by Garnet Barnsdale
There was a bit of a buzz on social media Tuesday night surrounding a mare making her first lifetime start at The Raceway at Western Fair in London, ON.
What got tweeters tweeting was the age of this debutant named Thatll Be Trouble, a full-sister to 29-time winner and $296,000 earner Thatll be Franny. Thatll Be Trouble was making her first pari-mutuel start at age 10, which is obviously rare, if not unheard of.
The question that popped into my head – and I’m sure everyone else’s – was why now? Why start a mare out racing at such a ripe age?
“Being a full-sister to Thatll Be Franny kind of keeps you trying,” trainer/driver Ken Gowan said. “She does have problems with the right front leg, and I almost never start them off young any more. They’re usually three to four before I even throw a harness on and if they start to have any trouble, I have a tendency to just turn them out for a while and forget about them.”
Gowan recalled that he started this race mare out as a 4-year-old. So, what about the six years in between?
“She was a small filly,” he said. “I tried to get her started a couple of times. I’d get her back and she’d start to go off. I won’t spend a bundle doctoring them. I guess there are some guys that would work with them and try to race them that way. I prefer to just quit.”
Gowan is 81 years old and he said his own health also played a factor in the delay to the start of Thatll Be Trouble’s racing career. “I didn’t start her back because I was lamer than she was,” he said laughing. “I had a bad knee but this spring I finally gave in and let them put a new joint in it. Everybody says I should have had it done a long time ago, and, it’s accurate.”
While Thatll Be Trouble didn’t pick up a check in her unveiling, she did finish 6th, 14 3/4 lengths behind the winner with a broken equipment notation in her chart line. Gowan said the bit popped out of her mouth during the race. “Oh boy,” he said. “That wasn’t quite what I said when I went into the turn like that!”
Gowan said he was pleased with the mare’s initial effort. “Sure we’d all like to go home with that big winning check in the first start, too,” he said. “She kind of knows that she wants to be a racehorse, but with her having the leg trouble, you’ve got to be a little more cautious on how hard you train them.” The Wallacetown resident added the mare’s leg of concern “looked great” after the race.
The plan is to keep racing her for now. “Unless she starts to sore up, I’ll put her in – as long as she stays reasonably sound,” said Gowan who added that he has been in the business since he was 18. “And I’m only 25 now,” he said before breaking into laughter. “I’ve actually been at it 63 years or so,” and he has no plans of quitting.
“I feel good, so why not?” he asked. “You see people retire, they sit there for a year, then they drop dead.” Gowan, who has 322 lifetime wins to his credit and slightly more than $1 million in earnings, said that at this point he considers himself a hobbyist.
He remembers the mare Madcap Ferndale – a daughter of Most Happy Fella – as one of his best. “She made about $93,000 in three years racing with the preferred mares a lot,” he said. ‘Next to Thatll Be Franny, she’d be my best one, but, when you compare it, Franny earned just under $300,00 and if you think about back when Madcap raced, the biggest purse she raced for was $5,000. $96,000 in earnings at that time could buy you probably three to four 100-acre farms. Now, Franny goes out and makes almost $300,000 and you couldn’t buy half a farm with that. So, how do you compare?”
I got the feeling the likeable octogenarian would have chatted a lot longer and probably has many more interesting stories to tell. He finally summed up the story with a simple statement, all the while chuckling. “She’s a little old and so is the driver.”