Wednesday, July 16, 2014

A Race Fit for a Queen?

by Christina Bossinakis
    Neatly nestled between a pair of the iconic race meetings at Royal Ascot and Saratoga, the Queen’s Plate at Woodbine Racetrack in Toronto is an event I always look forward to. Maybe it’s because I am a native Canadian or it could be that I enjoy the pomp and circumstance that the 1 1/4-mile race draws. Or maybe it has something to do with the presence of royalty (that doesn’t happen every year, but it is always exciting when it does). However, I think one of the biggest reasons I enjoy the Queen’s Plate so is that I grew up enjoying Canadian racing during a time when Canadians really didn’t receive a steady diet of American racing on TV outside of the American Triple Crown and Breeders’ Cup.
   First held in 1860, the Queen’s Plate holds the distinction of being the oldest continuously run race in North America. Yes, that makes it older than its American counterpart, the Kentucky Derby, which was first run in 1875. Canadians are intensely proud of their marquee race and its long and storied history. I attended my first Queen’s Plate in 1989, the year that The Queen Mother was in attendance, and Kinghaven Farms’ With Approval won. The classy grey went on to take the next two legs of the Canadian Triple Crown–the Prince of Wales S. at Fort Erie and Breeders’ S. In fact, I was actually in attendance at Woodbine to witness Canada crown With Approval as its eighth Triple Crown winner (the third since the three races were actually called the ‘Triple Crown’). What a moment. That whole experience helped stoke my passion for racing and is a big reason why I remain a fan of Canadian racing today.
Northern Dancer
   As a Canadian living in the U.S. for many years now, I have heard my fair share of Canadian jokes. I’ve been referred to as a Canuck, a hoser and everything in between. People often think I must say, ‘Ay’ (for the record, I do not) and I am chided for my Canadian accent (like the way I might say ‘out and about’ or ‘dollar’). As a result, I never really get overly worked up when my American counterparts poke fun at the Queen’s Plate, suggesting it is not a legitimate Classic. That is until a recent exchange with somebody whose opinion I admire and point of view I value tremendously. The argument was that the race is not a ‘true’ Classic, because restricted races could not be considered Classics. I reacted as any Canadian worth their salt would in a similar situation. My back went up, way up. I have to admit, I became very defensive because the Queen’s Plate and its champions have always been something that I have been very staunchly proud.
   ‘What about Northern Dancer?’ I thought. He won the Plate in 1964, the same season he won the Kentucky Derby and Preakness, and later went on to become one of the greatest sires of all time. I instantly thought a bevy of champion fillies that have also won it, including Flaming Page (1962, 2nd in Kentucky Oaks; dam of Euro Triple Crown and champion sire Nijinsky II & Epsom Derby hero The Minstrel); and La Lorgnette (1985; dam of G1SW Hawk Wing). We can’t forget Canadian Triple Crown heroine Dance Smartly, a juvenile champion in Canada, and who added a 3yo filly title in both Canada and the U.S. following a win in the BC Distaff. In turn, she produced Dancethruthedawn (won in 2001), who went on to take Saratoga’s Go For Wand. Past winners also include New Providence (Canadian Triple Crown hero in ‘59); Victoria Park (1960; HOTY in Canada; 2nd in Blue Grass & Preakness; 3rd in Ky Derby); the aforementioned With Approval (Canadian HOTY in 1989; winner of the GII Bowling Green, 2nd in the Breeders’ Cup Turf, Arlington Million & Sword Dancer); and Alydeed (1992; winner of the GI Carter and runner-up in the Preakness). And who can forget 1997 winner Awesome Again, who went on to take the Breeders’ Cup Classic and Whitney before embarking on a successful career at stud in the U.S.

Awesome Again
   So after patting myself on the back for coming up with the list of top notch horses that were competitive at the highest level, both in Canada and in the States, I quickly realized several factors. First, the most recent of this group to win the Plate was Awesome Again in 1997. One can argue that Wild Desert, the 2005 Plate winner, later placed in both the GI Clark and GI Suburban and should be considered among the top horses who were able to extend their form south of the border. However, I have to admit, I just didn’t think of him. Though he was conditioned by one of the best American trainers of all time, Bobby Frankel, he was neither a graded winner nor a champion. Upon further investigation, the second issue I found enlightening although not surprising was that every one of the horses that I felt stood out, in my mind at least, were bred or campaigned by a handful of breeding/racing titans in the Canadian Thoroughbred industry; Winfields Farm (5); Kinghaven Farms (2); Sam-Son Farm (2) and Frank Stronach (1). I can already feel I will become assaulted by those of you who feel I left out such top-class performers like Kennedy Road (1971); L’Enjouleur (1975); Steady Growth (1979); Key to the Moon (1984); Golden Choice (1986); Izvestia (1990); Peteski (1993) and Wando (2003) (by the way, several of these horses were also bred/campaigned by those industry leaders . All lovely horses, to be sure. However, my point is, how many of those would people from outside of Canada, and who don’t particularly follow the Canadian racing scene, even recognize?
   In the last 25 years, we have seen many of the influential breeding/racing operations scale back or disappear entirely (although Sam-Son did win the Plate in 2009 with Eye of the Leopard). The argument becomes how many of the winners in the last 10 or 15 years have gone on to race at the highest level, and have an impact, outside of Canada? While some might argue that is not a big deal in itself, I counter that it is significant since it has become quite commonplace for horses to ship across the border to compete in the big races in our neighbor’s backyard.
   One of my favorite racetracks in North America, Woodbine has done a fantastic job promoting and developing races like the Woodbine Mile and Canadian International into events that not only draw runners from south of the border, but from across the pond as well. It’s hard to dismiss the fact that the influx of top-grade runners strengthens the Canadian industry. Well, why not take it a step further and open the Queen’s Plate (and in fact, the entire Canadian Triple Crown) to runners bred outside of Canada?
   I can hear the cries of disdain and the accusations of treason already. I understand that the Queen’s Plate is Canada’s big prize, meant to reward Canadians for all their efforts in owning, breeding, riding and training racehorses. However, opening it to foreign breds would not only mean a boost in the level of competition domestically, but it would also bolster the significance of the Canadian bred outside of the country. Canada’s Sovereign Awards (equivalent to Eclipse Awards in the U.S.) can only be bestowed upon a horse that has raced in Canada no less than three times (as a 3yo; 2 times at two); well why can’t participation in the Triple Crown races be structured similarly? The increased interest from owners and trainers outside of Canada would not only make the Queen’s Plate itself more competitive, but it would also serve to draw stronger fields to the Triple Crown’s traditional prep races. Competitive fields would in turn generate greater betting handle on domestic races, which in this day and age is no small thing. And for those that might argue that opening up the races to outside runners would be taking money away from Canadians, there could be an additional nomination fee levied on horses bred outside of the country and that could be added to the purse. Ultimately, stronger participation would mean the race could become eligible to garner graded status, which would prove be of even greater significance to a horses’ stud career upon his or her retirement.
   I want to be clear, the goal is not to take something away from Canadians or dilute Canada’s historic race(s). Rather, the hope is that the Queen’s Plate could be structured into a format that would leave no room to doubt that it is anything but a veritable Classic.

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