08/30/2013 1:18PM

Canterbury: Heliskier the star of Festival Day

Coady Photography
Heliskier has had a rough season at Canterbury but he can end the meet on a high note Sunday.

SHAKOPEE, Minn. – Heliskier, one of the best racehorses ever bred in Minnesota, will make a return to Festival of Champions Day this Sunday at Canterbury Park. The 20th edition of the Festival of Champions, a day of racing restricted to Minnesota-bred Thoroughbreds and Quarter Horses, will offer more than $430,000 in stakes purses.

When Heliskier made his 2-year-old debut at Canterbury Park in 2011, his maiden win was solid, but didn’t turn a lot of heads. A few weeks later on Festival of Champions Day, he dismantled a field of Minnesota-breds in the Northern Lights Futurity and fans knew they had seen something special.

Heliskier’s breeder, the late Robert “Bun” Colvin, knew he had something special on his hands well before then.

“Bun came in the house after breaking that horse and said to me, ‘Marlene, this is the one. He is going to be special,’ ” recalled his widow, owner Marlene Colvin.

Bun didn’t live to see his prophecy come true, dying suddenly that winter, but Heliskier won both his races as a 2-year old and then turned heads in his 3-year-old debut by earning a 94 Beyer Speed Figure while winning a statebred allowance by 10 1/2 lengths under a hand ride by Derek Bell.

Heliskier dominated Minnesota racing that season, winning all four of his races, including the Minnesota Derby, by a combined 33 lengths. The horse became so popular he had his own walk-on music – AC/DC’s Hells Bells – for when he stepped on the track prior to his races.

But when Festival of Champions time came, Heliskier did not participate.

“That was entirely my decision,” Marlene Colvin said. “He had run four times and he had nothing to prove. Bun didn’t like to run 3-year-olds against older horses and I did what I knew Bun would do.”

Heliskier spent the winter at Colvin’s farm in South Dakota. He romped in the 10,000 Lakes Stakes in his 2013 debut and it looked like another untouchable year was on tap for the son of Appealing Skier.

But in his next start, his first against open company, Heliskier stumbled badly and went to his knees at the start, nearly unseating Bell and sending a ripple through the large crowd.

Bell took it easy around the racetrack and Heliskier was vanned off as a precaution. He was brought back slowly by trainer Mac Robertson and returned to the races five weeks later in an open allowance in his first try over the turf. He finished a game second.

There would be no more walk-on music and the air of invincibility had vanished. Heliskier was indeed mortal.

In his most recent race, on Aug. 18, Heliskier showed everyone that the reports of his demise were premature. With Bell having suffered a season-ending injury in training that morning, the big gelding was ridden by Justin Shepherd for the first time. Heliskier stalked the early pace, made a bid through the lane, and drew off to win an optional claiming race by 2 1/2 lengths, earning a career-best 102 Beyer Speed Figure.

Heliskier enters the $55,000 Minnesota Sprint Championship on Sunday with 8-1-0 record from 10 starts and earnings of $209,000. He is even money on the morning line to put the finishing touches on a very popular comeback story.