That was the big question going into Saturday’s $50,000 Spangled Jimmy - one of four stakes races on this weekend’s card. Walcott, perennially Alberta's leading rider had his choice of several live mounts in a most contentious one-mile affair. He could have ridden back Annie’s Candy, who came within three-fifths of a second of Northlands six-furlong track record, when they paired to win the May 27 Journal Handicap. He could have ridden Royal Warrior, whom he rode to win the Speed to Spare and the Harvest Gold Plate last fall - a horse that will be making his 2017 debut. Or Walcott could have stayed with Hemlock Channel, who he rode to a track-record-setting performance in an allowance race on May 31 when they stopped the clocks for six and a half furlongs in 1:15 1/5 to erase a standard that had stood for 18 years.
After discussing it at length with his agent, Bob Fowlis, Walcott took the latter. “We just thought at the distance Hemlock Channel was our best option in this race,” said Fowlis, a very astute handicapper, who has been an agent for 23 years. “Hemlock Channel has only won one race going a distance but he’s run a lot of good seven furlong races at Woodbine, which, of course, is a mile track. “Rico was really happy the way Hemlock Channel closed ground on Killin Me Smalls - making up four lengths - when he ran second in his first Northlands race. Then he came back to set the track record going six and a half furlongs.
“Annie’s Candy may be the best horse in the race but he’s never won going a distance and Royal Warrior is making his first start of the year. “We analyzed the horses we had and the way we figured the race would shape up and so, for this race, we're going with Hemlock Channel.” Dane Nelson will now ride Annie's Candy while Shamaree Muir has the mount on Royal Warrior.
Tuesday’s post draw would seem to have vindicated Fowlis’ decision: Killin Me Smalls, Alberta’s Champion Sprinter and Aged Horse of the Year the last two years in a row, drew the rail, with speedster Blue Dancer drawing right beside him in post two. Then Hemlock Channel got post three. “Ernie’s horse (Killin Me Smalls) won’t be taking back from the rail and Blue Dancer will make sure there is a decent pace so we should be able to drop in behind those two and see what happens,” said Fowlis, who followed his father John’s footsteps into horse racing. “And with Annie’s Candy drawing outside (post seven) Rico will be able to see where he is sitting.
“It’s going to be a real good race,” said Fowlis, who also had the book for Quincy Welch when he led the riding standings eight years in a row in Calgary, and Real Simard, when he was Alberta's top jockey in 1996.
Of that there is no doubt.
Killin Me Smalls will, as usual, be hard to beat especially considering his four-furlong work in :46 seconds flat on Monday. “We worked him five furlongs on Sunday and he only went in 1:07,” said Keller. “I knew that he wasn’t going to get anything out of that as far as preparing him for Saturday’s race so we worked him the next day and he just flew around there.” Asked what Killin Me Smalls’ best distance is, Keller smiled. “He’s been good from sprints to a mile and three-eighths so distance doesn’t seem to matter to him.”
Keller also believes you can throw out Killin Me Smalls’ last race, the Journal Handicap, when he ran a lacklustre fourth to Annie’s Candy. After that race Killin Me Smalls came back to the barn with some blood trickling down his left hind ankle from where there were several puncture wounds. “It’s not an excuse I’m trying to make up. You saw it yourself,” said Keller, who believes the minor injury must have happened leaving the starting gate. “He was probably going ‘Ouch, ouch, ouch,’ with every step,’” concurred Killin Me Smalls’ groom Dennis ‘Bear’ Sexton.
The Journal was the first time in six starts going six furlongs at Northlands that Killin Me Smalls had ever lost. “He wouldn’t pick up the bit at all,” said Killin Me Smalls jockey, Keishan Balgobin, who, along with Kyle Carter, is also represented by Fowlis. “I asked him several times but he wouldn’t do it. He wouldn’t try. He was not himself.”
Blue Dancer is going to be hard to put away too. After coming down with a virus in Vancouver - which explains his 11th place finish on April 23 at Hastings Park - Blue Dancer didn’t race for more than a month and then ran his eyeballs out just getting beat in Hemlock Channel’s record-setting victory. Trainer Greg Tracy said his only concern is that Blue Dancer might ‘bounce’ from that taxing effort that he desperately needed.
Then we have to go back to Annie’s Candy. A very astute claim - for $40,000 - in Santa Anita in February by B.C. owner Peter Redekop, Annie’s Candy's Journal win only stamped what kind of a horse the four-year-old is all about. Two years ago, at Santa Anita, Annie’s Candy was good enough to run second - beaten just a head - by Nyquist, a horse who not only won last year’s Kentucky Derby but also took the 2015 Breeders’ Cup Juvenile. Just as impressive is that it was Annie’s Candy - not Nyquist - who was the favourite that day.
But even all of this isn’t enough. Also entered in the Spangled Jimmy are Ready Intaglio, last year’s Horse of the Year and Canadian Derby victor, and Hold the Giant, another fleet horse that, at the very least, will ensure a fast pace. Given how fast Northlands has been playing and considering the quality of the race, it wouldn't be that much of a surprise to see another track record fall - the one mile mark of 1:35 4/5 that Bagful set way back in 1981 and the longest local track record there is.
Not to be outdone the other three stakes races this weekend are Saturday’s one-mile Ky Alta, the first real, three-year-old prep race for the Aug. 19 Canadian Derby, and Friday’s duo of the R.K. Red Smith for three-year-old fillies and the John Patrick for older fillies and mares. The Ky Alta is led by Trooper John, who won the six-furlong Western Canada in his last start and who showed he has no trouble going a mile evidenced by his eight and a half length win in last fall’s Canadian Juvenile.
The interesting horse in the Ky Alta is another Redekop horse, The All Button. Like Annie’s Candy, The All Button was also haltered by Redekop at Santa Anita - this one claimed for $50,000. While the John Patrick is wide open, the Red Smith will see Ruffenuff, who has never been headed at the finish line in six career starts (she was disqualified in last fall’s Freedom of the City when she crossed the wire clear by more than 10 lengths).
But once again there is another Redekop entrant that bears watching: Anstrum.
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