It’s still hard to get used to the abbreviated nature of the Connaught Cup, but nonetheless the seven-furlong event marks the first stakes event of the year over the E.P. Taylor Turf Course.
The Grade 2 event has attracted a cast of 11, including the winner of last year’s event, Stormy Lord. The five-year-old son of Stormy Atlantic is 7-2 in the morning line, but a case could certainly have been made to make him the program favorite. No horse in the field has won more turf races at Woodbine than the Ian Black trainee, who is 7-for-13 over the course. Last year, he compiled a 4-for-7 record with over $400,000 in earnings. He enters the Connaught with just one start, which came in a Keeneland allowance at a distance of 1 1/8 miles. Stormy Lord was aggressive early, but managed to establish a clear lead for six furlongs before tiring, finishing 5 ½ lengths behind Al Khali.
Having been absent from the races since December, it would be safe to say that the Ontario-bred needed a race to kick off the year. Unlike last year, when his first dash of the season was in the Connaught, Stormy Lord has the advantage of returning to his home course with a start under his belt. He’s worked five times since the Keeneland race, including a breeze of five furlongs in :59 1/5, over the training turf course on the Woodbine backstretch.
Stormy Lord is marooned out in post eleven, which hinders its fair share of runners, especially when the inside paths of the course are generating strong results. But Stormy Lord is gifted with speed and the ability to sit just off the pace, as he showed in the Labeeb late last year. He’ll overcome the post.
As opposed to Stormy Lord, for some reason, the Woodbine Morning Line oddsmaker decided to make Mutual Trust the 5-2 choice. Perhaps he got a tip that someone was going to unload an entire Brinks truck on this Bill Mott entrant? Not sure. This Juddmonte-owned son of Cacique is zero-for-three since arriving in North America. His sixth-place finish in the Grade 3 Ft. Lauderdale was a disappointment. While the chart comment says the 9-5 favorite was bounced around in the stretch, what it should have said was ‘failed to quicken after stalking soft fractions’. He returned in the Canadian Turf and was even less impressive, if that were possible, finishing seventh, defeated by 11 lengths.
If you were already off the Mutual Trust bandwagon in time for his third start, you had no excuse not to be rewarded. Mott entered the four-year-old colt in an allowance/optional claimer at Churchill Downs. He was unhurried early along the inside and closed belatedly to finish fourth. He ran about :48 3/5 for his first half and finished up the race in :46 2/5. It was a better performance, but he was never dangerous and finished 1 ¾ lengths behind stakes plodder Rahystrada.
This effort brings him to today, when he’ll cut back another furlong to a distance he had never tried. In what is perhaps a last-ditch effort to correct this one-time Grade 1 winner, Mott has elected to put the blinkers on, a manoeuver that has worked for this barn just four of the last 26 times. Corey Nakatani will be in Toronto for the ride. Mutual Trust doesn’t deserve to be the morning line choice. He hasn’t won a race since July 3, 2011. It was a seven-horse edition of the Grade 1 Prix Jean Prat. He sat in second and stayed on gamely for the score over fast-closing Zoffany, who one race earlier had given Frankel a mild scare in the final furlong of the St. James Place Stakes. Since the Prix Jean Prat, Zoffany has shown no interest in being a stakes horse at all with three dull performances including a ninth-place finish in the Breeders’ Cup Mile.
Should Mutual Trust, or at the very least his connections, be respected? Sure. But the public is making a huge mistake if it hammers him down to 5-2. There are just far better options and he doesn't look like the same horse he was last year.
Consider a Roger Attfield trainee, for instance, making his second start off a 367-day layoff. Four-year-old Stormy Rush was a stylish winner of his initial two starts in 2010. He was a 4 ½-length winner over six furlongs of turf and then returned with an equally impressive performance at six furlongs on the Woodbine Polytrack, in front by three at the wire.
After running third in the Summer and fourth in the Bourbon (Keeneland), the son of Stormy Atlantic went to the sidelines. He didn’t return until last April at Keeneland, where he was a tiring fourth in a five-horse field. The effort prompted an even longer absence from racing action. This time he returned ready to roll. Under a perfectly-timed ride by Garrett Gomez, Stormy Rush closed from seventh to win a 5 ½-furlong allowance by a neck.
Given ample time to recover from the comeback effort, Attfield may have found the perfect spot for the lightly-raced four-year-old to become his latest pupil to join the stakes winner ranks. He drew post one and will be guided by the meet’s current leading rider Patrick Husbands.
The Connaught Cup will also feature the E.P. Taylor Turf debut of Big Band Sound, who comes off back-to-back second-place muggings against speedy Essence Hit Man. New to the Toronto turf, yes, but he is a two-time winner on the lawn, including a brilliant come-from-behind win at Tampa Bay Downs at five furlongs on Jan. 13. The son of Bernstein is also looking for his first stakes score. The race sleeper may be the five-year-old Mike Keogh-trained gelding Artic Fern, who sports a 6-for-11 lifetime record. He enters on the strength of a confidence-building score over stalwarts Hollinger and Fatal Bullet on May 12. The son of Langfuhr has only tried the turf on one occasion, but the result must be taken with a grain of salt. He was wide from the word go in the King Edward, which was won with a crafty ground-saving trip by Court of the Realm.
According to Trakus Inc., Artic Fern’s fourth-place finish came with a trip that was 22 feet longer than Court of the Realm. So the fourth-place finish really wasn’t as modest as it appeared. Of interesting note, when the ground loss is incorporated, his average speed of 38.0 mph through the entire race is equal to Court of the Realm. So, the Schickedanz homebred may be worth another look on the grass, especially at a distance that he’ll enjoy. Jockey David Clark knows him well and should be able to work out a solid trip just off classy pacesetter Kara’s Orientation (20-1 on him seems very high, by the way). Don’t worry about Artic Fern’s 6-1 Morning Line quote either. His lack of turf success will push his price into the double-digit land that value players covet.
The Connaught Cup is slated for race eight on the Woodbine program.
Any Connaught entrants that Thoroughly Woodbine left out pique your interest?