The Canadian International, now sponsored by Pattison, is well positioned in the lore of Canadian racing. The historic race, formerly know as the Canadian Internatioanl Champion Stakes, has had an impact that has stretched south of the border as well. In 40 years, a total of eight Eclipse Award winners in the Top Turf Horse (or Female) category have passed through the Woodbine winner’s circle at the Canadian International.
It was an icon of thoroughbred racing history that set the wheels in motion in 1973. Making his last career start in the International, Secretariat’s appearance and legendary romp in the rain put the turf event on the proverbial map. The son of Bold Ruler went on to win Eclipse Awards as Top Turf Runner and Horse of the Year. Unbeknownst to those that saw ‘Big Red’ win the event that day, no other International would ever be won by such a wide margin (6 ½ lengths). The chestnut began an impressive streak of championship success for the Canadian International.
Beginning with Secretariat, five Canadian International winners in the next six runnings went on to win Eclipse Awards for Top Turf Horse in the same year.
In 1974, the four-year-old filly Dahlia captured a nine-horse edition of the event at 2-5, setting a new course record for 1 5/8 miles. In 1975, Windfields-owned Snow Knight prevailed by a half-length over Comtesse de Loir, third in the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe, three weeks earlier. In 1976, Sandy Hawley guided Youth to a four-length score over soft going. In 1978, Mac Diarmida, at 6-5, defeated Dom Alaric by 1 ½ lengths.
Five years after Mac Diarmida came perhaps one of the greatest stories the Canadian International could be proud to be part of in its illustrious history. Hot off a win in the 1983 Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe, All Along ventured to Canada for the International. As the 8-5 choice, she won the $500,000 event by two lengths. There was more for the daughter of Tagowice. She went on to win the Turf Classic at Aqueduct in emphatic fashion and then the Washington D.C. International at Laurel. The four scores all came in space of 41 days.
The feat earned All Along an Eclipse as Top Turf Female and Horse of the Year. She remains the last International winner to go on to a Horse of the Year Eclipse.
This fact is perhaps because the advent of the Breeders’ Cup era changed things considerably for the Canadian International, particularly when it came to foreshadowing Eclispe Award winners. Before the first running of the Breeders’ Cup Turf in 1984, the International was a year-end target for the world’s best turf runners. If a classic distance turf horse had a strong year and the International was another feather, then Eclipse recognition was forthcoming.
The Breeders’ Cup Turf, however, became the new year-end target for the division’s elite. From the first autumn collision of these two races to now, the timing of the Canadian International hasn’t always allowed for both races to land on a horse’s schedule.
Of course, there have been exceptions to the rule. These came in back-to-back years in the 1990s.
In 1996, Singspiel journeyed to Canada to capture the International and, on the strength of a second-place finish in the Breeders’ Cup Turf, also at Woodbine, and a score in the Grade 1 Japan Cup went on to win the year’s Eclipse Award as Top Turf Male.
In 1997, Sam-Son Farm charge Chief Bearhart enjoyed a tremendous season that included a gallant win in the International, as well as the Breeders’ Cup Turf, which sealed the Eclipse championship.
Going all the way back to 1984, Chief Bearhart remains the only horse to race in, let alone win, the Canadian International and win the Breeders’ Cup Turf. This trend may be as much to do with scheduling, as suggested, as anything else.
Until the past few years, when the 1 ½-mile event became a ‘Win and You’re In’ event, Woodbine attempted to market the International as an alternative to the Breeders’ Cup Turf. From 2003 to 2007, the International landed in late October, forcing horsemen to make a choice between the Canadian classic and the World Championship event for turf horses.
Even before this aggressive strategy, the International resided in the middle of October, generally about three weeks prior to the Breeders’ Cup Turf – a possible appearance in both certainly was possible, but maybe not viewed as ideal compared to other options.
Whether the trend will change is anyone’s guess. No matter which horse wins this weekend’s bulky 16-horse renewal of the International, they’ll likely have their work cut out for them at Churchill Downs against a more accomplished group.