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Daryl Thiessen: Fifty Words, Two Minutes, and One Hope

Story by Chris Lomon / @Chris Lomon
 
Daryl Thiessen can’t wait for the moment. He doesn’t know when it will come, but when it does, he’ll be ready for it.
 
Not the circumstances anyone was hoping for but I can guarantee when the next time the starter calls 2 minutes and we turn our horses towards the gate we will all have a new appreciation for what we do. Stay safe everyone and see you all hopefully sooner than later.
 
Shortly after the recent announcement that live standardbred racing in Ontario would be temporarily halted due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Thiessen, in his second season in the sulky, took to Facebook to post those 50 hopeful words.
 
And while racing might be hold, the sport is never far from his thoughts.
 
In fact, it’s top of mind from the morning he wakes up at his parents’ sprawling farm in Elm Creek, Manitoba, until the moment he closes his eyes at night.
 
“I’m keeping busy the best I can,” said Thiessen, currently in his second year driving, competing mainly at The Raceway at Western Fair District. “I haven’t been home in over a year, so I figured now, with no racing, it would be the best time for a visit. I missed this place a lot more than I thought I did. It’s a pretty simple life out here. It’s a town of 300 and we’re right out in the country. You have 100 acres outside, so you can walk around and do a little thinking. As far as the situation goes, it’s about as good as it can be.”
 
Ironically, it’s horse racing that occupies a majority of his time and thoughts in a day.
 
“I watch my replays all day long,” said Thiessen, who also has his fiancée, Markie, with him on the farm. “My parents (Barry and Cheryl) and Markie, they just laugh and hear me watching my replays, but they are all unbelievable in their support of me. They help me stay focused and they understand why I’m still committed to staying sharp when it comes to racing. I watch racing every day, whether I’m racing or not. I’ll watch (champion drivers) Tim Tetrick, Dexter Dunn, and I study them. I mean, that’s every day, racing or not.”



It’s been his approach ever since he left a highly successful life on the rodeo circuit in western Canada to try his hand at harness racing, starting his association with the sport as a groom over three years ago.
 
In his rookie 2019 campaign, Thiessen won 16 races and posted 54 top-three finishes from 160 starts.
 
This year, he’s won nine of 82 starts, accompanied by 23 top-three placings.
 
“Every time I race, my mom and dad call me when I’m done at the racetrack,” said the 2017 recipient of Manitoba’s Harness Racing Rising Star award. “Even when I’m in a slump, they’ll offer words of encouragement. They are always so positive and so is Markie. She keeps me grounded and keeps me staying positive – it’s the best thing I could ask for.”
 
Prior to live racing being put on hold, Thiessen held a hot hand holding the reins.
 
On March 17, he teamed with Cousin Mary, a hard-knocking seven-year-old daughter of Camluck, to win their second straight race together.
 
“The year started really well and then I went into a little slump for a couple of weeks. Then, in the last couple of weeks, it started heating up again. I’m driving better horses than I thought I’d be. Cousin Mary, when she’s on her game, she’s one of the nicest mares in Canada. That’s been a pretty cool opportunity, something I didn’t think I’d have a chance to do this early on in my career. I was looking forward to the campaign we were going to have, but a break isn’t going to hurt her.”


Photo by John Watkins
 
Self-isolation and social distancing, terms frequently used during the coronavirus outbreak, are certainly familiar to Thiessen.
 
He’s found a few ways to escape the tedium associated with the current limitations in place for the general population.
 
“Other than watching races, I’ve been doing daily push-ups and sit-ups, trying to keep on with that athletic mentality. You don’t want to get too stale. It’s no different than the horses. They’re continuing to jog and train, so when they call us to race they’ll be ready. I’m just trying to stay in shape as well, so when they call us, you’re ready to go.”
 
Thiessen can’t wait until that call comes.
 
He’s not quite certain what his initial reaction will be when it does.
 
“It’s nice to have a little downtime with my family, but at the same time, I can’t wait until I get back in the bike and do what I love to do.”


Daryl and Markie
 
That’s why he often thinks about the words he posted on his Facebook page less than a week ago, especially the moment when the starter calls the horses, drivers to line up behind the gate, and Western Fair track announcer Shannon “Sugar” Doyle readies to get the field on its way.
 
He’s replayed the image, in his estimation, at least a hundred times since he last sat behind a horse.
 
“With the FBI investigation (federal prosecutors brought charges against 27 people in a far-reaching operation involving performance-enhancing drugs), it was a bit of a punch to our industry, and the coronavirus was another shot at the industry. I think, with all of this happening, it’s a good time to step back and reflect on everything… why we are part of this sport and why we love it, and never take it for granted. I’ve taken that step back and realized how much I love doing this.”
 
For now, just like on this day, Thiessen, who currently has plans to be wed in July, will spend quality time with his parents, fiancée, and traversing a wide open space where he can envision the red lights flashing on the starter car.


Photo by John Watkins
 
And when it becomes a reality, racing will have far more meaning to Thiessen than it ever has.
 
“This sport, it’s something I crave, and it’s given me an even bigger appreciation for the horses, the horsepeople and our fans. I think, down the road, this could be good for us, if we look at it through the right lens.”

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Main photo by John Watkins

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