by John Furgele
‘Tis the season. Today is July 1 and as someone who grew up in Buffalo/Niagara Falls, that means it really is holiday time. July 1 is Canada Day, formerly Dominion Day for our neighbor to the north, which was founded/established back in 1867. So, happy 146th to Canada, home of good hockey, curling, excellent beer and good horse racing. And, of course, three days later, there’s another historic birthday, number 237. I’m sure you can guess for whom?
Woodbine Race Track is a venerable track that is the home to both thoroughbred and standardbred racing. It also served as host of the Breeder’s Cup back when the BC was in its infancy. Today, it will host the Grade III Dominion Day Stakes with horses from Canada, Kentucky and Pennsylvania vying for a graded stakes win and the $90,000 first place prize in the $150,000 race. Eight horses will be in the gate going 1 1/4 miles over the synthetic track.
But, to those who know Canadian racing, the big day is this Sunday, July 8 as the marquee race of the year, the Queen’s Plate takes place. For lack of a better term and I will apologize to Canadians for saying this, but the Queen’s Plate is the Kentucky Derby of Canadian racing. The Queen’s Plate, started in 1860, by who else, Queen Victoria has a colorful history of its own.
The Queen’s Plate has been won by some recognizable horses, including the legendary Northern Dancer. Ridden by Hall Famer Bill Hartack, the quick Canadian won the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness and of course the Queen’s Plate in 1964, and became perhaps the most influential sire in history. The name is famous, but I’m not sure how many people realize that Northern Dancer was Canadian.
Awesome Again, a more than fine horse won this race in 1997 with Mike Smith aboard and then won the Breeder’s Cup Classic in 1998 with another Hall of Famer, Pat Day on for the ride. Not bad eh? Unfortunately, we don’t see as many Canadian breds venturing south for the big races these days. Yes, they sprout up here and there, but like life, the game has changed.
The Canadian Triple Crown consists of the 1 1/4 mile Queen’s Plate, the 1 3/16 mile Prince of Wales Stakes, which is run at Fort Erie Race Track; directly across the Peace Bridge that borders Buffalo and Fort Erie. The final race, like the United States Triple Crown is the 1 1/2 mile Breeders Stakes, but unlike the Belmont, this race is on the turf back at Woodbine.
There have been seven horses who have won Canada’s Triple Crown, so for those who lament that it is tough to win state side, it has been done four more times than it has up north. New Providence win all three in 1959, followed by Canebora (1963), With Approval (1989), Izvestia (1990), Dance Smartly (1991), Peteski (1993) and Wando in 2003.
I’ve been following horse racing since 1977, when the great and vastly underrated Seattle Slew won the U.S. Triple Crown. I have seen some great races, some dominant horses and some outstanding performances. I can’t count Secretariat because I was a young ‘un when he did his runnin’. I’ve seen enough and to me, Izvestia was as good as any of them. He won a couple stakes races at Keeneland, but the owners—Kinghaven Farms–shipped him home to run at Woodbine for his three year old season.
In the Canadian Triple Crown, Izvestia didn’t just win, he dominated. A classic stalker, he would rate and rate and then right after six furlongs, he would swing to the lead and then just pull away. You can find links to his victories at wikipedia and you tube, and you will see that jockey Don Seymour never used the whip on Izvestia. He won the Plate by about 14 lengths, the Prince of Wales by about 10 and the Breeders Stakes by about 6, simply toying with the field. I truly believe that if Izvestia came south, he would have won his fair share of races. He was a superhorse to say the least. And, because he preferred being outside, he had to work a bit harder to attain his victories, which makes me wonder as to how he and Calvin Borel would’ve gotten along. His victory at the Plate is as good a performance as I’ve seen.
Unfortunately, in his final race before retirement, he broke down and had to be euthanized, and because he had the Northern Dancer bloodline, what was the potential of his offspring? There are certainly no guarantees, but the Northern Dancer descendants have done quite well.
In 21 career starts, Izvestia had 11 firsts, 2 seconds and 2 thirds, and earned over $2.7 million in a short but brilliant career.
So this Sunday, crack open a Molson or Labatt (my favorite) and get near your computer to see a piece of Canadiana, the historic, prestigious and beautiful Queen’s Plate Stakes.