Thursday, January 17, 2013
Updated: January 18, 4:43 PM ET
By Gary West
Special to ESPN.com
Their impact on American racing has been quietly profound for many years. But soon the Canadians could become uproarious, their influence assuming a conspicuous and clamorous significance.
The alarmist impulse might be to run through the stable area screaming, "The Canadians are coming; the Canadians are coming." But impulse quickly subsides into velleity with the realization that their coming can only mean better racing and because well, they're already here. Dynamic Sky, a stakes winner last September at Woodbine, won the recent Pasco Stakes at Tampa Bay with a prowess that, depending on perspective, either announced or confirmed his Triple Crown candidacy. And Avie's Quality, who won the Display Stakes in Toronto, will be one of the favorites Saturday when he makes his seasonal debut in the Fair Grounds' Lecomte Stakes.
But Dynamic Sky and Avie's Quality are only the heralds; many will follow and join them. As the sport's 3-year-olds prepare to commence the demanding and exciting journey towards Kentucky, the Canadians are positioned, perhaps more of them than ever before, for a wild rumpus, to borrow a phrase from the famously feral things. My Name is Michael, the Display runner-up, has joined Bill Mott's stable in Florida and is nominated to Gulfstream Park's Holy Bull Stakes, as is Clearly Now, another who chased Avie's Quality home at Woodbine. Tesseron, Gunderman, Northern Lion, Are You Kidding Me, Pyrite Mountain, Xavi, Archer Hill, Sharp Sensation, Really Sharp, Sky Commander -- they all raced last year in Canada with success, and they're all training in Florida with aspirations. Bridge Jumper, a stakes winner from Hastings Park, recently shot a bullet half-mile at Santa Anita. And then there's Uncaptured, the five-time stakes winner who's a leading candidate to win the Sovereign Award as Canada's Horse of the Year. He's on course to use the Blue Grass Stakes as his final preparatory outing before the Kentucky Derby.
"I think people underestimate how many good horses come out of Canada," said Josie Carroll, a native of Scarborough, Ontario, who trains both Avie's Quality and Tesseron, the Grey Stakes runner-up who's a few weeks, she said, away from returning to competition. "But this year the quality will be more obvious because so many good horses are in the same division."
Canada's horses and horsemen, of course, always have warranted considerable respect, even admiration, and not just with their annual winter forays into America. The great Northern Dancer won three stakes in Canada in 1963 before coming south to win the Remsen and then, the next year, the Kentucky Derby and Preakness. Dancer's Image won three Canadian stakes in 1967, including the Grey at Woodbine, and the next year finished first in the Kentucky Derby, only to be disqualified after a post-race urinalysis revealed the presence of phenylbutazone.
Canada's Horse of the Year for 1981, Deputy Minister, was also North America's champion juvenile. The next season, Sunny's Halo won the Grey and Swynford Stakes, as well as the Coronation Futurity, to be named the Sovereign Award winner as Canada's champion 2-year-old. The following year, of course, he swept through Oaklawn Park's Rebel Stakes and Arkansas Derby on his way to a roseate victory at Churchill Downs, becoming only the second, Northern Dancer being the first, Canadian-bred horse to win the Kentucky Derby.
Sky Classic, Kodiak Kowboy, Exciting Story and Mine That Bird were all Canadian champions as 2-year-olds. Sky Classic and Kodiak Kowboy later won Eclipse Awards, Exciting Story won the Met Mile and, of course, Mine That Bird pulled off one of the most mind-numbing upsets in Triple Crown history when he won the 2009 Derby at 50-1. But not in recent memory have so many talented Canadians convened for an attempted heist of the Triple Crown jewels. And the wild rumpus will soon begin.
"He's done everything we've asked of him so far," Carroll said about Avie's Quality, who rallied three-to-four wide into prominence, hit the front in mid-stretch at Woodbine and then drove clear to win the Display Stakes. It was the second victory in only four starts for the long-striding colt who has seemingly stepped forward with each outing. "He's a horse that's absolutely matured and improved with racing, and since the Display he has continued to train well. Now's the time we find out a little more about him and see if he can continue to progress against better horses."
As a late foal (May), he could indeed progress over the next few months and progress significantly. Proven around two turns and unbeaten wearing blinkers, he has suggested he'll appreciate longer distances. One of the reasons for choosing to run him in New Orleans, Carroll said, is the Fair Grounds' long stretch. The only question that remains about him regards his ability to handle the dirt. He has raced on a synthetic surface and on turf, but never on dirt.
Everything, though, indicates he'll have no difficulty with the surface. His half-sister, Avie's Sense, won by nearly six lengths on the Fair Grounds' main track last year before finishing second there in the Rachel Alexandra Stakes. And Avie's Quality, Carroll said, has had "a couple of very decent works on dirt at Palm Meadows," in Florida. And so the surface question remains largely because it's waiting to be swept away.
The Lecomte should provide a good measure of the Canadians' relative talents, for it has attracted an intriguing and talented group. Malibu High is unbeaten in two outings; Oxbow ran fourth in the CashCall Futurity; Golden Soul turned heads with a powerful maiden victory locally; and Circle Unbroken won last year's Bashford Manor Stakes. If Avie's Quality defeats this group impressively, he'll become a rumpus ringleader.
But the most accomplished northern visitor by far is Uncaptured. A winner of three stakes in Canada, he spurted clear in a blink at Churchill Downs to win the Iroquois Stakes by more than five lengths, defeating Overanalyze, who went on to win the Remsen. In his next outing, the Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes, Uncaptured got knocked around leaving the gate and bumped repeatedly down the stretch, but still he won, albeit in a slow clocking and by only a neck.
Avie's Quality, who won the Display Stakes in Toronto, will be one of the favorites Saturday when he makes his seasonal debut in the Fair Grounds' Lecomte Stakes.
His trainer, Mark Casse, said he was somewhat surprised by the Kentucky Jockey Club for he had expected Uncaptured to win more easily. But an explanation surfaced immediately after the race when the colt returned with bruises and cuts on both hind legs. A foot bruise, Casse explained, is largely the reason Uncaptured won't have three but rather two preps before the Kentucky Derby, with the last one being the Blue Grass.
"I think the program [in Canada] has gotten so much stronger in recent years," said Casse, a native of Indiana who topped the trainers' standings at Churchill Downs  before heading north. "They're breeding horses in Canada that can compete anywhere."
Uncaptured, whom the trainer described as a "very classy colt," and Dynamic Sky are evidence of the talent in Canada. And both, Casse said, are solid Triple Crown prospects. Uncaptured's talents are well known. But Dynamic Sky, whose next start could be the Fountain of Youth, can't be far behind him in terms of potential.
In the Pasco, Dynamic Sky was blocked in traffic before angling out four-wide and charging for the victory. Prior to that, in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile, a compromising trip led to his only off-the-board finish. He raced four-wide in the first turn and was forced out five-to-six-wide in the second turn before getting bumped around between horses, and still he finished only 5 1/4 lengths behind the winner and soon-to-be crowned champion, Shanghai Bobby.
"If you believe in Shanghai Bobby," Casse said, "you have to believe in Dynamic Sky, too. And he still doesn't have a clue." Beyond Uncaptured and Dynamic Sky, the trainer explained, several youngsters in his barn, such as Gunderman, Northern Lion and Sky Captain, have the potential to develop into Triple Crown prospects and make some noise on the road to Kentucky. And so, as the famously feral things advise, let the wild rumpus begin.
Uncaptured's talents are well known. But Dynamic Sky, whose next start could be the Fountain of Youth, can't be far behind him in terms of potential.