By Gene Kershner
TORONTO – Mark Casse has achieved almost everything possible when it comes to thoroughbred racing in Canada. The one missing ingredient to a sparkling training career is a win in the Queen’s Plate, the first leg of Canada’s Triple Crown.
Canada’s most famous horse race is this weekend’s premier race on Sunday afternoon at Woodbine Racetrack for the 153rd running of the $1 million Queen’s Plate. North America’s oldest continuously run stakes race will send 14 starters to the gate.
The second leg of the Canadian Triple Crown is the $500,000 Prince of Wales Stakes at Fort Erie Race Track, slated for Sunday July 15 at the border oval.
Casse, a four-time Sovereign Award winner as Canada’s Outstanding Trainer, won his fifth straight training title in 2011 on his way to a record 119 victories and over $6.6 million of purse money. The Queen’s Plate, however, is the monkey on his back, having failed at ten previous chances. Last year he finished second with 61-1 long shot, Hippolytus who paid a whopping $41.30 to place. He will send out two colts and a filly to the gate on Sunday.
“It’s been a long, high climb - it’s trying to get to Mt. Everest. I feel like I’m up near the peak, but I just can’t seem to get there,” said Casse. “Maybe this will be the year. I think we have two very legitimate chances and one outside chance.”
One of the horses that Casse hopes will get him over the hump is the lightly raced Golden Ridge (6-1). Casse is bullish on the Distorted Humor colt that broke his maiden last month with Luis Contreras aboard. “Obviously you have to like Golden Ridge, he’s an up and comer and has a pedigree that is impeccable,” said Casse. Golden Ridge’s dam Indian Vale was a very good race mare, winning the Grade 2 Fleur de Lis amongst her seven career victories.
With Contreras aboard, the jockey who won his first Plate last year on Inglorious, before sweeping the Triple Crown with Pender Harbour in the final two legs, Golden Ridge has a solid chance to upset the Plate field. “I got a great feeling with my horse,” Contreras told me at the post position draw. Contreras, who rode Prospective in this year’s Kentucky Derby for Casse, is no longer the new kid on the block. “Last year I was more nervous. I’m a little bit more relaxed this year,” Contreras said.
Casse was pleased with the way the colt broke his maiden. “I was impressed with his maiden win because he got in a little traffic down the backside. I was a little concerned. But when Luis asked him to go, he took off. I think that experience of being in traffic is really going to help him in the Queen's Plate."
Casse’s filly, Dixie Strike (8-1) is coming off a troubled fifth place finish in the Woodbine Oaks, but has performed at a high level against top competition during both her 2 and 3-year-old seasons. She would be the second straight filly to capture the Plate. “If she comes with her ‘A’ game, she’ll be right there,” said Casse who said you could draw a line through that last race in the Oaks. “She had a lot of excuses, we think she has it in her or we wouldn’t be giving it a try.”
The race favorite is Strait of Dover (3-1), an English Channel colt that blew the field away in the Marine Stakes in mid-May finishing six lengths in front of the field. Jockey Justin Stein retains the mount and will have a fresh horse that skipped the Plate Trial Stakes to be well rested for this race. He sports two super workouts and appears fit and ready to roll on Sunday.
Trainer Daniel Vella couldn’t have been happier with his most recent workout on June 10. “We were thrilled with his workout,” said Vella. “He’s not a morning horse. His works are always decent, but they’re not run off type works. He galloped out real strong and it was like a pre-race race, his big work before the race.”
One notable Plate entry is Colleen’s Sailor who will race for trainer Roger Attfield in an attempt to win a record ninth Plate victory, breaking a tie with Harry Giddings, Jr. Attfield, always the showman, chose the No. 9 post on Thursday, symbolic of a potential record breaking ninth Plate win. Attfield will be inducted in the National Racing Hall of Fame in August at Saratoga.
Corey Nakatani will ride Colleen’s Sailor after riding him in an allowance win last month. Top jockey John Velazquez was scheduled to ride him, but broke his collarbone last Saturday night in a bad spill at Churchill Downs and is out four to six weeks.
The race has also attracted top trainer Todd Pletcher and one of North America’s leading rider, Ramon Dominguez who will make the trek up to Woodbine to ride the Indian Charlie colt Big Creek.
The race appears to be wide open, but this could be the year that Casse scales Mt. Everest to win his first ever Queen’s Plate.
Post Time Outlook: 1 – Golden Ridge; 2 – Strait of Dover; 3 – Dixie Strike; 4 – Colleen’s Sailor
Gene Kershner is a Buffalo-based turf writer and handicapper who blogs at equispace.blogspot.com. He posts every Friday at the Sports, Ink blog at www.buffalonews.com and can be found on Twitter (@EquiSpace).