The Mike Biehler barn was at work digging up the shed row with pickaxes when one of the grooms predicted that Wally’s Choice would win his first attempt at a mile that day.
The young gelding had run once at six furlongs, mostly at five furlongs and was making just his seventh start, so Biehler made a proposal. “I promised to finish the excavation myself if Wally won that day,” he said.
The skeptical trainer had laid his cards on the table.
“When I got back to the barn after the race, there were two shovels leaning against the wall waiting for me,” he recalled.
Wally’s Choice ran 58 times during an eight-year career, all but 20 of those races at Canterbury Park, and naturally produced a number of stories during that time, but Biehler’s tale probably expresses best the horse’s ability to surprise his handlers with his comeback from surgery and a two-year layoff that would have finished most horses.
The question most often asked concerns the derivation of the horse’s name. Therein lies another colorful tale. After all, his sire was Quick Cut and his dam, L’Etoile Jolie, in both cases a far cry from anything remotely connected to Wally or even to Walter.
A very simple choice as it turned out. Canterbury Park chairman and the breeder of the horse, Curtis Sampson, had agreed to go partners on a foal with Wally McNeil, professionally known as Wally the Beerman, a long-time horse racing fan. Sampson gave McNeil a choice on which foal he wanted for the partnership and McNeil chose the son of Quick Cut .
Wally ran 59 times, won 15, was second twice and placed third another eight times for career earnings of $508,125, second only to Blair’s Cove among Minnesota-bred horses. Of that total, Wally won $385,835 of his total take in Shakopee.
The stories about Wally will be told in the McNeil and Sampson households for years yet to come, including the tale of his remarkable comeback from surgery. He had injured a tendon and underwent stem cell surgery to repair the damage, a surgery that put him on the sidelines for an extended time.
“They had been doing stem cells for a short while in Oklahoma, so Wally was like the poster child for that,” said Biehler.
The procedure had worked on some horses and not on others, but it proved successful with Wally. “We never had an issue with him after that,” Biehler added.
“We never quit on him. He was sound.”
There is another segment to the same story, as told by Sampson.
“He was out for quite a stretch after the stem cell surgery,” Samspon added. He was out 663 days.”
The stories abound.
“I recall that his birth was a rough one,” Sampson added. “He was quite big and his mother was a young mare.”
By the time the young horse began cavorting in the Sampson pastures, he made it clear that he wanted to race. “We knew early on that he was a horse that wanted to win,” Sampson said. “We’d watch him in the pasture, running, and he didn’t want anyone to pass him. He’d come flying.”
Bobby Walker, Jr. was given the first four mounts on the Quick Cut son and rode him to his first victory in try number three at Canterbury on July 25, 2003. He won the $60,000 Minnesota Derby on July 31, 2004, the $40,000 Minnesota Classic on August 22 and the $25,000 Woodlands Derby on Oct. 24.
All of that was a prelude, a warmup, to the biggest victory of Wally’s career. On November 21, with former five-time Canterbury Park riding champion Luis Quinonez in the irons, Wally’s Choice galloped to a one-length victory in the Grade 3 $150,000 Oklahoma Derby at Remington Park.
“That was the big one,” said Sampson.
Big enough to create confusion in one extension of the McNeil family.
It was more than merely big to McNeil and his wife, Joyce, co-owners with Sampson in the horse. Wally was working that day, so Joyce and their daughter, Lori, and a girlfriend went to Canterbury and bet on the horse. The girlfriend returned from cashing her ticket with the report that “I think they gave me too much money back.”
No they hadn’t.
Wally’s Choice had gone off at almost 34-1.
Wally’s Choice won the $100,000 Boselmann/Gus Fonner stakes at Fonner Park, the Minnesota Classic and the Blair’s Cove Stakes twice each. His last win was on June 9 of 2007 in a $20,000 allowance race at Canterbury. He ran 22 more times without a win before he was retired following a fifth place finish at Canterbury in the Minnesota Classic on September 4, 2011, unable to overtake Blair’s Cove for the Minnesota-bred earnings title.
Biehler recalls Wally as an easy horse to train. “He had a good attitude all the time,” he said. “Easy to be around in the barn. If anything, we had to watch how much he ate. He still likes to eat.”
Wally is merely hanging out at Biehler’s farm in Oklahoma these days, although there are plans this fall to take him to Colorado for some trail riding.
“He’s kind of a babysitter at times,” Biehler said. “We put him with an orphan that needed a companion. He still looks pretty fit.”
by JIM WELLS