With the 2015 Sovereign Awards to honour the top Thoroughbred performers from Canada set for this Friday, April 8 at Woodbine, the little filly that took her tack across the country and humbled the boys at every turn is at the head of the class to get the recognition she deserves.
Looking like a lock to win Champion Three-Year-Old Female, Academic is a serious contender for Horse of the Year too. Did she do enough? With two Grade III wins and a Woodbine Oaks romp, she belongs in the discussion for sure.
Although she boasts a bit of a Cinderella story, she is far from being the beautiful belle of the ball. Her contrarian attitude caused more than a few problems for her connections throughout her career, including serious starting gate issues, but her ability carried her to three championship races in three different provinces.
"She's been like that from day one. She wants to do things her way and she's going to fight you if she doesn't get her way," admits her patient trainer Reade Baker. He decided early on to put up with her quirks and she blossomed under his guidance.
Winless from three starts at the age of two, the diminutive miss won her debut race of 2015 under Luis Contreras. She carried jockey Justin Stein to a romping eight length win in the Woodbine Oaks, running away from the field at a shocking 66-1.
Stein is quick to credit the bay filly for her running style. "She has been a horse that has just continued to impress me every race. In the Oaks she had so much horse. She went an honest pace and she has a nice turn of foot. I wasn't surprised that she ran so well."
As it turned out, she was just getting started.
After the Oaks domination it was a big step up to the Queen's Plate and a chance to see how good she was becoming. Unfortunately, things didn't work out for her at all. Immediately tackled by Sweet Grass Creek after she secured the lead, Academic tried to track him through torrid fractions and then tired badly, walking under the wire in last place. But like she has done from day one, she regrouped and came back even stronger.
Owner Danny Dion, the patriarch of Bear Stables and an Alberta businessman, formed a partnership with friends and Alberta based owners Robert Vargo and Norm Castiglione who have Riversedge Racing Stables. The partnership decided to take a chance against the boys again with Academic but this time in a different location. They had their sights set on the prestigious Grade III Canadian Derby at Northlands Park in Edmonton at a distance of 1 3/8 miles. Because of her finicky attitude, Baker and Dion decided to play it safe and take the long way from Toronto – by truck.
Baker explained the decision to ship her in a trailer for a three-day road trip. "We were afraid to put her on a plane. I was very concerned, I was nervous about that. She doesn't like being in a confined space and that is why she had gate issues before."
She handled the ship well and was put under the care of Riversedge Racing Stables trainer Tim Rycroft. Stein, a westerner himself, was enlisted to ride her again and he had some concerns related to the race itself. "In the Canadian Derby, I was worried about the other speed (Blue Dancer) and I was worried she wouldn't settle, but I wasn't surprised that she won there."
As it turned out, Stein was able to relax the daughter of Henny Hughes in behind the favourite Blue Dancer and when he asked her to go, Academic moved off brilliantly and went on to an easy eight-length score.
After the win at Northlands Park in Edmonton, Academic was loaded back in the truck for a trip through the mountains to Hastings Park and the 1 1/8 miles Grade III B.C. Derby.
"The B.C. Derby was a lot of fun," Stein remembers with a smile. "She showed that versatility. She had all sorts of things that she's never experienced before. The dirt was hitting her in the face. She wasn't climbing but you could tell she didn't like it. We were sitting fourth and we had to come up the rail and she never hesitated and she showed a lot of grit and determination to win.
"I was surprised that we got up and won. She was having a hard time with the track and a hard time getting going, but when she got by Blue Dancer who was second at that point, she just exploded."
The margin of victory was a short neck. Her determination turned Stein into a big fan.
"She is fun to ride – a pretty easy horse to ride."
Academic made the trip back to Woodbine and back to the care of Baker. Although she isn't a physically big horse, her trainer has had success with her type before. "Their biggest asset is their speed – she can maintain or increase her speed in the turn," Baker related. He is looking forward to a solid campaign from Academic in 2016.
"She will have a distinct advantage at the mile and a sixteenth. She will run a great sprint now - and I don't see why she won't run on the turf."
Danny Dion's Bear Stables won a Sovereign for Outstanding Owner in 2008, and will likely add to that collection of hardware on Friday. The question is – will it be one trophy or two?
Baker added his thoughts on a possible Horse of the Year award. "For Danny I'd like to see it. For me it doesn't matter."
If there were an award for the horse that did the most in Canada in three different provinces, Academic would be a runaway winner for sure.
The Sovereign Awards will be available to watch via live stream on Friday, April 8 starting at 5:30 pm MDT on woodbineentertainment.com.