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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Decorated horse trainer Tim McCanna of Spokane reaches landmark 2,500th victory

By Jim Price The Spokesman-Review

At 5 on a foggy morning, it’s hard to see the eastern shore of San Francisco Bay, though it’s only yards away.

But Tim McCanna is not there for the view. Dressed warmly against the damp, he’s reported for work, a stout pair of Nikes on his feet and a green ballcap, bearing the Notre Dame leprechaun, pressed onto his balding scalp.

McCanna trains thoroughbred racehorses, and he’s good at it, managing a stable that competes significantly with the best in Northern California. His three west-facing barns, housing almost 40 head, form a triangle, right inside the stable gate at Golden Gate Fields. When the fog clears, there’s a splendid view of the Golden Gate Bridge.

“It’s picturesque,” McCanna said.

But he’s usually busy, managing the horses and a dozen employees, most of them stable hands clad in green coats with a shamrock, a tribute to his family’s Irish Catholic heritage.

First thing, the Spokane native makes sure that each horse has cleaned up its evening feed. Then he verifies its scheduled activity. And when the track opens for training, he’s off to his favorite viewing spot, the winner’s circle, leaving his longtime assistant, Mary Ellen Silva, to direct traffic at the barns.

McCanna has reached the high point of his career. On Memorial Day, he saddled his 2,500th winner. Only 63 other U.S. trainers have won as many. And he still has a future. No one can say the same for Golden Gate Fields. His prime venue for a dozen years, the Bay Area’s last major racetrack, will go out of business following Sunday’s final race.

Even more beautiful than a ballpark, Golden Gate, just up the road from Oakland, has four lakes with fountains, a 1-mile main track and a turf course that bisects the infield. Silky Sullivan, a legendary 1950s stretch-runner, is buried there. A snug fit on 140 acres, lying parallel to the water and noisy Interstate 80, the track opened in 1941.

Eventually, like Tanforan and Bay Meadows, Golden Gate’s valuable real estate may become enveloped by a shopping center, a business park or a high-rise condo development. With horses in short supply and a declining customer base, the industry faces a murky future.

McCanna collected his landmark victory on May 27, when Smile and Profile, a 4-year-old filly, led wire-to-wire in the 1-mile seventh race. The trainer’s longtime Northwest clients, Charlie Dunn and Al Hodge, bred her in partnership with Tim’s late brother, Ray, and they’re still part-owners. Smile and Profile’s dam previously produced Marilyn’s Smile, a good runner named for Tim’s mother.

Last Saturday, McCanna saddled winner No. 2,501. On Sunday, he had another when King and Country, a promising 3-year-old, made an impressive debut.

He has been turning out winners for 44 seasons, starting at Playfair Race Course, Spokane’s nearly forgotten former track.

Four straight titles and a near miss here led to a long run of success at Emerald Downs, the Seattle-area course. Although he still conditions a few head there for Northwest clients, he’s been Northern California-based since 2009.

Through last weekend, horses in his care have earned $25,099,985.

So far, this is another good year. His starters have won 24% of their races. Fifty-nine percent have finished third or better. Both figures surpass career highs he set last year. He’s one win short of the lead in Golden Gate’s standings.

On Friday, McCanna started one horse at Golden Gate and two others at Emerald Downs. He has entered two more at Golden Gate on Saturday, when he was in Spokane for his father’s memorial service, and one Sunday.

Horses and education run deep in the closely knit McCanna family. Long ago, Tim’s grandfather ran a few horses at county fair meets, including Spokane. Tim’s father, Dan, who died last month, saddled his first winner within days of his graduation from Gonzaga University. He became the longtime vice principal at East Valley High School, Also known as a reconditioner of well-worn old horses, he turned his hobby into a pair of Playfair titles.

Dan and the former Marilyn Etter, who had her own career in Central Valley schools, raised four children, sons Ray, Tim and Daniel, long known as Boone, and a daughter, Kerri. As young grade-schoolers in the Spokane Valley, Tim and Boone galloped stable ponies up the Adams Street hill. When their parents bought a ranch in Deer Park, the children often trained horses before they went to school.

In the mid-1970s, Dad put Tim, 16, and Boone, 13, in charge of a bad-legged gelding named after a jockey agent.

“I worked on Stew the Dude all morning long,” Boone said. “I would rub his legs, run cold water over his ankles and stand him in my dad’s home-made turbulator.” The horse won six races in 1978, two more in 1979 and, at Playfair in 1980, four in a row. Stew the Dude, Tim said, paid their tuition at Gonzaga Prep.

In the fall of 1980, Tim enrolled at Washington State University, wanting to become a veterinarian. Barely into his second semester, realizing how long that would take, he and a couple of friends fled to Hawaii.

“It was not,” he said, “a real popular choice around home.” But Hawaii was not an option. “My dad called,” Tim said, “and told me to get my butt back home, and I could take over the barn.”

With Dan’s help, Tim, only 19, saddled 15 winners during the Playfair season. The next year, he led the standings with 41 winners. He won again the next year, and the next, when he trained Reardan’s Gray to win the River City Handicap for owner-breeder Harold Krupke. On March 1, 1986, he married the Lincoln County rancher’s daughter, Jan. Now they have three adult children.

McCanna had made it four consecutive titles in 1985. Then, after a second-place finish in ’86, the newlyweds struck out for the tougher competition in Seattle, where Longacres soon gave way to Emerald Downs.

Tim also made a decision that, over the next two decades, paved the way to membership in the Washington Horse Racing Hall of Fame.

“When I first started training with my dad, all we had were old horses who’d been hurt,” he said. “After a few years, I decided I wanted to get them before they were hurt. So I started buying 2-year-olds and yearlings and developing my own horses.”

By the end of the decade, he had emerged as one of the region’s top trainers. He finished seventh in the 1998 Longacres standings and third in 1990. And after a fifth-place finish at the first Emerald Downs meet, he won the championship 10 times in the next 14 years (1997-2010).

By then, pragmatic choices began to promote greater success.

With the help of his dad, Tim and Jan designed and developed their own thoroughbred ranch in the Yakima Valley.

They wanted a place to train young horses and allow active runners to rest or recuperate. The ranch, in turn, enforced Tim’s earliest goals.

“I’ve just learned to take care of the horses, like dad taught me,” he said. “I learned how to treat them, how to fix them and how to get them ready to run. I got to the point where, as soon as they had a little something go wrong, I try to get them off the track. It took a long time to get that patience.

“I just keep learning. The biggest thing is entering right. I’m probably training them more days and not as hard. Fitness has a lot to do with when they get hurt.”

In December, BLOODHORSE Daily reported on trainers across the country who, 2020-2022, had not had a horse die as the result of racing or training. McCanna, who was included, has now gone an additional 17 months.

Once their children were out of school, Tim took almost the entire stable to California. Although she’s often at the track, Jan usually stays at the ranch, keeping the books and managing the staff.

“My wife is a rock in that whole deal,” he said. “Without her, I’d be lost.”

Until last year, McCanna’s top horses had come from the Emerald Downs years. He trained Queenledo, a brilliant filly, to earn $240,219 for his father-in-law, the breeder, and his partners. Queenledo became one of the few to win three annual Washington championships.

Multiple stakes winner Poker Brad ($394,524) headed the list, racing for Quadrun Farms, a partnership including Spokane-area auto dealer Jack Pring, the former Playfair owner along with Pring’s son, Brad, and Pring’s property manager, John Peterson.

Top Harbor in the new leader. He has earned $407,164 for West Side partners Gordy Jarnig, Eric Schweiger and Kenny Marshall as one of several standouts produced by their great broodmare, Reba is Tops, a former sprint superstar. Top Harbor will make his 2024 debut June 29 in the $50,000 added Oak Tree Sprint at nearby Pleasanton, next stop on the Northern California calendar.

Top Harbor’s older half-sister, Rebalation ($221,028) is fifth on the list.

On June 11, 2016, seven weeks after recording his 2,000th win, McCanna hoisted Washington-born jockey Russell Baze aboard another Reba foal, Vow to Be Tops. When that horse won, Baze had the 12,842nd and final victory of his extraordinary career.

McCanna buys or claims horses for most of his clients. But a few, particularly Top Harbor’s partners, Charlie Dunn’s Dunn Bar Ranch and Montana Realtor Steve Reger, who races as Jethorse LLC, breed some of their own.

McCann’s among the growing number of trainers who become partners with their clients.

“I own pieces of a lot of the horses I run,” he said, “quarters, half or a little bit. But if I’m a partner, I call all the shots.”

Although Golden Gate Fields has reached the finish line, McCanna has no plans to quit.

“I love it,” he said. “I just like competin’. It gets your heart pumping. It doesn’t matter if it’s a cheap horse or a good one. And there’s a lot of satisfaction in bringing ’em up from the young ones and seeing them develop.

“To tell you the truth, I’d like to make it to 3,000, I just think it is the next logical step.”