Written by: Dave Briggs
Riversedge Racing Stables is one of the top owners and yearlings buyers in western Canada.
The big fish from Riversedge are laughing again on the phone from Alberta, suggesting that for all their lofty goals and stated disdain for losing that they’re actually having a damn good time running one of the top racing outfits in Wild Rose Country.
“We’re the big fish in a little pond,” said Robert Vargo as Norm Castiglione, his lone partner in Riversedge Racing Stables LTD., clarified, “Let me put it this way, we don’t like to lose.”
They spend accordingly.
Not only is Riversedge one of the top owners in western Canada, the stable is annually one of the top buyers at both the CTHS Alberta Yearling Sale and CTHS British Columbia Yearling and Mixed Sale.
From Castiglione’s 800-acre base south of Calgary in Okotoks, AB, Vargo and Castiglione oversee nearly 100 horses with help from farm manager Crystal Cates. The property abuts the Sheep River — hence the name Riversedge — and features spectacular views.
“It can’t be more perfect. If you look out to the west you’ve got 180 degrees of the Rocky Mountains. To the south is the start of our barns. It’s just expansive prairies. We’re right in the foothills. It really can’t get any sweeter than that,” Castiglione said.
Riversedge also has its own nine-hole, par-3 golf course clearly visible in aerial photos of the property Castiglione took with a drone.
“We set the rules,” Castiglione said of the private course. “That house in the middle isn’t a clubhouse. That’s actually my house.”
“The course goes right around the house,” Vargo said.
Near the house — a 5,600 square-foot, high-tech log home once featured in Electronic House magazine — Castiglione has transformed a former “hockey room” complete with bar, faux ice surface and net into something of a Riversedge museum housing the stable’s many spoils in just 12 years in the game. Trophies are displayed on shelves affixed to a huge wall-to-wall mural of horses racing in the Kentucky Derby in front of a packed house under the Twin Spires of Churchill Downs. The horse leading the Derby pack and also immortalized by a bronze sculpture in the centre of the room is one in the same — Knight’s Covenant.
IT ALL BEGAN IN FORT MCMURRAY
Vargo and Castiglione met at a Rotary Club meeting in Fort McMurray, AB in the early 1980s.
Vargo came to Fort McMurray in 1974 when he purchased the lone General Motors dealership in the city and grew Alberta Motor Products from an operation that sold just three vehicles the year before he bought it to one that sold 1,900 new and 1,500 used vehicles in 2015 during a recession.
Castiglione founded a construction company in 1981 in Fort McMurray. That company grew to become the Casman Group of Companies, one of the largest construction firms in Fort McMurray.
The horse connection came from Vargo. When he was in his late teens in the late-1960s, his father campaigned two or three thoroughbreds on the western circuit of Lethbridge, Calgary and Saskatoon.
“I kind of ran around and watched them, but he got out of it, because, obviously, horse racing is a little expensive,” Vargo said. “I liked it, so I was always watching when I was in Fort McMurray for the opportunity maybe to get back in it again. One day, I bought a horse.”
He immediately hit the jackpot with his first purchase, a chestnut gelding named Knight’s Covenant that won the $125,000 Alberta Derby in 2005 and also brought Castiglione into the horse racing game.
“I was introduced to (Monica Russell) as the trainer that I was going to use,” Vargo said. “I told her I wanted a decent horse. I didn’t want a cheap claimer. She had (Knight’s Covenant) as a two-year-old and, if I remember right, it belonged to a doctor in town. He had run it as a two-year-old a couple of times. She said, ‘It’s a really good horse. You should phone him and see if he wants to sell it.’ I phoned him and he said, yeah, he’d sell it for $30,000.
“The first couple of races it was running second, second, second. All the time there was always one a little better. I think it was his third or fourth start when I couldn’t make it. It was running in Calgary and I was in Fort McMurray and I couldn’t make it, so I phoned Norm and said, ‘Hey, this horse is going to win. They can’t keep coming up with another horse that’s going to beat him. Can you go to the track?’ So, Norm and his wife Margi went to the track and it won. Well, they kind of enjoyed going down to the winner’s circle and the whole thing. It’s kind of fun, especially when you’re a little closer to the horse, not just watching anybody’s horse.”
At that time, Castiglione had no interest in horse racing. “I just went because Robert said, ‘Hey, would you mind going and watching my horse running?’ I said ‘Yeah, sure, I’ll do that,’” Castiglione said.
A month later, Knight’s Covenant won the Alberta Derby at 27-1 just 17 days after breaking his maiden.
“Everybody was dressed up like we were going to the Kentucky Derby,” Castiglione said as Vargo laughed at the memory. “There was Robert and his wife, and Margi and me and Robert’s mom and her sister. I bet you we bet amongst the five or six of us about $6,000. Robert bet $1,000 to win. I said, ‘You’re crazy.’ I bet $500, but I put it to show. When he crossed the finish line he was the only horse that didn’t have one bit of mud on him. He broke and he broke well and he never, ever gave up the lead.
“They wheeled the money to us on a cart. I think we won like $48,000. We waited around for quite awhile after the race for them to get the money. I said, ‘Man, this horse racing’s for me. He’s got one horse, I just made $10,000. He made $90,000 on the win and, oh my God.’
“That was about $5 million ago.”
Both men laugh at the thought of how much they’ve spent in the game in the 12 years since Knight’s Covenant. They are reasonably comfortable with the expenditure and still as game as ever — if not more so.
“Both Robert and I are pretty competitive guys,” Castiglione said.
LOFTY GOALS AND BIG BUCKS
The goal has always been the same — to win the Canadian Derby.
“Obviously, if we’ve got the right horse we’d go (for even bigger stakes), but our main goal out west here is to win the Canadian Derby,” Vargo said.
“And not just once,” Castiglione added. “We don’t go into any year not thinking we want to win the Canadian Derby… We never, ever, go to a yearling sale not thinking about the Canadian Derby.”
“We just like competition,” Vargo said. “We want to win. We have that winning spirit. When we were in business, we wanted to be the best in business. So, now that I’m out of business — I sold out — I still like that competition. I like to be there, I like to have the horses and watch them and want them to win.”
Castiglione said the competition begins at the yearling sales.
“Did you make the right decision? That carries through until you get through that three-year-old year,” Castiglione said. “Did you pick that right one at the sale to make it? It’s a bit of a self pat on the back if he does. That really is the driver. Robert says, ‘We’d like to win it with one of our own,’ and that would be the ultimate for us is to win it with one bred at the farm here. But, even to have made the right decision at a yearling sale and have that come through to fruition at the Canadian Derby, I think if you asked that same question to 100 different owners even in the U.S., that’s what drives you is that winning spirit.
“It’s not how much money we make. That’s for sure,” Vargo said, laughing.
Admitted novices in terms of picking out quality horseflesh, Vargo and Castiglione have relied on experts, including several veteran trainers over the years — first Russell, then Greg Tracy and now Tim Rycroft, among others.
“We take a great amount of caution on vetting and looking at the breeding of the horse. We get lots of help, because we know both of us haven’t learned that part of the business, don’t really take a lot of interest in the actual looking at the background of the horse. So, we bring people in to vet it and select for us,” Castiglione said. “We kind of go through a process each time of having them go through the whole barns and shortening it up to a list of five or six horses and vet them and we’ve had a great deal of success doing that. But the sales are a fun thing. We really enjoy it, it’s stimulating, it’s exciting. We kind of are marked guys in Alberta because we’re probably the biggest barn in Alberta and BC. So, we’ve got to be really cautious when we go to the sales of not showing our hand, because if you kind of know the auction business, you’ve got a lot of folks gunning for you. They’ll be all too happy to run it up. So, we play little games and try our hardest to pay a reasonable price for a good horse, but not too much.”
The most notable exception came in 2015 when Riversedge set the record for the most spent on a yearling at the Alberta CTHS Sale. They ponied up $95,000 to purchase an Exhi gelding out of Fabulous Brush consigned by Highfield Investment Group.
“I remember Norm phoning me and saying, ‘Jeez, I went a little over budget. I paid $100,000 for this horse. He’s supposed to be the best one.’ I said, ‘That’s good. We could use the best one. There’s no use getting second best,’” Vargo said.
“That’s why we called it Norm’s Big Bucks. Norm was going to buy that horse, no matter what. There was nobody that was going to out-bid him even if the horse was no good, because he wanted that horse.”
Norm’s Big Bucks won his first three starts as two-year-old in 2016, but broke down in the $50,000 Canadian Juvenile Stakes at Northlands Park won by another Riversedge horse, Trooper John.
“(Norm’s Big Bucks) never let us down. If he had not broken down in that race, we probably would be sitting here today with a Canadian Derby champion, a BC Derby champion. He was just that special,” Castiglione said.
“Horsemen are all alike. They’re pretty critical of another horse that’s better, but the day the horse broke down, everybody on the track was of the same mindset. It’s not good for horse racing in general. It certainly wasn’t good for us. People are respectful of that when something like that happens, regardless of whether it’s a claimer or it’s a good horse. It’s never a good feeling if you’re the owner, or even if you’re not the owner,” Castiglione said.
Trooper John picked up some of the slack, earning over $100,000 at three in 2017 and finishing second to Chief Know It All in both the Canadian Derby and the BC Derby, the latter by a nose hair.
Vargo and Castiglione are hoping for big things from Trooper John in 2018. The gelded son of Colonel John out of Shouldn’t We All is one of some 45 of their horses wintering at the farm Riversedge purchased in Ocala, FL in 2016.
They hope to try racing in the United States a bit more in 2018 despite being deeply loyal to the western Canadian racing scene and the Okotoks farm being located just 45 minutes from the new Century Downs north of Calgary. Castiglione said the Alberta industry has a long way to go to return to past glory.
“Alberta’s a tough place for racing right now,” he said. “We’re probably at the lowest ebb of racing in 20 years. There’s some bright spots. Certainly, we’re funded out of slot revenue, the NDP government has reduced our portion of it over the three-year period, so there’s a big strain on purse money and money coming out of the slots. But, a new racetrack, a 10-year MOU, the fact that we built a track at our own facility here and so a lot of our horses we can train right off the farm. It helps us economically. Both tracks are a short enough distance that we’ll ship in horses and bring them back when they need a rest. So, that’s helped us. Vancouver, in terms of distance when you’re a westerner isn’t the end of the world. It’s an 11-hour ship. They’ve got a pretty good purse structure for good horses. It’s a matter of managing our horse inventory to both tracks. We’ll have a trainer in Vancouver this year, we’ll have two trainers in Edmonton and, hopefully, we can manage the horses to get the best results.”
Remember, they say they’re not in it for the money, first and foremost.
“We like to go watch our horses,” Vargo said. “We go to the track every time our horses are running — whether it’s Edmonton or Calgary. We like to see them run and that’s part of the fun of the game, to see your horses and not just watch it on the computer.”
“Robert has an airplane and we’ll fly everywhere we go between Edmonton and Vancouver,” Castiglione said.
Including one very special race held at Northlands Park on July 8, 2017.
When Vargo’s wife, Shirley, died in 2016, Robert wanted to do something special to honour her memory.
“She was a big horse racing fan. She was at every race that we were ever at and even when she was immobile, when it was time to go to the winner’s circle, Robert would grab her under one arm and I’d grab her under the other and down the stairs we’d go,” Castiglione said. “She wouldn’t even touch the stairs going to the winner’s circle. Robert had decided to have a race for her. They called it the Shirley Vargo Memorial and the funny part was, we didn’t have a horse for it. So, we asked our friends in Kentucky to see if they could find us an older mare that was capable of running in it. We found one, literally, six weeks before the race and shipped her out.”
Vargo’s plane made four trips to Edmonton to get all his family and friends to the race that day and when Riversedge’s new purchase, Curlish Figure, romped to victory in the $75,000 race the tears began to flow in the winner’s circle.
“All my family. All my kids were there. Everybody was there. Then to win the race, that was fantastic,” Vargo said.
Castiglione’s wife, Margi is also actively involved with the horses. Before they owned thoroughbreds, the original Riversedge Farm was home to Margi’s horses.
“We have nearly 100 horses because my wife just doesn’t let any of them go,” Castiglione said. “We’ve now figured out that if we don’t want another horse in the field, we’ve got to sell it before it leaves the track or it’s coming home and it never gets to leave again.
“I make a weekly trip to Costco for 80 pounds in carrots, which is a story in itself, because every night (my wife) goes to every horse that we’ve ever run as a thoroughbred and they all get carrots. We’ve got one field full of champions and they all are just in retirement mode.”
“Knight’s Covenant is still wandering in a field out there,” Vargo said.
Other stars campaigned by Riversedge include multiple stakes winner Claresmiezie (20 7-3-3, $197,306), multiple stakes winner Bond James Bond (32 7-7-8, $210,195) and, while she raced out west, multiple graded stakes winner Academic, a Sovereign Award winning filly that won both the Canadian Derby and BC Derby in 2015 while owned, in part, by Riversedge.
“We partnered with Danny Dion. I’m pretty good friends with him, so I talked him into working out a partnership and bringing her here and we would look after her,” Vargo said. “We worked out something pretty good and we won the Canadian Derby and the BC Derby as partners, but we’d like to win, on our own, with something that we bought. Like Trooper John. He lost by three feet and one inch. Next year, we’ve got some really good three-year-olds coming up. Again, we’re going to be there.”
Academic was part of a banner 2015 for Riversedge when seven horses won nine stakes races and the stable was nominated for a Sovereign Award as owner of the year. Three years prior to that, Riversedge had its most financially successful season with earnings of nearly $900,000.
Though Castiglione said he and Vargo are “not very big on partnering” with others, they have created a successful bond and partnership between them.
“It’s not our main core business, so it’s not hard to get along,” Castiglione said. “I think when you’re in business you realize how hard a partnership can be. So, there’s give and take. I kind of look after the farm. Robert absolutely loves the race-day element of it.
“I like giving the jockey instructions on how to ride,” Vargo said, laughing. “I don’t even know how to ride a horse, but I can sure give instructions.”
Through it all, Castiglione said the two of them have had a blast.
“Quite honestly, that’s what this was always meant to be, fun. Quite often, we’ll find ourselves in the paddock giggling and having a good time while everybody else is serious. When it comes right down to it, it’s supposed to be fun. If it isn’t, losing money and not having fun isn’t a very good combination,” Castiglione said. Vargo is, again, laughing beside him before turning serious.
“Just keep an eye on us for (2018),” Vargo said, the competitiveness thick in his voice. “It could be one of our best years.”