by Bruce Strand, Sports editor
“There is no better feeling in the world,” declares Bill Ulwelling, “than being at the track and watching your horse turn the corner for home, and pull on ahead.”
Most of us don’t own race horses, but we can imagine what fun that is for Bill and his son Al, both of Elk River, who just happen to be the leading owners at Canterbury Park for the last two years in total victories.
In fact, the Ulwellings have raced in 19 states and Canada this year, and rank 201st nationally among 29,081 ownership groups, placing top three in 78 percent of their races, according to the racing web site Equibase.com.
“We race all over the country, but Canterbury Park is by far our favorite place,” said Al.
Their best horse, Stachys, was Canterbury Park’s horse of the year in 2010 and continued to shine in other states this year while running just once at Shakopee, winning a stakes race.
Al and Bill own A & B Welding and Construction, a Nowthen-based firm that does a wide variety of building and repair in five states. They have attended races at Canterbury since it opened 26 years ago, and got into the ownership realm in 2005.
The excitement Bill referred to is something he can share with his wife, two sons, a daughter and five grandchildren, as is evident in the photo at the top of this page.
“The racing season never really ends for us, but it does for the grandkids when Canterbury closes,” Bill notes. “Hunter Victoria, who’s 12, is pretty sad when it ends. She tells me, ‘This is like a second home for me.’ “
One of his favorite photos is youngest grand-daughter Morgan getting “kissed” by Stachys at Canterbury Park.
The Shakopee track announced that the Ulwelling’s finished the 2011 season last Sunday with 15 wins from 73 starts and $149,845 in purse earnings. They had 12 second-places and 16 thirds. Their 15 wins came from 14 different horses with Bravo Prado winning twice.
They had 26 horses at Canterbury under two trainers, Mike Biehler and Gary Scherer. Five wins came with jockey Derek Bell aboard. Lori Keith was their other top jockey.
Last year, the Ulwelling’s had 20 victories in 55 starts, along with 13 seconds and five thirds, and earned $194,310 in purses.
They are one of the few ownership groups at Canterbury Downs that does not race Minnesota-bred horses, instead buying their horses at breeders’ auctions and at claims races around the U.S.
“Every day we got up and look online around the country for horses to claim,” said Al. “The next part is to find someone down there to claim it for you.”
Most of their horses come from Florida, Louisana and Oklahoma. Their method is to study horses’ bloodlines and claim them at their first race.
Maybe one of every 40 purchased will make it big, said Bill. “Like that one,” he said, pointing to a Winnepeg newspaper on his office wall with a large photo of Stachys winning a race there. “That horse made $330,000 in 12 months We claimed that one for $30,000. He’s our best horse. He’s our starting pitcher.”
After a big year with seven wins in nine starts, the four-year-old Stachys is currently on a four-month break in Oklahoma, “just eating grass and being a horse,” said Bill.
Al and Bill followed a longtime friend and customer, Bob Wiczek, into ownership.
“Bob owned horses, and he got us into it,” said Al. “Later, he invested a lot of money in lakeshore property and got out of racing but he still always came with us to every race.”
Wizcek, an avid sportsman from Elk River who worked for Linco Companies, died in July at age 58.
“So this has been a sad year for us, actually,” said Al. “He was just the greatest guy.”
Al and Bill plan to sponsor a race in Wiczek’s honor next July at Canterbury Park.
“We’re going to buy a big gray two-year-old and name him Big Bob,” said Al. “Bob always liked the big gray horses. We’ll run Big Bob in that race.”
The Ulwellings went on their own in 2008 when they wanted to spend more money on a better stock of race horses. Wiczek introduced them to a trainer he knew, Mike Biehler of New Orleans, who started picking up claims horses for them. The second steed they bought, named Silver Spree, won her first four races in Oklahoma.
“That got us hooked,” said Bill.
The Ulwellings have one group of horses with Biehler and another with Scherer in Oklahoma. Both groups ran at Canterbury. After the Minnesota season ends, Scherer’s group goes to Chicago. Biehler’s goes to Remington Park in Oklahoma through December, then Oaklawn in Arkansas Jan. 15.
Bill and wife Jackie’s grandchildren – Al’s daughters Hunter and Morgan, and sons Tyler and A.J., and Jennifer’s son Mason – dote on the horses and love the races. Hunter attended a riding school and wants to be a jockey or maybe a vet. She feeds two horses Al keeps at home, one of which is Silver Spree. A.J. and Tyler also ride. The little ones, Morgan and Mason, haven’t gotten on a horse yet but feed them out of their hands.
Al and Bill are co-owners of A & B Welding and Construction. Bill’s other son Mike operates one of their many cranes. The firm repairs and builds power plants, erects towers for ATT, Verizon and Nextel (including one they can see from the plant in Nowthen), modifies water towers to accept cell phone antennas, repairs wind generators, and builds fuel and water storage tanks. Among their recent constructions are an ethanol plant in Fergus Falls, a garbage burner for Homestead County in Rochester and a coal fire burner for Great River Energy in North Dakota.
The guys get around the racing circuit in a 40-foot Winnegabo. They are also NASCAR fanatics and take the Winnebago to auto races, too. A Dodge Charger racecar driven by Robby Gordon is on display at A & B, purchased in Las Vegas.
The shutdown of the state government, and consequently Canterbury Park, for 20 days this summer was a costly setback. “The state really messed up and cost a lot of people a lot of money,” said Bill. Spending $50,000 a month on trainers and vets, they shipped their horses to New York, Chicago and Des Moines during that span. Bill praised Canterbury Park’s ownership, Curt Sampson and son Randy, for doing an “awesome” job taking care of the horses, trainers and owners during that time.
The Ulwellings are rankled that the state government doesn’t support the track much, and the press coverage is sparse compared to other states. They hope the state will approve Racino. Bill noted that the same race that pays $14,500 at Canterbury Park pays $28,500 in Iowa, $32,500 in Oklahoma and $35,000 in New Orleans because they’ve all got Racino.
But they cherish Canterbury Park, a facility second to none, said Bill. “I’ve been to the Kentucky Derby and this place is better than Churchill Downs in my opinion.”
It’s like a second home.