We love the stories of the skinny little kid beating up the neighbourhood bully. We’re delighted when the trailer park beats the tornado or when fox eats the hounds. We’re infatuated with the stories of Walter Mitty, Leicester City’s soccer team and the 1969 ‘Miracle’ New York Mets. We root for David over Goliath and Buster Douglas over Mike Tyson.
Monday’s Labour Day program at Northlands had two underdog tales thrown at us. First, Xtreme Lyra gave Ted Graling his first Edmonton stakes win in a mammoth upset in the Birdcatcher. Then, Dave Nicholson sent out Frank Bodell’s Royal Warrior to run down Blue Dancer in the Speed to Spare.
The former was definitely the biggest surprise but not because Xtreme Lyra hadn’t shown anything or had popped out of the dark shadows. It was simply that the heavy favourite, Fall At Last looked invincible. “I really liked Xtreme Lyra but I knew Greg Tracy’s horse, Fall At Last, was a monster,” said trainer Twylla Bensmiller. After all, Fall At Last was two for two having won both starts by more than 12 lengths including the Edmonton Juvenile where Xtreme Lyra was a distant second.
And then there was the work that Fall At Last had posted when he sizzled four furlongs in :44 3/5 - unheard of for a two-year-old. Fall At Last was regarded as such a cinch that of the $45,238 bet in the win pool, $43,471 was bet on him. Moreover, a few ‘bridge jumpers’ thought the same. Someone in New York bet $14,000 (US) on him; someone else - through a New Jersey offshore account - put $10,000 (US) on him. Two other U.S. bettors plunked $4,000 and $3,000 on his nose.
Usually ‘bridge jumpers’ make those bets to show trying to collect 10 cents on every $2 bet. But because there were only four horses in the race there was no place or show wagering.
But then what could go wrong? Right?
At the outset it seemed like it was just going to be more of the same as Fall At Last sprinted clear opening up half a dozen lengths while going through leisurely fractions - especially for his standards - of 23 seconds for the first quarter and 46 1/5 for half a mile. But then - midway around the final turn - it was startlingly clear that something was amiss. Fall At Last started to shorten stride and jockey Keishan Balbogin started to work furiously. The lead dwindled from six to five to four to three to two lengths.
A gasp went up from the crowd as Fall At Last kept faltering while Xtreme Lyra kept coming. You know where this is going. Inside the final strides Xtreme Lyra did the impossible - sticking his nose in front and winning by a neck.
“I still can’t believe it,” Bensmiller said Tuesday morning. “I just wish I had bet on him.” No kidding. Extreme Lyra - as the second favourite - paid $81.40 to win. And that was with leading rider Rico Walcott in the irons. It’s safe to say that’s not only the biggest price a Walcott-ridden horse has ever paid it’s the largest price he will ever pay at Northlands.
“I almost always bet every horse I run. But this time I didn’t even though I knew the extra distance was only going to help him,” lamented Bensmiller of the six and a half furlong race. While Bensmiller didn’t bet, Grailing had to reach in at those odds. “I always bet my horses,” said Grailing. “Twylla has done an amazing job. She gallops the horses herself which I think is a big plus.”
Ironically it was Greg Tracy, trainer of Fall At Last, that picked out Extreme Lyra at the Keeneland Kentucky yearling sale for Grailing where the horse went for $22,000 (US). Grailing is also a co-owner of Solve, who ran second, in last month’s Canadian Derby. “I’ve only owned horses for seven years but I’ve been a racing fan all my life. I’m a fan first and an owner second. It’s such a great sport. Gambling is just one part of it, watching these magnificent animals is even better,” said Grailing, who first fell in love with thoroughbred racing when Rapido Dom was holding court in the early 1980s.
Enjoying a quietly sensational season with 15 wins, 17 seconds and 9 thirds in 78 starts which includes a handful of starts at Turf Paradise in Phoenix over the winter Bensmiller’s 11 wins at Northlands has her in the Top 10 in the trainer standings. “I feel so blessed to be among the leading trainers with the amount of horses I have; especially to be there against stables that have 40-horse barns,” said Bensmiller, who runs a stable of 15 horses that also includes Purple Heaven, who won, but was disqualified in the 2014 Edmonton Juvenile, Xtreme Denigrate, winner of last year’s Alberta Derby in Grande Prairie and a promising two-year-old, Pacioretty, for Grailing.
Born into horses, Bensmiller’s dad, Tommy, who passed away in 2011, used to race horses at Trout Springs and Lethbridge. “He taught me everything I know,” said Twylla. “He would be so proud right now.” Tywlla’s cousin, Buddy - a two-time World Champion and three-time Calgary Stampede Rangeland Derby champion - was her first owner 20 years ago.
“I was raised on the B tracks,” she said of growing up on a farm just east of Calgary. As for Fall At Last co-owner Don Danard just threw up his hands. “He worked 10 lengths faster than he went four furlongs in the race. But I guess that’s horse racing.”
Then there was Royal Warrior. ‘What a difference two weeks makes,” said trainer Nicholson. That’s for sure. Two weeks ago Royal Warrior lost a photo to Killin Me Smalls in the mile and a sixteenth Westerner. On the same card Royal Grand opened a huge lead but got nailed at the wire Then came Monday’s mile and three eighths Speed To Spare, the top race of the season for aged horses.
As is his wont Royal Warrior got away last in the six-horse field with 1-2 favourite Blue Dancer going to the top but continually hounded by both Royal Grand and Aces Again. With Walcott up again, Royal Warrior simply bided his time knowing full well - that, like Xtreme Lyra - the extra distance was only going to help. “He just gallops along. Then with five-sixteenths of a mile to go he starts running,” said Nicholson, 53, who has been around the track since he was 10 walking hots and rubbing horse’s legs - usually in the barns where his mother, Maureen, owned horses.
Royal Warrior did the same in the Speed To Spare - loping along until the real running started. Moving with aplomb, the six-year-old took the lead for good at the top of the stretch. After that it was only a matter of how far he was going to win by. The victory was worth $45,000 and with stablemate Royal Grand ending up third behind a tired Blue Dancer, Bodell got another $7,500.
“Blue Dancer is probably the better horse but he looks to be a little suspect going a mile and three-eighths. The only other time he ran that far was in last year’s Canadian Derby and he tired then as well,” said Nicholson, who cares for just half a dozen horses which he calls ‘just right.’
Meant to be a good horse, Bodell bought Royal Warrior as a two-year-old for $60,000. The horse’s first start was against Oxbow, who won the 2013 Preakness. Plagued by slow starts, Royal Warrior, who raced in Kentucky and later Toronto’s Woodbine, has been getting away much better ever since he came to Northlands and into Nicholson’s hands.
“I just think he likes this dirt a lot more than he did running on the poly track at Woodbine,” said Nicholson. “And Rico gets him out of the gate better than anybody.” The Speed to Spare was the third win in Royal Warrior’s last four starts having won an allowance race and then an optional claimer before just missing in the Westerner. The first horse Nicholson ever walked was Winning Red, winner of the 1972 Canadian Derby.
He’s worked for Goodie Goodwin - travelling to tracks like Laurel and Bowie, Maryland - Red McKenzie - travelling to California in the winter - and Floyd Arthur. In 2014 he was given the Backstretch Appreciation Award in recognition of outstanding service by a backstretch employee. For one year he even tried to be an agent. He claimed his first horse Spunky One - borrowing the money from the bank - when he was 18. The first time he ran Spunky One the horse came home a winner.
Royal Warrior is the fourth stakes winner Nicholson has trained having also campaigned Adalanter, who won the Count Lathum; Dowhatyouthinkisright, who took the Sales Stake and an Alberta Fall Classic stake and You Better You Bet, who also won a Sales Stake.
“Life is good,” said Nicholson. “A lot better than it was two weeks ago.”