BY JIM WELLS
Someone can tell you about the spectacular view, but unless you’ve peered over the south rim of the Grand Canyon in person you don’t really understand. Someone can gush about the ceiling in the Sistine Chapel, but you have to gawk in awe for yourself to truly get the picture.
So it was with Maria Thornton when she arrived at Canterbury Park recently. A number of people had told her that she had not experienced crowds like those she would see at the Shakopee track. “They can tell you about it, but you have to see for yourself,’’ she said.
That she did on opening night Friday when she walked up the steps from the tunnel to the paddock for the first time. She could hear the youngsters even before reaching the top step. “There they are,’’ they yelled. “Here they come.’’
Then there are the crowds along the rail and surrounding the winner’s circle.
“That’s the way racing should be,’’ she said. “Fans are excited and enthusiastic. Big crowds. Most places you go now aren’t like this at all.’’
All of that from a woman who has been racing a mere two years, who still has her bug and plans to use it for all its worth to drum up business during the current meet.
Thornton was born in Louisiana and was around horses from day one. Her mother, Darlene, competed in rodeos but is at home in Oklahoma these days and cares for Maria’s five-year-old son, Guthry, while she pursues her career. Her father, Mark, shoed horses at the local race tracks during Maria’s childhood, which elicited a cherished memory as she discussed the subject. Children weren’t allowed in the stable areas at many tracks at the time. “We’d sneak in to spend the day with my dad, one of us at a time,’’ she recalled. “I used to argue with my brothers over who would be the next in line.’’
Maria grew up competing in high school rodeos, twice earning trips to the National High School Rodeo. She always expected to wind up in barrel racing.
She knew, under any circumstances, that horses would always have a place in her life. “I figured it would be rodeo,’’ she said. Nonetheless, she studied animal science at Odessa Community College and found work at times assisting veterinarians on the backsides of places such as Remington Park. She also ponied horses at Hialeah Race Track for a time.
Tim Thornton, one of Maria’s three brothers, has been a regular rider, arguably the best, in Chicago for several years. “He’s my best friend,’’ Maria said. “He’d do anything for me. ‘’
Every year he invites Maria to his birthday parties and provides her with a plane ticket to join him. The menu generally includes crawfish, flown in from Louisiana.
In the spring of 2013 Maria arrived at Arlington Park and was told that Tim hadn’t purchased a return ticket for her. “I didn’t intend for you to leave right away,’’ he told her. “I thought you could stay for awhile.’’
She picked up odds jobs at the racetrack, began getting on a few horses in the mornings and in no time at old her career path had changed.
On July 25, 2013 at Arlington Park, Maria got on a horse named Stephen’s Classy Gal, the third mount and first winner of her career.
She has 46 career wins and will keep the bug through late November, an attractive factor for horsemen throughout the Canterbury meet.
A horse named Spring Training unseated her shortly out of the gate on Saturday’s card, bruising her hip and leg. She bounced back quickly, riding later on the card. Nonetheless, the mishap generated several anxious phone calls from her boyfriend at Remington Park, Benito Jude Baca, who, ironically, was injured himself in a minor incident the same day.
Her father, who is shoeing at Remington, made some anxious calls himself. Mark Thornton encouraged his daughter to give Canterbury try this summer, the recommendation apparently based on first-hand experience. He has shoed horses in Shakopee for various trainers over the years, including Amber Blair and Jerry Livingston.
“He’ll be up here later on,’’ said Thornton, who hopes to tell her father that she not only likes Canterbury, as he suggested she might, but has ridden a few more winners as well.