I am sure that when he woke up on Friday, even Dale Spence, a poised, confident young driver could not have known what was about to take place that afternoon at Exhibition Park Raceway.
It was the last card of a short exhibition week racing schedule, and the main event was the prestigious Milton Downey Memorial, named in honour of one of the greatest ambassadors and contributors to New Brunswick racing in history.
Neal Moase, who shipped in from P.E.I with his big strapping pacer Big League was looking for a catch-driver and the colorful Moase assigned twenty-year-old Dale Spence Jr. the task of driving his speedy pacer.
He had been a consistent pacer and when he is on his game, shows he has the speed that we were lucky enough to witness on Friday. Before the race, about half way through, I had a chance to talk to Dale Spence Sr. the proud father of the popular youngster.
" You look at the young drivers around the Maritimes and Dale is as aggressive as anyone and travels miles all summer and year round to drive and learn more everyday". I would say, the hard work has paid off for the likable Spence.
I could feel the electricity right along the fence as the race approached. Dale Sr. and his father were on hand for the race along with Dales wife Tressa. In the interview the elder Spence had told me that his son " had the confidence and skill" to drive in the pardon the pun, "Big Leagues".
As the race approached and when track announcer Rick Gaudet paraded the horses in program order, the tension was building for those cheering Dale on including family and backstretch supporters. When the parade got to Big League, the crowd, with many Spence supporters erupted in cheers. It was a moment I haven't witnessed in N.B racing is years.
Dale sat in the drivers seat and looked all business. He never acknowledged the cheers, he looked straight ahead and was poised as any young driver I have ever seen. Big League is known for his gate-busting speed and as his Dad eluded to earlier, "he will be sending him to the lead and looking to control the race. He is confident in his ability as a driver and you can see it in his eyes".
Post time came and the field assembled on the backside. Most punters I spoke to casually along the fence had predicted an early speed duel with Big League and Touch Of Lightning. That never happened.
Big League left the gate like he was shot out of a cannon with a confident and natural sulky sitting Spence in tow. He took advantage of a slow start for his early competition in Earl Smiths' Touch Of Lightning and was on top easily by the opening quarter :27.1 and a comfortable two-length lead.
Half was up in a blistering :55.4 and the crowd were buzzing. He still held a two-length advantage over Smiths charge, and as they hit the backstretch, Big League turned his heels to his rivals and opened up to a three-length lead in an astonishing 1:24.4.
Track record was in their grasp and needed just a :29.3 closer to break the record co-held by Sandy Hanover and Woodmere Topcat. All Turain, a pacer known for his late kick in the mile was giving chase for Gilles Barrieau in second and many thought he had a chance to catch Big League.
As they swung for home, Spence went to work on the Four Starzzz Shark pacer and the roars continued for Dale as he romped to a seven-length win. "How fast, how fast" is all you could hear and Rick did a Vance Cameron and did not announce the time until the winner circle. Throngs of supporters ran to the winners circle from the rail, and the barn yard supporters were plenty.
Finally, it was time to find out how fast did the big guy go? Rick announced the winning time of 1:53.4 and the applause and high fives could be seen all around the winners circle and even the fans got into the moment. I have been in racing for many years, and not since the glory days of E.P.R and Provincial Cups had there been so much excitement.
Dale was humble as always in the winners circle and Neal Moase stressed the importance of winning the Downey Memorial. "When I came here for years, it was always who does Milton have racing as they were usually the top horses in their races". I can't stress enough the elation that I could feel coming from Moase as I interviewed him. You would have thought he just won the Little Brown Jug.
This folks is what racing is all about. Breaking E.P.R's track record was a big enough feat itself but for a rising star in Dale Spence Jr. driving the winning horse, at the young age of twenty, was things you see in a made for T.V movie. Amazing day at E.P.R and I predict it will be a long time before this record is replaced.
by Scott Waddell