Off to the B.C. Derby

Local equestrians hopeful for champion horse, Academic

By CURTIS J. PHILLIPS, Connect Weekly

Robert Vargo poses beside a framed painting of Knight’s Covenant winner of 75th Alberta Derby in 2005. Vargo, Norm Castiglione and Danny Dion’s shared champion horse, Academic, heads to the 126th British Columbia Derby on September 13, 2015. FILE PHOTO.

Robert Vargo poses beside a framed painting of Knight’s Covenant winner of 75th Alberta Derby in 2005. Vargo, Norm Castiglione and Danny Dion’s shared champion horse, Academic, heads to the 126th British Columbia Derby on September 13, 2015. FILE PHOTO.

Ten years ago, it was written in this space that we would love to be that fly on the wall if – and when – local thoroughbred horse owners Norm Castiglione, Mickey Demers, Danny Dion and Robert (Bob) Vargo sat down to talk shop.

Between the four owners, they would have enough thoroughbreds in their respective stables to operate their own racing track.

Well, Dion of Bears Stables Ltd., and Castiglione and Vargo of Riversedge Racing Stables Ltd., sat down a few weeks ago. The final product was three-year old filly Academic winning the prestigious 86th Canadian Derby at Edmonton’s Northlands Park Racetrack & Casino on August 15, 2015.

Vargo had been to the Canadian Derby before, but never has a winner. In 2005, Knight’s Covenant captured the 75th Alberta Derby at 25-1 odds and would later place third in the Canadian Derby.

Also making it to the Canadian classic, from Riversedge Racing Stables Ltd., were Lemon Loaf, Deadly Truth and Clear the Runway.

Dion has had his fair share of winners to, which is an understatement, with Kentucky Bear, Fatal Bullet and Asserting Bear; just to name a few of his equines of excellence that have run to fame.

Kentucky Bear placed sixth at the 2008 Preakness Stakes of Triple Crown of Thoroughbred Racing fame.
Asserting Bear had placed third at the 2014 Queen’s Plate, Canada’s oldest thoroughbred horse race having started in 1860. Winning four major stakes in 2008, Fatal Bullet was voted for the Sovereign Award earning Canadian Horse of the Year and Canadian Champion Sprinter honours.

At this year’s Queen’s Plate, with a $1-million up for grabs (an $11.6 million handle), this was a chance for Dion to – once again – shine with Bear at Last and Academic in the 14-horse field.

Academic had made it to the Woodbine Racetrack in Toronto by defying the odds. A few weeks prior, Academic crossed the finish line first in the Woodbine Oaks, despite 66-1 odds. Unfortunately, Bear at Last and Academic placed 10th and 14th respectively.

After Academic’s poor showing at the Queen’s Plate, Vargo contacted Dion.

“Every year, I look for a Canadian Derby horse to buy, rent or sell and to get in that race. I needed a horse for the 2015 (Canadian) Derby,” said Vargo. “So, I told Danny to ‘dig down in to your purse somewhere. I need a horse.’ Then, I said, ‘What about Academic?’ I know he bombed out in his last race (Queen’s Plate), but it was just a bad ride from the rider.

“We are not into the same calibre (of ownership) that Danny is, but we have been chatting over the years. So, we sat down and we hashed out a deal on partnership (for Academic).”

Since 2000, Castiglione and Vargo’s Riversedge Racing Stables Ltd. has had 1,113 starts with 211 firsts, 194 seconds, 173 thirds, with earnings of $3,408,726.

“You are always gambling. We buy probably 25 new horses every year, yearlings, trying to find the right one to win,” said Robert Vargo.

Vargo said that when purchasing a horse: “You are always gambling. We buy probably 25 new horses every year, yearlings, trying to find the right one to win.”

Of comparing the Alberta Derby win in 2005, to the Canadian Derby win in 2015, Vargo said: “When I was in the Alberta Derby, I was just fresh to the sport at the time and did not know how hard it was to win. I had bought a horse (Knight’s Covenant), trained it and ran it and we won. I soon discovered that it ain’t that easy and that you are not in it to make money.

“Seeing Academic up-close, the feeling I got was, ‘Boy, this is a small horse,’” said Vargo. “But, he just had the look in his eyes, in that this horse can run.”

Academic won at 2:18.49. He was the first horse to break the 2:19.00 barrier since 2001 with Fancy As.

Next step for Academic is the 126th British Columbia Derby taking place on September 13, 2015 at Vancouver’s Hastings Racecourse. It’s here where they will try to break owner Peter Rederkop’s three year streak in the winner’s circle.

Catch you on the rebound.

– Connect Weekly –