2011 CANADIAN DERBY CHAMPION AND TRAINER RETURN TO OSOYOOS AND DESERT PARK
One of the best thoroughbred racing horses in all of Canada and top trainers in western Canada have a very strong Osoyoos connection.
The beautiful weather here in Osoyoos attracts all kinds of people, including Lianne Knechtel, who trains Freedom’s Traveller, the good-looking grey mare that captured the Canadian Derby early last August at Northlands Racetrack in Edmonton.
The Canadian Derby is the most prestigious thoroughbred race in western Canada with a purse of $300,000. For just over two minutes of work, Freedom’s Traveller won more than $180,000 for its owners Randy and Donna Feddema of Carstairs, Alberta.
The Feddema family hired Knechtel as a personal trainer for their large stable of horses several years ago.
“They’re wonderful people … I love working for them,” said Knechtel, who is currently training a stable of 14 horses at the Desert Park racetrack stables in Osoyoos.
The decision to come and train in Osoyoos at Desert Park in the spring of 2010 was a simple one, said Knechtel.
“I had raced here as a jockey several years ago when this was a busy racetrack,” she said. “I knew it was a nice facility and I knew the weather was excellent this time of the year.
“Three years ago a bunch of us horsemen at Northlands were talking about where we could go to train in the spring because the winters there are just too cold. I mentioned it might be worth coming to Osoyoos because the spring weather is so nice, so we did and I’ve been here training horses in the spring ever since.”
Born and raised in Langley, B.C., Knechtel started riding horses when she was only eight years of age and knew at a very young age that being involved with horses was going to happen no matter where her life led her.
“I grew up doing the rodeo, like many other youngsters in Alberta,” she said. “I did that for many years, but it all changed at age 20 when a friend of mine asked me if I would be interested in galloping horses to get them ready to race. I had never been to a racetrack in my life, but I wasn’t about to turn down that offer.”
Within months, Knechtel had started racing quarter horses on a racing circuit spread across small towns in Alberta.
After obtaining her teaching certificate from the University of Alberta in Edmonton and heading to the classroom for three years, the lure of returning to racing and being around horses full-time was too strong, she said.
“I was asked to go to the United States to ride on a circuit with quarter horses and that was pretty much the end of my full-time teaching career,” she said smiling. “I rode for three years in Washington State, Oregon and Idaho and just had the time of my life.
“I was privileged enough to go to California and ride at Bay Meadows and did well enough to get invited to what they call the Big Apple in quarter horse racing, which is Los Alamitos racetrack, where most of the world’s best jockeys worked. They had the best quarter horses in the world racing there and I got to work there for almost three years, which was a thrill.”
After getting a visa to live and work in the United States for almost three years, it was revoked and she had to return to Canada after officials ruled she was taking an American’s job, said Knechtel.
“That was disappointing because I loved it there,” she said. “When I came back, I wasn’t sure about what I was going to do, so I got a job working the oil rigs and did a bunch of odd jobs in that industry and ended up quitting riding.”
But her love of horses and horse racing didn’t dissipate and she became the secretary for the Alberta Quarter Horse Racing Association.
A friend of hers asked if she would be interested in training horses and that became her passion – a passion that remains to this day, she said.
“I was asked to train one horse, which quickly became two, then four and at one point within a couple of years we got up to 50,” she said. “I love riding and racing, but I knew right away training was what I was meant to do and I’ve been doing it ever since.
“I call it a full-time lifestyle because it’s not a job to me. Training horses is something I truly love to do and I don’t consider it work at all.”
She knew Freedom’s Traveller was a good horse right away, but realized he might be something special when he won a $50,000 stakes race against a quality field of two-year-olds in the summer of 2010, said Knechtel.
The day Freedom’s Traveller won the $50,000 stakes race was May 13, the same day Northlands Racetrack was holding a special memorial for Barry Brown, Knechtel’s life partner of many years who died days before following a long battle with cancer.
“That was a very emotional day,” she said.
Brown was a great partner and wonderful trainer and taught her a lot about the profession she loves, said Knechtel.
Seeing Freedom’s Traveller continue to excel and win the biggest race in western Canada last August was something she will never forget, she said.
“He raced the race of his life and won easily,” she said. “I knew he was a really good horse, but to perform like that against such a strong field was amazing to see.”
The majority of owners and trainers working at Desert Park right now are from Alberta and they love the facility and weather, she said.
“Osoyoos is just beautiful and the people here are so nice and friendly,” she said. “It’s a really good facility and we just can’t train properly most of the time in Alberta this time of year because it’s too cold, so it’s working out great.”