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Faces Of Racing: Jackie Starkewski

Published: September 9, 2020 8:58 pm ET

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Leading up to the 2020 edition of National Caretaker Appreciation Day virtual events taking place on the weekend of September 18 - 20, Standardbred Canada will profile caretakers from across the country in our Faces of Racing series.

The series continues with a profile on caretaker Jackie Starkewski of Lamont, Alberta.

A trip to Stampede Park in the late 1980s was the catalyst for a lifelong passion, career and a way of life for veteran caretaker Jackie Starkewski.

The visit to the Calgary track was her introduction to harness racing. “A friend of a friend bought a horse and I went to Stampede to see it and I was hooked,” explained Jackie. “I met my husband Rod (Starkewski) shortly after and the rest is history.”

It wasn’t too long following her excursion to Stampede before Jackie found herself working for trainer Jack Beelby. At that time her future husband was working for Bill Companion. Jackie & Rod recently celebrated their 27th wedding anniversary.

For almost three decades, Jackie has worked with the horses alongside her husband, and has become an indispensable part of the Starkewski Racing Stable and its success. This year Rod is currently training and racing about fourteen horses on the Alberta circuit, including a dozen horses that they own or co-own. Jackie cares for anywhere between seven and 10 of those horses, depending on what horses are turned out.

Thirty years of doing any type of job might more or less make you an expert in that position but Jackie feels that there’s always something to learn in the care and training of Standardbreds.

“My advice to new grooms is to pay attention to the horses, get to know them and respect them, they work hard for us. Be humble, there are always things to learn.”

Honoured as Alberta’s Groom of the Year in 2010, Jackie looks up to several horsewomen in the province. “I really have respect for Connie Kolthammer of Outlaw Farms and Raeann Gemmill; their knowledge of racing, training and breeding is inspiring. They both motivate me to keep going.”

For several years now, the Starkewskis have been involved with the Alberta Standardbred Horse Association’s Fun For Fans Stable. This initiative was started by ASHA’s executive director, Fred Gillis, as an outreach program to organizations in communities where harness racing was taking place. The idea was to turn over 75 per cent of whatever the horse(s) earned after commissions and fees to organizations that might be challenged to fund raise for things they wanted to do. All that the organizations had to do was show up on race day and cheer on their horse.

In 2016, Jackie was looking after the Fun for Fans’ charity horse Outlawburntpopcorn, trained by Rod. On October 15, this filly blew up the toteboard with a 146-1 upset in the $56,000 Alberta Marquis Final for three-year-old pacing fillies at Century Downs.

“She was racing for a minor hockey team, just the little guys...Well these little tykes screamed 'Let’s go Popcorn, let’s go!' the whole time she was on the track. With Dave Kelly driving, this little mare came from off the pace to win. The kids swarmed her in the winner’s circle and she didn’t move. They later gave me a framed copy of the win pic, signed by all of them with their jersey numbers. It was so exciting.”

The victory was the filly’s first in Sires Stakes action and her biggest of four wins from 22 starts during her debut season, and for the bettors, the victory was worth $295.10 for a $2 win wager.

The Starkewskis have been involved with several other horses that have raced for the Fun For Fans Stable including one of their homebreds, Sureburnsblue, who raced 39 times in 2019, scoring nine wins, posting 25 top-three finishes and bankrolling over $34,000 in earnings.

As many caretakers will tell you, it’s not hard to get attached to the horses you care for, and there’s usually one culprit who seems to command extra special attention. In Jackie’s case, that one is Crackle N Burn, a homebred out of their mare Crackers Hot Shot. “He tells me when he wants to go out in the morning and insists that I walk him in the afternoon with my pockets full of bananas. He has me trained very well.”

The bananas must be working as the four-year-old son of Blue Burner has hit the board in eight of race races and has more than $17,000 in earnings this season to date.

When her horses are racing, Jackie admits she is a bit superstitious. “I have one silly ritual, the tape in the horse’s braid has to be the same color as the back pad, the few times it hasn’t been, I'm convinced that’s why I didn’t win!”

Jackie must have had the right color tape in the braid when Skip To My MJJZ won the Prairie Gold Stake with Rod driving in November 2007, giving her one of her most memorable racing moments.

Another great memory that ranks near the top of her list was when Crackers Hot Shot, a filly owned and trained by Rod and groomed by Jackie, was honoured as Alberta’s Horse of the Year in 2013. The daughter of Camcracker put together an impressive sophomore season that included five wins in seven races and more than $82,000 in earnings.

The dedicated participant enjoys the different phases of racing. “I love the babies coming in, then when it’s almost time to qualify them I really start to get excited. The most rewarding aspect of my job is watching a two-year-old develop into a race horse, or when one of my horses races well and is so proud of itself, I just love how proud they are.”

And what keeps someone who has been in the industry for 30 years fresh and enthusiastic about racing? “It’s the next race and the next set of future champions, we hope!”

(Faces of Racing image courtesy Evelyn Sabraw)

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