Believe it, he's 94

Mention John Atkins name around the Fraser Downs backstretch and you get a common reaction, "I don't believe it."

That reaction comes because many, who know John is getting up there, have just been informed that he is indeed 94 years old.

Mention what 94-year-old Atkins does at the track (he is a trainer) to Downs patrons and you get,"I don't believe it." When mentioning some other facts about this man Atkins you get "I don't believe it."

That's because Atkins' list of "things I've done" includes learning to ride a horse at four years of age, flying a plane under the Granville St. bridge in Vancouver, serving in the Canadian military, owning and running several businesses and teaching karate (until a few years ago).

And the list goes on. In fact, if Atkins put out a resume it would have to be bound.

Atkins was born in Saskatoon on March 20, 1907. The family lived on a homestead about 60 miles from that city. That's where he was first introduced to horses by his father.

"He taught me to ride when I was four," John said in a recent interview in his tack room in the Downs' backstretch. (A tack room incidentally that has many of the amenities of home including a bed, a table and chairs, a fridge and a TV.)

But he says his first real work with horses came in the early 1930s when he helped his dad round up 125 head of wild horses off crown land in Saskatchewan. His first association with harness racing came after his move to B.C. about 20 years ago.

A highlight came 10 years ago at Fraser Downs (then Cloverdale Raceway) when he won a Stakes race, the Pat Brennan Memorial, with Troubles Double. Over the ensuing years Atkins has had as many as seven horses at one time including such familiar names as Hold Fast, Motoriety, Bluestreak Hanover and Tell Me Only.

Today he has only one horse, a four-year-old brown mare named Spark The Moon. She is a good match for Atkins, on the feisty side.

"She gave me a black eye a while back when she lifted her head in a hurry and caught me too close," he said with a grin.

Atkins, who is a widower with two children, son John and daughter Starr, is at the track every day, working with "Sparky." He and groom Marlene Scully have their regular routine and John usually has other drivers work Sparky on the track. But he still takes her out himself on occasion and that's something he admits get some fellow trainers upset.

"One of the judges here is not in favour of me even having a licence," John said, his anger level rising a little bit. "Others don't like it when I'm on the track either.

"I have my driver's licence (he produces it for proof), I get a medical every year, I read without glasses, I'm willing to put up a $100,000 bond."

Then with more than a trace of that feistiness he added, "Heck, you're only as old as you feel, I'll run 100 yards with any one of these suckers."

Then quickly calming down again, "I'd like to be left alone to just do my thing."

Before explaining what the future may hold, his story merits more details on that long,and varied, past.

His early working days involved driving a truck for his dad's company which hauled heavy machinery to farms in Saskatchewan. His dad also had a charter bus line which led to John being involved for years with both his own trucking and transportation companies.

Over the years he also has owned restaurants in Saskatoon and Edmonton, owned fitness centres in Saskatoon, Edmonton and Calgary, a general store in Vancouver and a billiard hall in Burnaby (where he resides).

Wedged between those happenings was a stint in the Canadian air force (and his flight beneath one of Vancouver's main bridges). He also was a lightweight boxer of some renown with the Ottawa Boxing Club.

Today he is a big booster of senior centres and works many hours for several in the Lower Mainland.

What of the future for John Atkins? "You never know if you'll be around for awhile," Atkins says matter of factly of a feeling that haunts most people over 40 years of age.

That's why he says he has come close to selling Sparky in recent weeks.

Then again, in almost the same breath, he admits, "I have thought about going to Pennsylvania where I have some contacts to get a horse. Or to Deland, Fla. where I also have some contacts. They have about 600 two-year-olds for sale there." Then as one who is well aware of what is going on,adds, "But going down to the States now . . ."

Most can only imagine what one does at 94, never mind what one does to slow down at 94, but if I have the strength I will try to keep you posted on John Atkins.

FAST LANE CRUIZIN FOR O'BRIEN

For the second straight year B.C.'s Monster Mare, Fast Lane Cruizin, is a finalist for a 2001 O'Brien Award.

The O'Brien Awards celebrate Canada's best in harness racing over the past season and are named in honour of the late Joe O'Brien, an outstanding horseman and member of The Canadian Horse Racing Hall of Fame.

Fast Lane Cruizin, owned by Phil Coleman and Jerry Blanchet of Surrey, has been named as one of Canada's best in the aged mare category. The four-year-old daughter of Dancing Puddles out of Stahaken is up against Eternal Camnation.

Cruizin was her familiar self in dominating the Surrey Cup in her last start of 2001.

In what could be her final race ever at Fraser Downs, Cruizin won by 17 lengths over a field of eight in the race for four-year-old mares. It was her 12th win -- along with two seconds and two thirds -- in 18 starts in 2001. She completed the year with more than $290,000 in earnings.

Fast Lane Cruizin, who was timed in 1:57.4 over a sloppy track, now is to be given the winter off for a little r and r before returning to

Ontario where she campaigned this past summer.

In her only other start at the present meet, Fast Lane Cruizin beat a field of open fillies and mares in 1:57.2.

She came close but failed to win two big Stakes races in Ontario in August and September.

In her attempt to win the Roses Are Red Pacing Series, one of the major Stakes race at Woodbine Raceway in Toronto in August, she finished one and three quarter lengths behind Eternal Camnation who won in a time of 1:51.3 over a field of 10 in the mile race.

Eternal Camnation, owned by American interests, became the sport's richest female pacer by virtue of her victory in the $248,000 race. The victory pushed her career bankroll to $1,831,781, surpassing Galleria's record of $1,814,453.

Fast Lane Cruizin, who became the fastest female harness horse in B.C. history with a 1:51.3 clocking in the summer, raced in the $245,500 Milton Stakes at Mohawk in September and finished sixth. Eternal Camnation won.

Also, Bettors Delight and Real Desire, North America's top two pacing colts, will do battle one final time for an O'Brien Award in the

three-year-old pacing colt category.

Randy Waples and Chris Christoforou, both past winners of an O'Brien in the Driver of the Year category will each be looking for a repeat performance.

Trainer Bob McIntosh will be looking for his unprecedented eighth title as Canada's Trainer of the Year while John Bax receives his first nomination in this category after a career year.

There are 14 horse awards in total including the most coveted honour, Canada's Horse of the Year.

The horse awards are divided by age, sex, and gait. There are also O'Brien Awards for Driver of the Year and Trainer of the Year.

Every media person across Canada who covers harness racing on a regular basis receives a ballot, including writers for the various trade publications as well as those in print, radio, and television.

All Canadian track publicists and race secretaries also participate in the voting.Winners will be announced at the annual O'Brien Awards banquet on Saturday, Feb. 2.

Meanwhile, two men with Fraser Downs connections were elected to posts as Standardbred Canada concluded its 2001 elections this week.

Named regional directors in their respective categories were Richard Craig and Chuck Keeling. Craig, trainer/driver/owner was named an active director in the Western region and Keeling, general manager of Fraser Downs, was named as a racetrack director for the region.

Jamie Gray of Alberta joins Craig and Jackson Wittup of Calgary joins Keeling as other directors in their categories for the region while Charles Ibey and Dr. Maurice Stewart were named breeder directors for the region.

 

 

 

 
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