AUBURN, Wash. – In the 14 years they’ve raced horses at Emerald Downs, Tim McCanna has been the winningest trainer nine times. That’s more than 700 victories and nearly $6.4 million in earnings. Three times he’s had four winners on a single card.
He doesn’t own the joint but, well, he owns the joint.
Yet still his heart is back in Spokane at Playfair, the track off Altamont abandoned in 2000 and long ago demolished. And his is a storyteller’s heart.
“Like the one when Switchy Richie put the mouse in his mouth to get the call on Captain Condo in the (Spokane) Derby,” said McCanna, the words rolling into a laugh.
Switchy Richie was Richie Geraci, a jockey agent who presumably earned his nickname for the agent’s penchant for wriggling his man out of a commitment to ride one horse when the opportunity presents itself on a better one. Captain Condo would eventually become one of the state’s most beloved horses with a record 16 stakes victories. The Captain’s owner and trainer was Vaden Ashby, who apparently could drive a hard bargain.
“There was a cat around the barn and it had killed a mouse – I think it was dead,” McCanna recalled. “They negotiated a deal that if Richie stuck the mouse in his mouth, Jerry Pruitt would get the ride. Richie had to close his lips with the tail sticking out.
“Hey, you had to be a hustler in those days.”
These days, too. If you can believe McCanna, Switchy Richie is now an “undercover cab driver for Amish kids in Ohio. When they get out of sight of their parents, they call Richie.”
But the track is gone and the characters along with it. And nobody mourns quite as much as McCanna, even as he builds his record and cements his reputation at Emerald Downs. Just stop by his barn on the backside and see the 9/16ths pole he salvaged when Playfair was coming down.
“I rolled through one day and it was the only thing standing,” he said. “The ‘Play’ was still up on the roof and the ‘fair’ was on the ground. It just jerked the heart out of you.”
For multiple reasons. Along with Yakima Meadows – also defunct – Playfair was a farm system for the big track on the West Side, and their deaths are reflected in the sometimes sickly seven-race cards and five-horse fields seen in Auburn. But for the 48-year-old McCanna, the loss was more personal simply because he grew up at the track shadowing his father, Dan.
“I went there when kids weren’t allowed on the front side,” McCanna said. “At least, that’s what he told me. Maybe that was just his way of keeping me in the back working. I just thought of that.
“All he had was a bunch of $500 broke-down horses and it was a full-time job getting them going.”
When McCanna and brother Boone – now a top jockey agent at Emerald – were in high school, their father turned over to them a wreck of a claimer named Stew the Dude.
“He won like four in a row and they claimed him and he paid our tuition to Gonzaga Prep,” McCanna said. “He was 9 or 10, a rehab horse we just took home and worked on. He put us through school. He wouldn’t have paid for it now, from what I hear. You’d need a couple of Stews.”
He has more than a couple now. He trains 80-some horses, and broke 40 2-year-olds over the winter at his 45-acre facility in Yakima’s West Valley, which includes a five-furlong track. But he acknowledged that he hasn’t had many stakes horses over the past couple of years, as the realities of racing and economics have changed.
“I’ve turned over a lot of claimers and some of the better ones I’ve had to sell,” he admitted. “You’d love to hold on to them, but I’m in this to make a living and make money for my owners, bottom line. In one span, I lost 120 head in four years. It’s not just earnings. It’s what you sold horses for.”
It can be a tricky balance. McCanna is off to a slower start than normal this spring, and finding the right races is a challenge. On a recent Thursday at Emerald Downs, trainers milled around the racing office looking at a half-filled Sunday card and hearing threats of a cancellation. McCanna added a second horse to a race in which he already had an entry, not happy about the distance or “racing against yourself” but doing what he could.
At the same time he bemoaned the track setting conditions without consulting trainers and griped that “they want no advice whatsoever from us.” He poked fun at a robotic gizmo with iron legs that was brought in to gauge track hardness (“If you find a horse with legs like that, run him”). And he noted the last time he suggested the Spokane and Yakima tracks could have survived with the gaming machines that make tribal casinos go, he got a cold reaction from Emerald owner Ron Crockett, who made it his mission to eliminate those tracks.
“But he still gives me horses to train,” McCanna said.
Still, he enjoys the chase – within reason. A few years ago, he stopped moving on to the Bay Area after Emerald’s season ended to spend more time with his three children, athletes all, who have varying degrees of interest in the family business.
“The oldest daughter (Melissa) says, ‘Do I have to go?’ ” he said. “The son (Conor) says, ‘How much money do we get?’ Uncle Boone has ruined him a little, taking him upstairs with the agents to drink pop and eat burgers. And the youngest (Megan) knows all the horses’ names.
“She wants to know the dates of the fairs because she’s dying to go with my dad. I’m going to find a horse and she wants to go to Dayton or Waitsburg because she’s seen all the pictures and heard all the stories. We stopped in Dayton on the way to my nephew’s graduation once and went to the races and there were four or five in there I used to have. I bet on them. They cost me money.
“But, hell, I wish I could go with them. It looks like a lot of fun.”
Tim McCanna smiled, the cat that ate the canary. Or the mouse. However the story goes.
Tim McCanna at Emerald Downs
Also: Won training titles at Playfair in 1982, 1983, 1984 and 1985.