LETTER: Come see the track’s hidden gems

Look further than Fraser Downs' big red barns and aluminum scoopers. Listen. There are stories here; lots of them. 

A training session at Fraser Downs

Upon first impression, one may not understand that there is more to this place than big red barns and the aroma of what the four-legged whinnying residents leave behind for their two-legged caregivers’ shovels. That’s understandable. Our brains constantly edit how we perceive the world around us.  It’s a coping mechanism that keeps us from being overwhelmed. We are programmed that way. But sometimes, what keeps us from being overwhelmed also prevents us from seeing the bigger picture. There is importance between the connections of what we see; and what we don’t see.

On Aug. 11 a community within our community invites you to their open house. This is the Backstretch at Fraser Downs. Come in. Look further than big red barns and aluminum scoopers. Listen. There are stories here; lots of them. I’d like to share some with you before you cross the welcome mat.

6:00 a.m. The calico cat sits atop a pile of limestone; a self-appointed watchman, taking everything in. There is a rhythm to this place, and he is quick to notice any misstep. For the moment, all is well. He yawns and gives his face a quick wash. Time to make the rounds.

The buildings are abuzz. His people have arrived. They are many. They groom and walk with, and yes even talk with, the horses. They muck the stalls, fix the walls, shoe the hooves and order the feed. They tend to everything horses may need. They are owners, officials, starters and vets, drivers and trainers and volunteers. They are all part this place. Some can’t seem to get enough of it. Take Ray, for instance.

Records show that Ray Gemmill (located on the east side of Barn D) was here on opening day over thirty-six years ago, partnered with racehorse Guy Dominion. Together they won the first race ever run at Cloverdale, much to the delight of Guy Dominion’s owners; a small group of hockey players from none other than the Vancouver Canucks. Retired as a driver since 1991, it’s been said that Mr. Gemmill doesn’t care much for sleeping in. This octogenarian with 486 lifetime wins is not one to sit idle. He continues to train a few horses and that’s good news for up and coming young driver/trainers that may want to glean something from his years of experience. But they’ll have to catch him first. He can still handle a jog cart.

Like Ray, Bill Young (located on the west side of Barn F) has also remained busy over the years. He is a trainer with over $1 million in earnings and 231 lifetime training wins. Standardbreds are a versatile breed and Bill’s favorite horse, Woodmere Windrop, is retired now, retrained as a riding horse. The owners and trainers here support Greener Pastures BC Standardbred Horse Adoption Society, a non-profit organization, where people like Alina McLeod are dedicated to finding caring, after track homes for retired racehorses. Her placements areas have included the BC Interior, Washington State and even Alaska.

Of course, one cannot speak of dedication without mentioning Marion Young, Bill’s wife. Prior to her passing, Marion’s passion for the Standardbreds seemed limitless. Whether she was promoting the industry by leading Backstretch tours, adding some items to the Hall of Fame display case in the atrium at the casino main lobby, or just being available to chat, she did so with the sincerity of someone that truly and deeply cared. The Marion Young Pace for Fillies race was created early last year to honor her memory and her contributions to Fraser Downs and the Standardbred Industry.

Monetary contribution has also been recognized. Last year, the Surrey Chamber of Commerce saw Dave Hudon (located in Barn B) and other drivers, address  their luncheon with their intention to donate their driver’s commission from that set of Western Regional Championship races to the Surrey Association for Community Living. Dave always seems to be in the top five drivers and trainers listing and he and his wife Kelly are always willing to spend some time helping with the Cloverdale Christmas Parade.

Like any good watchman, the calico cat is sure not overlook the little things on site, so a trip to the infield is in order. Turtles Digger, Diver and Daisy became accidental celebrities about five years ago when a security camera projected their pond onto the Clubhouse big screen.  Ever since, patrons expect at least one “Turtle-Cam” update on race days. Rumour has it that the little family may be expanding but for now things remain status quo. The watchman moves on to Barn D where three year old standouts Gotta Have Nukes, Hector Protector and Thieving Magpie are keeping Rick White busy.

Rick has driven over 2092 wins in his career. His training wins alone break the thousand mark. T Magpie and H Protector are owned by retired Air Canada pilot David Woolley and his wife Freda. While David had lots of opportunity to travel back in the day, he also enjoyed spending some time as a trainer at Fraser Downs.

Speaking of travel, there are a number of young people that spend their time shuffling back and forth between home, school and the Backstretch. Carson Abbott (son of Gord Abbott of Barn C) helps out around the barn while older brothers John and Mark are getting their feet wet in the driving and training program. Family and industry roots run deep here, as do internal and external support systems.

For example, competitors will split the cost of bedding for the benefit of all. A good amount Backstretch repair product and feed and tack supplies are locally sourced. Even the onsite coffee shop’s on board with an IOU if you forget your wallet in between races. Sometimes complicated, always necessary, relationships and connections are what make this place work.

Yes, upon first impression, the fabric may look a little worn, but right now, because of what you don’t see, there are no holes here. Well …maybe just the ones horses dig in their flooring or the ones little barn mice sneak through at night. But that’s nothing that a pile of limestone and a calico cat can’t fix. So for the moment, all is well.

S.L. McDonald,



S.L McDonald, Langley BC

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