by Bob Gates
Dr. Ross Allen McKague hasn't quite reached the half century mark in horse racing, but 50 years ago he embarked on the most important partnership of his life. Yes, even more important than horses.
Young Ross met Brenda Lee Wood at university in Saskatoon. Following the completion of their studies, they married in 1971. This past May 8th the McKagues celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary. Congratulations!
In 1971 Ross graduated from the Western College of Veterinary Medicine in Saskatoon. His first stint in the business saw him working at the Centennial Animal Hospital in Winnipeg. In that capacity he did some work at the Downs before moving to Brandon and starting his own practice in 1973.
It wasn't long afterwards that the "horse bug" bit him. The first horse he raced was Commanche Raid in 1976. He had a one-third interest in 7-year-old dark bay gelding and before he knew it, he was hooked.
One of the most notable journeys in Ross’s racing life began in September 1993, when he became one of the six founding members of the "not-for-profit" Manitoba Jockey Club, which purchased Assiniboia Downs from the Wright family.
For the past 28 years Ross has worked alongside of his Jockey Club colleagues to make Assiniboia Downs the best it can be. At the head of the group was Harvey Warner, who along with McKague was joined by Barry McQueen, Barry Anderson, Norm Elder and Ken Lee.
Over the years Ross has been associated with all sorts of racing organizations at the local, national, and international level. He is probably one of the most knowledgeable horse racing people you will ever meet. He understands the political climate that swirls around the sport, he’s completely hands on with all of his horses, and yes, he mucks a pretty mean stall.
Ross is an expert at conformation and if he particularly likes a yearling, Brenda says he'll say the horse is "racey." She isn't exactly sure what that means, and he's never been able to explain it, but we're sure it's a good thing.
On May 25th Ross turns 74. In 2017 he foaled Bill Drew's mare at his facilities on a five-acre lot in “the Wheat City,” Brandon Manitoba. As luck would have it, the bouncing baby boy was born on Ross' birthday. So, Bill named the colt "McKague."
The McKagues' Brinello won the Agassiz Stakes (now known as the Phil Kives Memorial) four years in a row (2007-2010). This tied the record set by Victor's Pride who also won the race in four consecutive years (1976-1979). Brinello entered the race in 2011 in an effort to take the record outright but was beaten a short nose by a 25-1 shot. It was a heartbreaking loss.
Albarino was probably the highlight of the Ross’s breeding career. The Manitoba-bred gelding won the Gold Cup, Speers, Agassiz and the Manitoba Maturity in 2005, collecting $103,798 USD (Equibase Official Stats) in purses and setting a single-season earnings record at the Downs.
The McKagues name their horses after wine grapes. Generally red wine grapes are reserved for dark brown horses and white wine grapes are used for chestnuts and greys.
You can't talk about Ross without speaking about the horses he's had over the years and there have been some good ones. He bred Albarino and Brinello, purchased Kentucky- bred Colorino for himself, and bought Katie McLaury in partnership for the Centrust Stable. He would also want you to know what happened when his runners were done on the track.
Here's a peek at three of his best:
Brinello earned $255,248 in his career from 2004 to 2011. The multiple stakes-winning bay gelding won the Agassiz Stakes four times and the Manitoba Maturity. Brinello was retired after the 2011 season at the age of nine. He was totally sound and went to a family who made him into a successful show horse.
Colorino raced from 2007 to 2010, spending most of her career at Woodbine. The bay mare earned just under $200,000, chalking up four wins in the east and racing locally at the Downs in 2010. This lass is still owned by the McKagues. She is their only broodmare and is the dam of eight foals, with three of them currently racing. Colorino currently has a weanling and is being bred in Kentucky.
Katie McLaury raced from 1992 to 1997, also collecting earnings just shy of $200,000. The stakes-winning bay mare raced at the Downs in 1996 and 1997. Her wins included the Free Press Sprint Handicap, in which she thrashed the boys! Katie last raced in 1997 and was sold. She went on to become a successful broodmare, producing the multiple stakes-winner/graded stakes-placed gelding Abbondanza, who also ran in the Breeders’ Cup Sprint.
Currently the McKagues have one horse with them at their home in Brandon. It's Brinello's dam, Classic Beth, who turned 27 this year. The bay mare is in great shape and is quite content in her retirement. She enjoys being doted on by neighbourhood walkers who stroll by on the pathway that runs past the McKagues' property.
Ross and Brenda are one of those special couples who have spent most of their married life as a partnership in the racing business. As the couple nears the half-century mark in the sport they love, it's hard to imagine racing without them. Much like the names of their horses, whether it's red grapes or white…
These two get better with age.