The Big Man from South Dakota is Gone

Jun 5, 2019 | ASD History

Trainer Ardell Sayler with his Champion Balooga Bull.

Trainer Ardell Sayler with his Champion Balooga Bull.

by Bob Gates

Sunday, May 26 was a typical afternoon on the backside at Assiniboia Downs, after all, horses don’t do weekends. But this Sunday, Death came calling, and when he left the Sayler family was stricken with grief. Ardell Sayler had been taken.

Ardell’s many friends were denied more time with the man who always had a story or a one-liner that was guaranteed to put a smile on your face. Everyone on the grounds was thrown into a state of shock that fateful day with racetrackers left to wonder – what happens next?

Ardell and Janet were married for 48 1/2 years.

Ardell and Janet were married for 48 1/2 years.

How would they go on without the man who had been a fixture in these parts for 30 years?  But as it always does, the sun rose Monday morning and life at the Downs went on, albeit a much different life, one that has changed forever.

Ardell Sayler was larger than life and the hole he left is as huge as the man himself. I don’t think that his wife Janet, son Aaron and daughter Nicole will mind if we consider his life and impact on his home track, Assiniboia Downs.

Sayler was born in Ellendale, North Dakota to Fred and Emma Sayler on June 16, 1952. His father was a buyer and seller of horses and as a result, Ardell was around horses his whole life. Horses and racing are a part of the Sayler family gene pool.

Ardell’s first trip to the Downs came years before he started training at the local oval. He came to the Downs in the 1960s with his trainer-brother, Melbert. His older brother, Vernon rode at the Downs in the late 1960s. It would be several years before Sayler would sell his sweeping business and move his training operation to the Winnipeg track.

Ardell’s maiden win came at Fort Pierre (a non-recognized track) on May 14, 1978 with Hay Bomb. Almost 10 years later he got his first “Official” win when Saree’s Gem hit the wire at Lincoln Racecourse on September 30, 1987.

Success has been Sayler’s bosom buddy since he first arrived at the Downs with his horses in tow in 1990. He won his first race at the Downs on May 26, 1990 with Lucy’s Coach and he’s been going full throttle ever since.

First stakes win for Ardell at Assiniboia Downs. Sept. 15, 1990.

First stakes win for Ardell at Assiniboia Downs. Sept. 15, 1990.

One thing that set Sayler apart from his colleagues was his God-given talent with “babies” (2-year-olds). It’s a gift that not all trainers possess or for that matter even desire. The young ones are known for carrying the “whacko” gene that makes them unpredictable and at times just plain weird.

Sayler was well-known for bringing numerous 2-year-olds to the Downs every year, and by meet’s end he always seemed to have another promising star. What will happen to all those babies who won’t have Ardell to bring them along.  My, but he excelled with the young ones. Nobody did it better!

You can’t talk about Sayler without mentioning Balooga Bull. Over the years he had many good ones, but none better than star performer and Sayler School graduate Balooga Bull, who compiled a record of 16-3-1 from 27 starts while pocketing $334,076 in purses.

How’s this for an Assiniboia Downs resume?

  • > Twice named Horse of the Year.
  • >The only horse EVER to win the prestigious Assiniboia Downs Gold Cup three times, let alone in three consecutive years – as a 3/4/5-year-old (2012 to 2014).
  • >One of only three horses to win the Winnipeg Futurity as a 2-year-old and win the Manitoba Derby at three.


Crowning Achievements

Of Sayler’s 1,321 career wins, 1,190 came on the track right here at the Downs and that’s a lot of winning. Consider these records:

First – Most Leading Trainer Titles: They say records are made to be broken, but Ardell’s 12 Leading Trainer Titles are sure to stand the test of time. Nobody else is even close, so this record is as safe as it gets.

First – Most Wins on a Single Card: Ardell’s lifetime win total and his training titles are talked about all the time, but one you don’t hear about is the record he co-holds with Gilbert Ducharme. In October 1985 Ducharme became the first trainer at the Downs to saddle five winners on a card. On that day the Portage la Prairie native had horses in five of the nine races. The previous record of four wins was shared by Don Gray, Red Johnson, Sandy McPherson and Carl Anderson, with Gray hitting four wins on three occasions, Johnson twice and McPherson and Anderson once each.

It had proved so difficult to get that illusive fifth victory that many believed Ducharme’s record would never be broken, and for 30 years it seemed untouchable. Enter Ardell Sayler who scored a five-bagger on May 10, 2014.  Sayler had horses in seven of eight races that had been carded that day.

Second – Most Wins All Time: Sayler’s win total at the Downs has him in second place on the Downs All-Time Leading Trainer board, 27 wins behind Gary Danelson. Danelson has been coming to the Downs for almost 60 years and is still actively training. Sayler, on the other hand, hadn’t raced here half that long. Most thought it was only a matter of time before he overtook Danelson.

Third – Most Wins in a Season: The record for most wins by a trainer in a single season belongs to Tom Dodds who won 78 races in 1990. Walter Adams ranks second with 73 wins in 1984. Ardell is in third place with 71 victories in 2014.

Dodds’ record came in a season with 117 days (.67 wins per day) and Adams win tally came in a 107-day season (.66 wins per day). Sayler’s 71 wins was accomplished in a season with only 60 days (1.18 wins per day). Once again, the man from Rapid City figures prominently in the record books.Ardell, second from left, as a teenager at the Downs in the 1960s. His brother Vern up for the win.

Ardell, second from left, as a teenager at the Downs in 1967. His brother Vern up for the win.Beyond racing, there’s so much more. At days end, once he had put barn #4 to bed, Ardell could be seen, heading up a table in the Club West Lounge socializing with a dozen or more friends until it was time to call it a day.

Somehow it seems fitting that this year, of all years, was the one that Ardell chose to bring Balooga Bull back to the Downs. The Bull had ruled the Downs from 2011 to 2014, but that was five years ago. How would the now 10-year-old perform? A comeback? Who knows, that still has to be sorted out, or does it?  When Ardell’s number was called, his faithful friend was close by and we are thankful for that.

Life is fragile. We never know how much time we’re given. One minute you’re here and the next you’re not. Ardell enjoyed life and died doing what he loved.

Good on you Ardell, good on you!

“Come on you guys, let’s move, we’re burnin’ daylight!” ~ Ardell Sayler

Ardell wins the first running of the Don Gray Memorial. May 8, 1994.

Ardell wins the first running of the Don Gray Memorial. May 8, 1994.