SHAKOPEE, MN – There are familiar names atop the Canterbury Park trainer’s standings after two weeks of racing. Robertino Diodoro and Mac Robertson are tied with 7 wins each. Francisco Bravo is close behind with 6. Then there is Nevada Litfin with 5.
What is unique about Litfin is that he has done it from only 9 starters.
While the success may appear overnight for the 35 year old conditioner from Mahtowa, Minnesota (32 miles south of Duluth), Litfin has been training horses since high school.
“I ran some of the spring meet in 2000 in Aberdeen, South Dakota,” said Litfin. “Then I came down to Canterbury that summer. I remember being in high school and having to be excused from class so I could go enter horses. There was one phone in the school that could call long distance locked in the athletic office and they let me have the key so I could call the track and check on entries.”
He saddled his first winner at Canterbury Park that summer with Fight for Glory.
“Wire to wire with Gary Birzer,” he recalled.
In the nearly 16 years that have followed, Litfin has trained several stakes winner. The most recognizable for Canterbury fans is probably Tsar Tops Dancer who upset heavily favored Bet Your Boots at 29-1 in the 2010 Minnesota Derby.
“They brought Tsar to me and we got him broke,” remembered Litfin. “He was huge and strong.”
“We went through a lot of feed tubs, water buckets, stall doors. He once walked through a wall,” laughed Veronica, Litfin’s wife of four years (they couple has been together for ten).
“The best way to describe Tsar,” she said, “is this was his pond, don’t make ripples in it.”
After a third place finish in the Northern Lights Futurity, Tsar Tops Dancer was turned out for the winter.
“One September day I get a call from the owners,” said Litfin. “They want to go to Keeneland September and buy another horse. So Veronica sets up the whole deal for them through her connection with Chad Schumer and they go shopping.
“They put a limit of $4000 and Chad went through and narrowed down the catalogue to 20 horses. He told them he was going to bid on all twenty of them until they got one.
“Then Paris by Night came into the ring, a little dark filly by Touch Gold out of a Kris S mare, and the bought her for $4000.”
Through the 2010 Canterbury Park season the owners, TTD Partners, ran both horses with the Litfins with success, but the highlight was three days in August when Tsar Tops Dancer won the Minnesota Derby on July 31 and then Paris by Night went north of the border to take the Graduation Stakes at Assiniboia Downs on August 2nd.
The principle owner of TTD Partners went on to form other partnerships and still sends horses to the Litfins regularly.
“He took this one horse that won the Minnesota Derby,” said Litfin, “and turned it into a stable. He has a couple of two year olds here by Sydney’s Candy and Flower Alley plus some at home by Fort Larned, New Year’s Day and Stay Thirsty.”
“He really has brought a lot of new people in to the game,” added Veronica.
Three and a half years ago, the two person operation became a true family affair when daughter Cooper was born and the family continues to grow with the addition of a second daughter, Brooks, last fall.
The biggest change with a growing family is the need to hire help.
“We did everything, just the two of us, forever” said Litfin.
“That’s been a bit of a change because I like to have everything just so,” added Veronica. “When a client comes into the barn I want them to think ‘wow’. I want them to know that we are taking the very best care of their horses.”
Cooper has spent her whole life in the barn and helps with clients as well.
“She is Tour Guide Barbie,” laughed Veronica. “She will take the owners around and show them their horses. She does a really good job keeping them all straight and which horses belongs to which owner.”
“The problem is them keeping up,” added Nevada. “She doesn’t dawdle and goes from one to the other and expects them to keep up.”
Veronica explained how things are kept safe in the barn area in the morning.
“She knows that in the morning the barn rule is: while horses are coming in and out of the barn she is not allowed in the shedrow and must stay in the office. If she needs something, holler, mom is always in the barn. That’s all that she has known – if you need something, yell for mom.
“That’s the great thing with the crew that we have, everybody pitches in. If I’m out past the breezeway and Johnny hears her, he’ll open up the door and help out. It’s just awesome to have the stable that we have. It’s a lot like having a big, extended family.”
It is a big, extended family that Veronica keeps well fed as well with barbeques many evenings featuring chicken, corn and beef done only the way a self-described “ol’ Okie griller” can.
In a few years, though, the girls will start going to school and the barn dynamic will change.
“We are thinking about buying a house or farm in Oklahoma,” explained Veronica. “Fortunately schools there start a little earlier and get out a little earlier than they do up here. There may be a few weeks overlap on either end of the meet where we’ll be apart, but it won’t be for long.”
The Litfins credit much of the early season success of the operation to their owners’ willingness to spend money on stock over the winter, bring horses to Canterbury fresh and ready to race as well as having more older horses than in the past.
“Raver Racing is probably our biggest client,” said Veronica, “They really rotate horses in and out and they spent money at Oaklawn this winter. Keith at SFIS did as well.”
“There are eight two-year olds in the shedrow now,” she added. “More than we’ve ever had, which is great. But we have older horses as well and that has helped early in the meet.”
“Fortunately the races we’ve won early have been no conditions so we have horses that are winners and that helps,” said Nevada. “We have horses that have won wide open starters and wide open $7500s on the grass. Cajun Don won a non-winner of the year but he still has a two of the year somewhere down the road.
“Hopefully by the time we have to back off on some of these older horses a little bit the two year olds will be ready to run.”
“Usually we like to stop at Prairie Meadows on the way up here,” said Nevada, “but with the equine herpes scare we just came straight up. It gave the horses a little extra time off and they have really responded.”
While maintaining a 56% winning percentage for the entire meet is highly unlikely, there is no question that the Litfin barn is one of the hottest barns on the grounds so far this season.