The post position draw for the 15th Woodbine Mile, a $1 million event on turf, will take place today, as usual, inside the trackside tent at Woodbine. How many in attendance at the draw will look at the calendar, bow their head, perhaps take a minute of silence, and recall that the date September 15 marks 15 years since Skip Away took the final running of the Woodbine Million, which is the predecessor of the Woodbine Mile?
In looking at the history of both events, today’s Thoroughly Woodbine post on Horse Racing Nation asks the following question. After 15 years, has the (Ricoh) Woodbine Mile been a suitable replacement for the long-lost Woodbine Million?
Who could forget how in 1996, Skip Away dazzled the Woodbine crowd under Jose Santos, drawing off by four lengths over Queen’s Plate winner Victor Cooley and five others, including Louis Quatorze, to take the Grade 1 at odds a shade lower than 6-5.
The victory launched the gray son of Skip Trial to one of his most memorable victories ever, a bit more than a month later, a head score over Cigar in the Woodward. Even though, Skip Away skipped the Breeders’ Cup, also held at Woodbine that year, his campaign was strong enough to earn an Eclipse as the continent’s champion three-year-old.
It’s hard to believe that the Woodbine Million died on a note this high, but it did.
At the time, all of Woodbine’s graded stakes were subject to scrutiny by the Graded Stakes Committee of the Thoroughbred Owners and Breeders of America (TOBA) and there was risk that the Million would lose its Grade 1 status, which it had only just received in 1995.
Digging back through old media guides reveals a quote from Vice President of Racing John Whitson stating that ‘the long-term viability of the race was in question’.
In hindsight, doesn’t it seem like the plug was pulled a bit early considering that the Jockey Club of Canada took over grading Canadian stakes races just a few years later in 1999. That move would have more or less guaranteed the Woodbine Million’s status as a Grade 1.
In any event, it was decided that a new direction would be taken. With a newly constructed E.P. Taylor Turf Course that was less than three years old, Woodbine opted to convert the Million into the Mile, move it from dirt to turf and open it up to older runners, as well as three-year-olds. According to Whitson, the Mile, originally a $500,000 event would “quickly develop into a world class race and serve as an important stepping stone to the Breeders’ Cup.”
It’s unfortunate because Skip Away perfectly illustrated the fan appeal of the Woodbine (Molson Export) Million. After spending the Spring and Summer watching the world’s top three-year-olds duke it out through the Kentucky Derby and the rest of the Triple Crown, not to mention the Travers, the Million gave Canadian fans a chance to see these sophomore stars in real life.
With an attractive purse and opportunistic scheduling, members of this division came North for the event in droves. In nine years, Woodbine hosted such names as A.P. Indy, Prized, Concern, Technology, Fly So Free, Sea Hero and Dramatic Gold.
What a treat it was for the regular fan to make a regular trip to Woodbine to see these stars take on the best local three-year-olds. With names that the casual observer could actually recognize, through their hard-fought Triple Crown battles, the race basically marketed itself.
In addition to Skip Away, one other winner of the Woodbine Million went on to an Eclipse. Her name, of course, was Dance Smartly. In 1991, she won her seventh consecutive race in the Million and then went on to take the Breeders’ Cup Distaff. The legendary season earned her the Champion Three-Year-Old filly Eclipse.
A.P. Indy, of course, didn’t fire his best shot in the Molson Million, which was won instead by Prince of Wales hero Benburb. The race did springboard him towards an eventual win in the Breeders’ Cup Classic and two Eclipse Awards: Champion Three-Year-Old and Horse-of-the-Year.
Now, how many participants in the Woodbine Mile have gone on to win Eclipse Awards? In 14 editions, the Woodbine Mile can only boast of one eventual Eclipse Award winner – the 2005 champion turf male Leroidesanimaux.
That’s not to say that the Woodbine Mile doesn’t attract any classy runners. The inaugural running saw the arrival of a classy dirt handicap star named Gentleman, who was odds-on to win in 1997. But perhaps his lack of turf experience proved his undoing as he was upset by Geri.
A few years ago, the Woodbine Mile had the good fortune of luring Shakespeare, a talented turf runner in his own right. He proved to be money in the bank at the windows and rallied to a decisive score.
The challenge in filling a field with top-class horses stems from the name of the race itself. It’s a mile. While there is a Breeders’ Cup event by the same name, there isn’t an Eclipse Award devoted to what is regarded as a very specific division. So specific that many don’t know whether to call it a long sprint or a short route. It’s both and neither all at the same time.
Some years are different than others, but at the highest level, there isn’t always a huge population for miler types. The most cynical observer would argue that the true miler is as rare as the dodo in North America. If it’s hard to find a population, then it’s certainly hard to find a clear-cut leader to use as a headliner that anyone outside of racing would have heard of.
That’s why marketing a one Mile race is a far different enterprise than marketing an open race for straight three-year-olds. Even solid turf horses like Hawksley Hill, Good Journey, Affirmed Success, Soaring Free and Kip Deville just aren’t going to draw the casual fan to the track on the strength of their name alone.
When a racetrack hitches its $1 million wagon to a division this specific, it has to accept the fact that some years the talent may be sparse and some years the talent pool may be deep. It’s passable to put on an ambiguous, mediocre show because the division is weak.
When the division is rock solid and inundated with star power, the racetrack has to devote the resources to assuring that they cream of the crop are in attendance. It’s very unsettling when there are big names out there in the Mile division and they still don’t show for a race that strives to be the greatest one-mile turf race in the world, outside of the Breeders’ Cup.
This year is a perfect example of how the Woodbine Mile is failing to attract the best milers considering that Woodbine won’t be rolling out the red carpet for two-time turf champion Gio Ponti, undefeated European superstar Frankel or three-time Breeders’ Cup Mile winner Goldikova.
It certainly would have taken some work to get Goldikova and Frankel to Toronto, but Gio Ponti is a head-scratcher. This is his last year on the racetrack. It should have been a no-brainer for Christophe Clement to run multi-Grade 1 winner Gio Ponti, a recent second in the Arlington Million to Cape Blanco, in the Mile as a prep for his last career dash at the Breeders’ Cup. He would have been the huge headliner that salvaged something of this weekend’s race. All the stops should have been pulled out to get him here.
It’s also a bit hard to believe that the Woodbine racing department didn’t have a secret agent shadowing Caracortado’s trainer Mike Machowsky every morning since his gutsy second in the Kilroe Mile at Santa Anita. How much of a sales job would it have taken to suggest that the Sunshine Millions winner’s late speed could be a key weapon over a track with the longest stretch in North America? He too would have been a welcomed addition to this year’s cast and the invitation could have been sent months ago.
Instead, this year’s edition is forced to rely on Courageous Cat, the narrow winner of the Grade 1 Shoemaker Mile and last year’s Woodbine Mile winner Court Vision, who hasn’t hit the board since his strong showing over the E.P. Taylor Turf last year, to head the event.
While the money and the guaranteed berth in the Breeders’ Cup Mile are on the line for the winner, after 15 year the Woodbine Mile hasn’t come close to becoming the horse race that its predecessor became in a few short years.
It attracts the moderately-better-than-average turf names from the United States. Every few years, the Europeans can be counted on to show up with a horse or two. Every couple of years a truly genuine horse may end up in the entries.
If the Woodbine Mile suffers because of a lack of horsepower in the Mile division, it makes up for it by drawing animals with ambitious connections from the periphery. Every year, the race contains stakes-caliber horses that look like they belong more in turf sprints, as well as horses cutting back a furlong or two that never look like they’re going to arrive on the scene in time at one mile. With $1 million on the line, connections can be forgiven for trying to squeeze an extra furlong out of the former or sharpening up the latter.
Without a doubt, this is the thing that makes the Woodbine Mile an interesting puzzle for handicappers to solve. Often, there are as many horseplayers looking for the stamina element in a horse’s makeup as there are seeking for a speedier type of individual to take advantage of the one-turn nature of the event. Only the 90 seconds of action on the track determines which approach was more astute.
This clash of backgrounds and racing styles may also be the chief reason that year after year the Woodbine Mile unfolds in an exciting, dramatic fashion that is thrilling to the final yard. In the absence of true quality at face value, perhaps this is the secret to the Mile’s success. No matter who shows up, the fan is treated to a horse race from the beginning of the first furlong to the end of the eighth. Even if it doesn’t draw enough Grade 1 caliber horses to warrant world-class acclaim, it continues to make the grade when it comes to sheer entertainment value.
Excitement can only energize a race for so long and the lack of committed star power has to be addressed. Only time will tell whether entertainment provided by modest horses will sustain a $1 million race in the next 15 years.