By Scott Taylor (@staylorsports)
Marvin Buffalo from Day Star First Nation in Saskatchewan has been a thoroughbred racing trainer for 35 years.
He’s had a barn at Assiniboia Downs for 27 years and has a reputation around the Winnipeg track for being smart, savvy and steady.
But this summer, something remarkable is happening to Marvin and his wife Deb. After a lifetime in the racing industry, Buffalo finally has a truly special horse — a stakes winner and, perhaps, the next great filly/mare at ASD.
Her name is Spitten Kitten and on Tuesday night, the eve of National Indigenous People’s Day, Buffalo’s “Nice little filly,” with Sven Balroop aboard, won the $50,000 Chantilly Stakes.
Spitten Kitten went off at 6-1 and then led gate-to-wire over six furlongs, holding off Super Caro and the 4-5 favourite Big Hug at the finish line to win her third race in four starts this season at Turf Paradise (1) and Assiniboia Downs (2).
It was her second stakes victory of the season. She won the $24,000 One and Only Overnight Stakes on May 30 – the first stakes race of the season at ASD — and after her win in the Chantilly on Tuesday, she now has four wins in seven starts during her brief career. Right now, Spitten Kitten is the best three-year-old filly at the track.
“She’s turning out to be a nice little filly,” said Buffalo, modestly. “It’s two stakes wins for her this year. Deb and I own her with a partner. Deb saw her and liked her in the stall so we bought her in the yearling sale in Phoenix. She was a good bargain. We got her at $2,500 US, which is a fairly decent price and she’s won about $58,000 now, so it’s been pretty lucky for her to turn out and do so well, so far.”
OK, but there is a lot more to it than just luck. Marvin, who has been married to Deb for 15 years and couldn’t do the job without her, might not have the biggest barn at ASD, but he does have one of the most successful.
This year, he’s seventh in the trainer’s standings with six wins, a second and two third-place finishes in just 13 starts. But pay no attention to the standings. They will always be dominated by the two big barns at ASD, the ones belonging to legendary First Nations’ trainers Tom Gardipy Jr. (1), a six-time champion and Jerry Gourneau (2), a four-time champ and the three-time defending champ. Buffalo’s horses, meanwhile, have been in the money a whopping 69 percent of the time this season.
He’s No. 7 on the trainer’s list, but No. 1 in the hearts of the betting public at ASD.
What makes Spitten Kitten (a chestnut filly by Air Force Blue-Zahrah by Kitten’s Joy) extra special is that while Buffalo has trained some nice horses in the past, this is the first time he’s owned and trained a stakes champion. He knows he’s in for an exciting summer of racing.
“You go all your career trying to find a nice horse and when you get one, it’s really satisfying,” he said. “This is the first successful stakes horse I’ve purchased, owned and trained myself. The first horse we bought at that Phoenix sale was Freezing Jimmy in 2019. He won the Graduation Stakes as a two-year-old in his first start. But he kind of dwindled off and we decided to retire him and found him a nice home with a second career as a show jumper.”
Buffalo grew up in the horse racing business although he admits to coming from a “real hockey family,” at Day Star First Nation in Saskatchewan.
“My father trained horses for 30 years,” Marvin said. “I played a lot of hockey in my younger years, but I kind of knew I’d always be in horse racing.
“I grew up at Day Star about 20 kilometres south of Wynyard, Sask. I learned quite early in my life that there is no standing around in the barn. If my dad caught me standing around, he’d hand me a pitchfork. And when he handed you that pitchfork, you knew he was giving you a lousy job.”
Marvin’s four brothers all worked in the racing industry, but none as steady as the guy that folks around the Downs call, “One of the hardest working trainers on the grounds.” Buffalo is considered a “hands-on” trainer and according to Downs CEO Darren Dunn, he has a relationship with horses that very few people have.
“I would call him steady,” said Dunn, the Downs’ director of operations. “He runs a nice clean barn and works very, very hard.”
Obviously, he’s worked a long time to get to the winner’s circle with a horse he both owns and trains and admits he couldn’t do it without wife Deb. They’ve been together 15 years and Buffalo says that “Deb runs the barn while I gallop the horses.”
“You never know what’s going to fall in your favour in this business,” he said. “You have to take it day by day even when things aren’t going well. But I’ve never thought about getting out of the business. I just love horses. I love coming to the barn every day. That’s what keeps me in it. And even though I’ve been in it a long time, there is still something more to learn. I just keep on working. Racing has been very good to me.”
Buffalo officially started his professional career in the racing business as an exercise rider in Regina in 1984.
“I was 16 and just old enough to get a license,” he said. “I started out as an exercise rider. I was hoping to be a jockey, but I grew. To this day, I still enjoy galloping horses.”
When he turned 18, Buffalo got his trainer’s license and for the past 37 years, he’s been whispering in the ears of many fractious young thoroughbreds. Spitten Kitten is just the latest and after two big stakes wins in sprints this spring, Buffalo is looking to take her to a longer race, the $50,000 Manitoba Oaks over one mile on August 2.
In the meantime, Buffalo’s long career is just getting better as it ages.
“I started in Regina, went to Alberta for six years and then went back to Saskatchewan for a few years,” he said. “I came to Winnipeg in 1996 and I’ve been here ever since. This is home. I’m a Winnipegger now. It’s a wonderful place to race. When I was young, I never thought I’d be as successful as I’ve been.”