Photo: WEG/Michael Burns photography
When Donver Stable star filly Inglorious competes in Saturday’s Grade 1, $500,000 Alabama Stakes at Saratoga, the daughter of Hennessy will attempt to become the latest Canadian-based thoroughbred to scoop a serious purse and an important Grade 1 event south of the 49th parallel.
It’s not every day a Woodbine-based runner travels to the United States in search of such glory. But it would be rare for a full calendar year to pass without at least a few taking a shot. The Breeders’ Cup alone in past years has attracted around a half-dozen locally-based individuals.
A successful Grade 1 invasion, conversely, is a different matter. While many try, it takes a special type of horse to replicate its winning Canadian form in a Grade 1 race in the United States. In recent years, Canadian stars like Fatal Bullet, Lady Shakespeare and Biofuel have all come up short in Grade 1 events.
That said, Grade 2 and Grade 3 races have proven to be well within reach of Woodbine based horses. Canadian connections haven’t been shy about entering their top runners in these events if the situation fits their agenda and they’ve enjoyed the spoils.
In theory, the decision to run usually comes down to three components – this is true for whatever level is being considered. If at least two of the following factors are present in favor and the timing is right, then there’s a pretty good chance the horse will be bound for the U.S.
a) lack of opportunity (no suitable race in Canada)
b) owner wants to take a shot at a better purse or a greater prize (Grade 1)
c) connections want to test the competition (are we Breeders’ Cup-worthy?)
Every situation is completely unique. The horse’s form and the races available north and south both play an equal role. Even though the purses are lucrative at Woodbine, the structure isn’t conducive to every type of horse. If you’re out of conditions and the perfect added-money event isn’t until November, you’re stymied.
In certain divisions, a horse can’t run for $300,000 or more. In certain divisions, there’s no chance to run for a Grade 1. For instance, if you’re an older main track individual, long or short, male or female, you have to make a decision – run in what’s here or look around elsewhere.
Sometimes a horse just outruns the stakes program at Woodbine. When a runner is blessed with a greater amount of talent, it’s only fair to factor a wider range of opportunities into its schedule, especially if you’re to take a shot at the Breeders’ Cup at the end of the year.
If legacy, year-end awards and a nice stud arrangement/auction price are deemed important , then it is widely believed that no matter what they win or how much they earn at Woodbine, the horse won’t be judged ‘the real deal’ next to others in its generation until they achieve success away from the coziness of a hometown track.
That is the chief reason Inglorious is at Saratoga this weekend. Her connections passed up a shot at Triple Crown immortality, not to mention $600,000 in purse money, the combined winner’s share of the Prince of Wales and Breeders’ Stakes, to run in the Grade 1 Alabama. That’s a heck of an entry fee to compete in a Grade 1. Make no mistake, that’s what this venture to New York is all about. It’s about taking on Grade 1 horses because defeating Canadian-breds has become ho-hum. But that’s enough with that digression.
Having identified that it is rare to go an entire season and not see a Canadian-based horse run in a Grade 1 in the United States, it is just as rare to have the chance to watch two attempts in eight days unless it’s over Breeders’ Cup weekend. Last Saturday, Rahy’s Attorney nearly pulled off a mild upset in the Grade 1, $500,000 Sword Dancer at 1 ½ miles of turf, finishing second. It’s fair to say mild because he was hovering around the 5-1 range in the seven-horse group, partly because he had a tactical advantage and partly because the game Ontario-sired gelding had already shown the damage of which he is capable, in Gulfstream Park’s Grade 3 Pan America on March 26.
If Rahy’s Attorney would have hung on for a few more jumps, he would have been the second Canadian-based runner to win an American Grade 1 this year. Earlier this Summer, Pool Play won the Stephen Foster at Churchill Downs for trainer Mark Casse.
Roger Attfield trainee Ave, who captured the Flower Bowl Invitational at Belmont Park on October 2, 2010, was the sole Canadian-based Grade 1 winner of 2010, despite attempts by top-class three-year-old filly Biofuel to race her way to the top of the division. Prior to Ave, it was a freaky fast three-year-old filly named Carless Jewel that flew the flag for Canada, even though she was bred in Kentucky. On August 22, 2009, this Tapit filly, also trained by Josie Carroll and owned by Donver Stable, drew off to win the Alabama Stakes by 11 lengths at odds of 5-2.
Two years later, Donver and Carroll are back with a completely different type of filly in Inglorious – a runner who settles and charges from off the pace and has already conquered 1 ¼ miles like it was a walk in the park – albeit a Poly-park.
Having won the Plate, Inglorious is in good company when it comes to past Woodbine-based individuals and their eventual success in a Grade 1. Should she win the Alabama, she would be the fifth Queen’s Plate winner to go on to win a Grade 1, joining Alydeed, Dance Smartly, Victor Cooley and Dancethruthedawn. However, none of those other four Plate champs achieved the Grade 1 in their very next start, making this uncharted territory in Canadian racing.
For Carroll to land a second Grade 1 in three seasons would be a huge accomplishment, considering even a Hall of Fame master like Attfield has only notched three Grade 1 events in the United States in 18 years.
Attfield’s last Grade 1 prior to Ave came in the Shadwell Mile at Keeneland on October 4, 2003. The winning horse was the Charles Fipke-owned Perfect Soul. In 1993, Attfield captured the Grade 1 Carter Handicap with Alydeed for Kinghaven Farms.
It’s a similar story with Woodbine’s current leading trainer Mark Casse, whose Stephen Foster win with the aforementioned Pool Play was just his second ever Grade 1. Casse’s first came 10 years earlier, in the 2001 Metropolitan Mile with Exciting Story.
For a Woodbine-based trainer that managed to win Grade 1s in rapid-fire fashion, Carroll would be wiser to look back at the record of conditioner Mark Frostad in the late 1990s.
Frostad won no less than five Grade 1 events in the United States over a three-season span, including three in 1997. The Brantford native began with Smart Strike in the Iselin Handicap on August 25, 1996.
The following year, he sent out Always a Classic to win the Turf Classic at Churchill Downs on May 3. Late that year, on September 27, Frostad’s Victor Cooley captured the Grade 1 Vosburgh at Belmont Park. He put the icing on the 1997 season with a Breeders’ Cup Turf score with Chief Bearhart on November 8 at Hollywood Park.
In 1998, Chief Bearhart also won the Grade 1 Manhattan Stakes at Belmont Park.
Frostad’s most recent Grade 1 score in the United States came with four-year-old Dancethruthedawn in the 2002 Go For Wand Stakes.
Frostad’s predecessor at the helm of the Sam-Son Farms juggernaut was Hall of Famer Jim Day. If there’s a flurry of Grade 1 success that opened the floodgates for the past 20 years, it began with Day and a filly named Wilderness Song. The runner-up to stable mate Dance Smartly in the Oaks and Queen’s Plate, Wilderness Song was actually first of the pair to notch a Grade 1, taking the Spinster at Keeneland. A few weeks later, Dance Smartly won the Grade 1 Breeders’ Cup Distaff on November 2, 1991, becoming the first Canadian-based horse to win a Breeders’ Cup event.
A year later, Day captured the Turf Classic Invitational at Belmont Park with Sky Classic. Day also won the 1995 Meadowlands Cup Handicap with Peaks and Valleys, who would go on to be Horse of the Year in Canada.
Trainer Mike Keogh also captured three Grade 1s in a relatively short period of time. On September 21, 1996, he won the Vosburgh with Langfuhr. The following May, he saddled the same son of Danzig to victory in the Carter and, three weeks later, the Metropolitan Handicap.
In 1993, Phil England didn’t have Schossberg back in top form in time to win the Queen’s Plate, but a Summer campaign resulted in a Grade 1 score in the Jerome Handicap. Two years later, Schossberg won Monmouth Park’s Iselin Handicap.
As for other notable Grade 1 scores over the past two decades, Barb Minshall trainee Mt. Sassafras captured the Gulfstream Park Handicap in 1997 and MacDonald Benson’s star three-year-old filly Arravale won the Del Mar Oaks on August 19, 2006.
(Note: This discussion deals with horses that were based and raced at Woodbine and then went South for a Grade 1. Kissin Kris won the 1993 Haskell Invitational for Dave Bell, but hadn’t made a Woodbine start prior. Honor Glide also won the Grade 1 Secretariat for Day in 1997. He wasn’t based at Woodbine during the campaign and was left, perhaps arbitrarily, outside the scope of this discussion)
Adding up each of these scores in the approximately 20 years covered since Wilderness Song’s Spinster, generates a total of 23 Grade 1 scores by Woodbine-based runners. From a fan’s perspective, that’s a frequency that’s still rare enough to appreciate as significant, but frequent enough to not have to endure such a long wait for the next one to come along and enjoy.