by Chris Lomon
When it comes to their stake in horse racing, the couple from Bowden, AB doesn’t mind a little California dreaming.
Gordon and Helen Empey feel right at home on their Cenalta — a combination of ‘Central’ and ‘Alberta’ — Farms, an ideal spot for the standardbred owners to travel to either Century Downs in Calgary or The Track on 2 in Lacombe, the latter a 40-minute drive northeast of Bowden.
“I like the atmosphere up there,” said Gordon, of The Track on 2. “It’s very laid-back. It’s a pretty setting. Hopefully, everything goes well this season. I’m going to support them as much as I can. Once we get into the stakes races with our young horses, we probably won’t get to race there as much, but it’s a very nice place to race.”
He can say the same of Cal-Expo.
For the past four winters, the Empeys have taken their show on the road, so to speak, heading south to Sacramento to enjoy the warmer temperatures and the California racing scene.
“The first winter we went to California, we had great success down there,” said Gordon. “I guess you could say we enjoyed it so much, including the warm weather, that we’ve made the choice to go back every winter since then. It’s a great place to train the babies, which is something we really enjoy doing… training and working with the babies.”
As he noted, the Golden State proved to be a happy hunting ground from day one.
In Empey’s first training start at Cal-Expo, on Nov. 12, 2016, he sent out Cenalta Eclipse, a homebred son of Allamerican Merlin.
Dismissed at 27-1, the bay got away eighth, then moved up to fifth at the half-mile mark.
With Andrew Arsenault in the bike, Cenalta Eclipse, who had improved to third at the stretch call, rallied stoutly to notch a half-length score, cutting the final quarter in :28.3.
Cenalta Diamond and Cenalta Cougar, also Empey homebreds, each won three races that winter at Cal-Expo.
“We might not get to California this year because of the pandemic. We didn’t race too heavily last year, around 35 starts there. With the young horses, we were trying to save them for when we got back here for the stakes this summer. In hindsight, I wish I would have raced them a little more. But we have had some good success there.”
Not bad for a couple who started out with a modest purchase and modest expectations some 20-plus years ago.
Their harness racing story began with the purchase of a bay daughter of the great Jate Lobell, bred by Armstrong Bros. in Inglewood, ON.
“We bought our first horse from a friend I was working with, a horse that they brought back from the racetrack,” said Gordon. “Her name was Smitty’s Girl. We bred her and sold the first foal as a yearling. From there, we just started adding a few mares here and there. Early on, we bought mares from people who were either getting out of the business or cutting back on their numbers. The sales weren’t going that well, so we started racing a few ourselves.
“Only one horse that we’ve raced didn’t have the Cenalta name in it. Her name was Gravel Gertie. I bought in on her to use as a broodmare. Everything else has been a homebred. Now, we’re into the homebreds being out of homebred mares, too.”
Just over four years ago, Empey, then closing in on retirement age, earned his trainer’s license.
The decision was based on two particular considerations: economics and enjoyment.
“I was doing most of the training here on the farm any way,” he said, in reference to the dirt track at Cenalta Farms. “I figured that I could learn from my own mistakes. Money obviously plays a huge part in my decision to train. If I had to send my horses out to others trainers, we’d be out of the business, for sure. There just isn’t enough in it to make a living.
“The horses might be better if I handed them over to a seasoned trainer, but then my expenses would be that much more. That said,we do enjoy watching our horses – like Cenalta Power, Cenalta Call Girl, and Cenalta Diamond – go on and do well for other trainers.”
Training hasn’t always been a smooth ride for Empey.
He’s endured a fair share of injuries, thankfully, none of them too serious, since 2016.
Empey, who has 51 career training triumphs, takes all of it – bumps, breaks and bruises – in stride.
“I’ve had a couple of good ones,” he said, with a chuckle. “I broke my shoulder. I guess that would be four years ago. It was a young horse and he got spooked. Some broken ribs, on another horse – I can’t quite remember them all. I know there’s been three or four. Luckily, I’ve had some good friends take over when I’ve been down and out.”
Despite various times spent on the sidelines, Empey is proof that you can’t keep a good horseman down.
Still training his current stable of four, he continues to derive great joy from being around young horses.
“I love working with them. It’s very gratifying to see them develop. Sometimes, it can be a little frustrating, but it’s about taking time to guide them along and educate them the best you can. I don’t push them too early. I’d rather see them around as an older horse, then just give everything they’ve got as a two-year-old, and not having anything left in the tank later on.”
Empey sees his time in horse racing through a somewhat similar lens.
“Both my wife and I are getting a little long in the tooth, and you feel those aches and pains more now when you get down to do legs and things like that. It can be tough, but one of the good things with young horses is that you don’t have to deal with as many leg problems. And these young ones, they keep us going.”