trainers.

Most of the thoroughbreds in the program are retired racehorses.

Sturgeon provides the program at no expense because he said there are few young people coming up through the industry.

“We want to give them some hands-on experience,” he said.

Sturgeon teaches a handful of participants each week how to gallop and work horses, how to come out of the gate and how to race the horses safely.

Cochrane area resident Taylor Scheidt, 15, participates in amateur thoroughbred racing every second Sunday. Scheidt has been riding horses since she was four.

“It was to do something new, plus it’s fun,” said Scheidt.

The track season runs from spring to October. By the time it’s over, between 25 and 30 youth will receive training or help out in some way, whether it’s saddling horses or being at the starting gate.

Race manager Christina Ming said relatively inexperienced riders can be trained on standardbreds, but those who want to train on thoroughbreds should feel fairly comfortable on a horse.

“Even if they are just interested in learning how things work and how the race is run . . . we always need help,” said Ming, adding that racetrack owner Bobby Allen has been very supportive of the program.

Alberta Downs, which also has Western Canada’s only turf track, holds professional harness racing every Saturday and Sunday starting at 1:45 p.m., and amateur (thoroughbred) racing every second Sunday around 4 p.m.