If there was any doubt about who Canada's Horse of the Year should be, it was erased before last Friday's Breeders' Cup Filly and Mare Turf was official.
The guts and determination showed by Charles Fipke homebred Perfect Shirl in deep stretch at 24-1 was a magical performance. It was even more sweet for her trainer, Canadian Hall of Famer Roger Attfield, who had waited his whole career to taste victory at the Breeders' Cup.
It couldn't have happened in a better race, considering Attfield's prowess with fillies and mares going long on the turf in the past few seasons, including a win in the Grade 1 E.P. Taylor Stakes, on his home turf.
Unfortunately, Perfect Shirl isn't eligible for a Sovereign Award -- at least right now. The daughter of Perfect Soul has only two Canadian starts of the required three for a horse aged three or older.
Perfect Shirl, however, did help another member of her division solidify her championship credentials.
The Fipke mare had entered the Breeders' Cup off a solid second-place finish in the Grade 2 Canadian Stakes at Woodbine. Perfect Shirl's victory at Churchill Downs served to boost the profile of the Canadian's winner, the ultra consistent Never Retreat.
Going into the Breeders' Cup, the Chris Block trainee was already the clear front runner in the Horse of the Year race in Canada. She had made the three necessary starts in Canada (two wins and one second) and had followed up her Canadian win with a G1 of her own at Keeneland in the First Lady - a fifth graded stakes tally this year.
Never Retreat, however, didn't take part in any Breeders' Cup races. The daughter of Smart Strike’s absence left the door open, ever so slightly, for something heroic to happen that would throw support in a different direction.
Instead, the opposite occurred. In a twist of fate, another horse did something heroic that threw extra support back in her direction.
Perfect Shirl's win at Churchill further legitimized the Canadian Stakes and, most importantly, its winner, who is now an easy choice for Canadian Horse of the Year. Her record of five graded stakes wins from 10 starts and $872,288 in earnings ranks far higher for this honor than a few good weeks against restricted company by a three-year-old filly, whose championship equity fizzled out completely before the Summer had ended.
Who knows? In light of Goldikova’s loss in the Breeders’ Cup Mile, Perfect Shirl's Breeders' Cup win may have even given Eclipse Award voters just cause to consider Never Retreat in the Top Turf Female category over Stacelita, who was 10th in the Breeders’ Cup Filly and Mare Turf, but has two Grade 1 wins on her resume (Beverly D and Flower Bowl). Stacelita would have to be her main competition. While eligible, Perfect Shirl’s upset score just isn’t enough considering it was her only victory of the season.
As the Hollywood Turf Festival nears, there is still time for those in this category to showcase their talent.
While Never Retreat isn’t nominated for the one-mile Matriarch at Hollywood Park later this month, she can always jump into the fray late. It would be quite a thrill to see her show up there. A sixth graded stakes score, between months of March and November, and a second Grade 1 would go long way to making her an Eclipse Award winner – it might even make her a candidate for a second Eclipse honor as Horse of the Year, considering the front-running names in that category right now.