Trainer Dale Saunders is known as the ‘Colonel’ on the backstretch of Northlands. But, he may have a new nickname after what he’s been doing on Alberta Fall Classic Days like this year’s renewal on Saturday.
Just like former New York Yankee slugger Reggie Jackson was known as Mr. October for his World Series exploits, Saunders can now safely be called Mr. September.
Saunders sent out his 15th winner in the 20th anniversary of the Fall Classic when Blameitontheknight stretched out her legs and easily won the Fall Classic Distaff - one of seven $50,000 stakes races on the card all restricted to Alberta-breds.
“It’s been a good day for me and my owners over the years,” said Saunders, understated as always.
Blameitontheknight’s victory was the fourth straight time he has won the Distaff with stablemate Brady’s Tomboy, who ran fourth this time around, having won the previous three.
If that isn’t enough, Blameitontheknight won last year’s Alberta Oaks.
But that’s just the beginning.
Saunders has sent out the winners of four Alberta Breeders’ Handicaps as well with Highland Leader winning in 2001, Wild Crush winning back to back in 2012 and 2013 and Wild Legend capturing the event last year.
Three times Saunders’ horses have come home on top in the Alberta Premier’s Futurity: Highland Leader in the 1997 inaugural, Hollywood Drama in 2012 and Legend Fortynine in 2013.
He also has a trio of winners in the Beaufort: Shady Remark in 1998, Wild Crush in 2011 and Wild Legend in 2014.
Asked why his horses always seem to do so well on the Fall Classic program, Saunders simply shrugged.
But it’s almost as if his horses know what they are expected of come the Fall Classic.
Take Blameitontheknight. In her previous start she was nowhere - finishing seventh and last in the City of Edmonton.
Yet on Saturday she romped.
“She wasn’t training very well going into (the City of Edmonton). In retrospect i probably shouldn’t have run her. She always runs pretty good so that definitely wasn’t like her.”
It also doesn’t hurt that Saunders’ wife, Barb, owned the prolific broodmare Wild Creek, who died last year at the age of 21.
Wild Creek was the dam of previously mentioned Fall Classic winners Wild Crush and Wild Legend.
In addition to those two, Wild Creek is also the dam of Wild Bender, who was second in the 2005 Alberta Oaks and third in the 2006 Fall Classic Distaff and Wild Intent, who was second in the 2009 Fall Classic Distaff.
Saunders almost had his 16th Fall Classic win but was denied by three-quarters of a length by For Cash in the Alberta Breeders’.
There was a little bit of everything on Saturday.
The first Fall Classic stake, the Oaks, was captured by Onestaratatime; Xtreme Denigray and Northernlocomotive posted mild upsets in the Red Diamond Express and the Beaufort respectively; Saveitforarainyday won her second straight stake when she won the Sturgeon River; For Cash showed his class winning the Breeders’ and Norm’s Big Bucks won as the 1-5 favourite in the Alberta Premier’s Futurity.
Interestingly, Norm’s Big Bucks was the sales topper at last year’s Alberta Yearling Sale when he was purchased by Riversedge Racing Stables for $95,000 while Xtreme Denigray was the extreme opposite. A very small horse as a yearling, Xtreme Denigray was purchased by Ted Graling and his former partner Buddy Bensmiller for just $1,000 at the 2013 Alberta Yearling Sale.
Nevertheless, both Xtreme Denigray and Norm’s Big Bucks both won $29,400.
“It shows that sometimes you don’t need to spend the big dollars to get a runner,” said Graling.
“In all honesty we didn’t look at the horse before the sale. We didn’t have the horse veted out.
“The fact he was by Rosetti didn’t catch our eye. The fact that Classa Red Wine, who was a hard knocking mare that ran in Calgary and Edmonton, was the horse’s dam didn’t catch our eye.
“We bought him because he was cheap.
“I was initially thinking of running him a mile and a sixteenth in the Breeders’ - I thought the extra distance would help him. But Twyla (trainer Bensmiller) proved to be right again.”
Sent away at odds of 7-1 this wasn’t the first time that Graling has turned the tables on the favourites.
On Labour Day Xtreme Lyra upset 1-9 favourite Fall At Last in the Birdcatcher returning $81.40 to win.
Xtreme Denigray, who was last in the field of six after half a mile, was a much milder longshot returning $16.60 to win as he swooped four wide to hold off Keene On Demand by a long neck at the wire.
“It’s going to make (Sunday’s) yearling sale a lot easier. Now I’ve got some sheckles to play with,” said Graling, who said that another horse he owns in partnership, Solve, will meet Ready Intaglio again next Sunday in the Oklahoma Derby. Solve was the runner-up to Ready Intaglio in last month’s Canadian Derby.
Once again, Norm’s Big Bucks looked like the real deal in his comfortable two and three-quarter length victory while overcoming a lot of bumping at the start.
With a track favouring the come-from-behinders, Norm’s Big Bucks - like Onestaratatime - was one of the few horses to also overcome Saturday’s track bias where it seemed that the outside portion of the track was less deep than it was on the rail.
Norm’s Big Bucks is now a perfect three-for-three. After easily winning his maiden voyage, Norm’s Big Bucks took the two-year-old Sales Stake on Aug. 1 by seven and a half lengths.
“It seems like he runs the same for the first part of the race and then he changes gears,” said Norm Castiglione, who owns Norm’s Big Bucks with Robert Vargo.
Onestaratatime has now won four straight. In addition to Saturday’s Oaks which she won by nine lengths at five cents on the dollar, Onestaratatime won the Red Smith by eight and three-quarter lengths, the Northlands Oaks by eight lengths and the Sonoma by four and a quarter lengths.
Like Xtreme Denigray, Northernlocomotive was an overlay at 6 1/2 to 1. Running down even-money favourite Victory Day, who was wide almost all of the way, Northernlocomotive, who ran off in the Canadian Derby, paid $15 to win.
Saveitforarainyday was another come-from behind winner. Winning by four and a quarter lengths, Saveitforarainyday won the two-year-old Filly Stake in her previous effort.
And then there was For Cash. In three starts coming into the Breeders’ For Cash had only finished in front of two horses. But as pointed out in this space last week, For Cash had been training superbly and had health issues in his last start for sure - when he tied up in the Fred Jones, an ailment when a horse’s muscles - usually the hindquarters - cramp and seize up.
“We’re not sure but we suspect the same thing happened to him in his previous start, the Spangled Jimmy, as well,” said trainer Dale Greenwood.
“We made sure he was right before we ran him again, which was why he hadn’t run in two months.
“But he was back to himself today. Finally,” said a relieved Greenwood.
Showing his class, For Cash, who has now won over $475,000 in his career, overcame slow early fractions and marched on to a victory over Saunders’ Water Wagon.
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