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Major Custard Cuts The Mustard

Published: January 16, 2021 4:49 pm ET

Last Comment: January 22, 2021 6:42 pm ET | 1 Comment(s) | Jump to Comments

Harness racing's top performers from Western Canada can sometimes end up lost in the shuffle of headlines dominated by the best of Eastern Canada. But, by virtue of a 15-win season, Major Custard made a major name for himself from coast to coast — and rightfully so.

Major Custard's sustained dominance among the top sophomores in British Columbia and Alberta earned him an O'Brien Award nomination as one of Canada's top three-year-old pacing colts and geldings, and that distinction is definitely not lost on owner-trainer Jim Marino.

"The fact that we had a horse good enough to be recognized Canada-wide — not just in Western Canada — is pretty special," Marino told Trot Insider. "We all know what kind of horses these Ontario-breds are — they race against the world. And to be nominated with them, it's pretty special. It's something that I'll never forget."

Marino, who campaigned Major Custard in partnership with Rick Mowles' JJJ Stables and shared training duties with longtime assistant Mike Campbell, kept his star performer on the west coast for a short two-year-old campaign, but when the landscape of racing — and the world — was interrupted in March, Major Custard's season took a turn that ultimately proved fortuitous.

"We just went to the B.C. Sires Stakes," Marino said of Major Custard's rookie season, in which he won four of six races, including a 1:53.4 performance in the $100,000 Robert Millbank Memorial at Fraser Downs. "There's only one stakes series for the B.C.-breds in the fall, and we put him through that, and he went a track record!"

Marino had every reason to be high on Major Custard's potential right from the start, noting that from his first training miles that, "You could tell he had a high speed, but at the same time, he's really easy on himself."

"And then, 2020 was the COVID year, so we all knew how that went. He was eligible to the Keith Linton, and we were just getting geared up for it. Actually I qualified him myself — it was the only time I've actually been in the race bike in a long time — and then COVID hit and they cancelled that one race there. So then, we went to Alberta."

Despite the taxing nature of such a journey, Major Custard didn't lose what made him special ... and the rave reviews of the gelding's talent were unanimous.

"When I got to Alberta, I had a couple guys qualifying him for me when (Brandon Campbell) wasn't available," Marino recounted. "Everybody who drove him at qualifiers was always impressed with him. Dave Kelly sat behind him, and said, 'That thing's like driving a Ferrari.'"

With only one race under his harness as a three-year-old — a 1:55.3 overnight win on March 13 just one week after the qualifying heat — Major Custard made the trek over the Rocky Mountains to kick off an unforgettable run in a summer like none other. After acclimating to the generally more severe conditions in Alberta, described by Marino as "a lot colder, drier and up in the mountains," the gelding — now under the care of trainer Mike Campbell and the piloting of Brandon Campbell — reeled off nine straight stakes wins at Century Downs from July through mid-October.

Six days after capping that streak with a 3-3/4-length, 1:55.4 score in the Oct. 17 Alberta Super Final at Century Downs, Major Custard made the 10-hour trek through the Canadian Rockies back to Fraser Downs — and Marino's direct care once again — where he registered a clean sweep of the Robert Murphy Memorial series, including a lifetime-best 1:52.1 performance in the $75,000 final on Nov. 6. Marino attributes Major Custard's resilience to an innate ability to ration his own energy throughout the season:

"Going back and forth over those mountains is tough on a horse, and he'd gone back and forth a couple times," he explained. "When he came to Cloverdale, it wasn't a full week. But he did it and he stayed sound the whole year. He only kind of does what he has to do."

The trip back to British Columbia wasn't the last major sojourn for Major Custard, either. One major test still awaited the son of Custard The Dragon and Chemistry Major: the Western Canada Pacing Derby at Edmonton's Century Mile — another 12-hour journey back east through the mountains. The taxing ship notwithstanding, the series turned out to be more eventful than Marino bargained for and — given all that occurred between leaving Vancouver and ultimately prevailing in the final — his highlight of the season.

"Doug McNair was lined up to drive the elimination," Marino said, noting Brandon Campbell was unavailable for that race. "It was a done deal, but Ontario put a rule in that drivers weren't allowed to go inter-province without a 14-day quarantine. Now Bob McClure had the exception and was already leaving, but then Alberta decided they weren't going to let drivers in."

Ultimately, Phil Giesbrecht drove Major Custard to a third-place finish in the Derby elimination amid sub-freezing temperatures, and Campbell was able to return for the $92,840 final on Nov. 29 — but not without a scare earlier in the card.

"I got my driver back (for the final), but there was a wreck three races before, and I watched Brandon (Campbell) go 20 feet in the air," Marino said. "The first thing that went through my mind was, 'Is Brandon OK? Is everybody OK?!' And then I grabbed my program and tried to figure out who was going to drive my horse. I came across Keith Clark, but I found out he didn't go to the races that day — he stayed in Calgary. And then I was going to call Gerry Hudon out of retirement; I didn't know what to do!

"I'm like, 'Can I get out there myself to drive?' And Brandon said, 'I'm sore, but I'm good to go.' The race went way different than we planned — he had traffic trouble like you wouldn't believe and then he was caught in – and then he got out and he won. And it turns out that Brandon had two broken wrists."

That 1:54.4 win — from off the pace down the long Century Mile stretch — was an unforgettable one for Marino, to say the least:

"Just so many things happened that week and the way the race went — I can't duplicate that, the kind of drama and lead-up to the race," Marino said.

After winning his 2020 curtain call, the $22,500 Brad Gunn at Century Mile on Dec. 12, Major Custard had amassed 20 wins in 23 career starts, $326,945 in purses earned, a perfect 7-for-7 record in Alberta Sires Stakes events, and an O'Brien nomination. While this year's O'Brien Awards will be conducted in a virtual manner, Marino is contemplating a small gathering for the horse's connections as a way to make the best of the celebratory occasion.

"It's too bad there's not a party," Marino said. "We're still thinking about it and working on it ... we might rent a suite at the Holiday Inn — a couple of us that were involved — and watch together and have a few drinks."

The 2020 Virtual O’Brien Awards Gala takes place on Sunday, January 31, 2021 and will be available for viewing on from 7:00 – 8:30 p.m. (EST).

January 22, 2021 - 6:42 pmIn the final Standardbred Top

Mike Mobley SAID...

In the final Standardbred Top Ten Poll of last year, other than TDS, Major Custard was the ONLY 3yopc to receive a single vote. Does that mean that Major Custard was the 2nd best 3yopc of 2020?

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