Naigo had the kind of class that most other horses can only dream about. After all, he was a son of the great Northern Dancer, and his owner, Bud Willmot's Kinghaven Farms, expected a lot from him.
Most locals who remember this multiple stakes-placed gelding will probably recall the latter part of his career at the Downs from 1978 to 1982, but Naigo's story began years earlier.
His 3-year-old season started with much promise, following a rookie year that saw him go 3-1-1 from eight starts. In 1974 he finished second in the Plate Trial and that set him up nicely for the Queen's Plate, but the weather for the Plate that June was against him. The track was deep and muddy and Naigo was no match for the sloppy track or for winner Amber Herod. He finished 11th in the 14-horse field.
Two weeks later on a hot day in July, Naigo was shipped to Assiniboia Downs to contest the Manitoba Derby. Sadly, this proved to be another disappointment for the bay gelding. The Downs' racing surface was dry; a welcome change after the Queen's Plate mud, but Naigo ran an uninspired 10th in a field of 12 behind winner Rushton's Corsair. Again he didn't find the track to his liking.
Naigo was a young allowance and stakes caliber horse struggling to find himself when his racing career took a turn for the worse. He bowed a tendon (when the strained sheath of the flexor tendon ruptures, allowing the tendon to stand out behind the cannon bone like the string of a bow).
Naigo's breeding dictated that efforts be made to get him back to the track. Enter astute local horseman (and today, Manitoba Horseracing Commission Steward) Brian Palaniuk, who saw something the others didn't -- a horse with the heart of a champion. Naigo was just too good to give up on!
In the fall of 1977, Palaniuk bought the then 6-year-old Naigo in Kentucky for $6,500 in partnership with Jim and Hazel Wright's El Mingo Stables. The story goes that Naigo was gelded because of his rank disposition.
Palaniuk said the son of Northern Dancer was difficult to handle, and that he also knew that he could bow again at any time, but Naigo was worth the risk. According to Palaniuk, while Naigo was difficult to train, he was also playful and just a little goofy.
It took a year of hard work and plenty of TLC before Naigo was ready to go back to the track. In the fall of 1978 he started four times, winning once and finishing second three times while running for $2,500 tag, but in his last race of 1978 he bowed again. So Palaniuk went back to work to try and ready the bay gelding for a 1979 campaign.
Patti Ross, who trained at the Downs from 1991 to 2007, was Naigo's groom in 1979, and he was one of the first horses she rubbed. She explained that it was a thrill to get up close and personal with the son of Northern Dancer.
Patti idolized Northern Dancer and the chance to care for Naigo was an honour and a dream come true. She recalled fondly the day in 1964 at Woodbine Racetrack when she saw Northern Dancer make his final public appearance parading in front of the grandstand.
Patti said Naigo was a strong-willed horse and while gelding him calmed him some, he was still plenty rank and would fight you tooth and nail to remind you he was in charge! She was steadfast in her belief that Naigo was one of those special horses with a huge heart, who would "run his eyeballs out for you!"
In 1979 Naigo won three of his 6 starts and finished third twice, but he ran in claiming races that ranged from $6,250 all the way up to $14,000.
Naigo was claimed by Shorty Gray in early 1980, a year in which he won seven of his nine starts running for claiming prices of $4,000 and $5,000, as a 9-year-old!
As a 10-year-old Naigo had his good days and his bad, recording a win and three seconds from seven starts. In his final season in 1982 as an 11-year-old, Naigo failed to register a win. The time had come for him to retire.
Could he have run more? Sure. And won? Maybe, maybe not, but he would have killed himself trying. The small but powerful son of Northern Dancer had enough of Daddy's blood running through his veins to keep his competitive heart pumping, but his old legs just couldn't keep pace any longer.
Looking back, I'm not sure that we fully appreciated what a treat it was to have Naigo running at the Downs.
A rare and special horse, he was.