“The Cinderella story continues,” beamed trainer and co-owner Justin Currie after blind-in-one-eye Mateo could only see open ground in front of him and captured the $138,430 Western Canada Pacing Derby Saturday night at Northlands Park.
Indeed it does. Despite being hampered by the outside eighth post position, Mateo refused to wilt after being pushed and parked to an opening first quarter in :27 3/5 by Ima Dude and ended up going wire-to-wire - gutting it out through a mile in 1:53 4/5.
Senga Nitro, inches ahead of Ima Dude, finished second - three-quarters of a length behind Mateo. “It’s always tough to win from the outside but he’s a winner so he hung on,” said driver and co-owner Jim Marino, who flew in from his home base in British Columbia.
“Brandon (Campbell, driver of Ima Dude) wanted to put us in a hole behind him but I wanted no part of it,” said Marino.
Marino and Currie both had more than enough reason to be worried that the post and the opening quarter were going to be too much especially after stablemate Yoga Pants couldn’t overcome her outside post in the $132,390 co-feature Northlands Filly Pace one race earlier. As the even-money favourite, Yoga Pants got stretched out and wound up fifth behind Outlaw Fireball.
“Yoga Pants is a filly and Mateo is one tough colt,” said Marino. “The other thing is that I was able to get Mateo more relaxed than I could with Yoga Pants,” said Marino, who got a bit of a breather through a second quarter in :28 4/5 and then a third panel in :28 3/5.
So, when Senga Nitro and Ima Dude took up the chase around the final turn and through the stretch, Mateo was more than willing. The 2-1 favourite, Mateo paid $6.20 to win.
“When you’re going for as much money as we were going for if you don’t get a little nervous you aren’t human,” said Currie. “But this horse has given me every reason to be confident.”
The Derby victory was worth $69,215 to Mateo, who was purchased privately for an undisclosed sum after he was pulled from the 2015 Alberta Standardbred Yearling Sales after it was announced he was blind in his left eye. The victory was his 11th in 22 career starts. “Being blind in one eye obviously hasn’t hurt him,” said Currie, 26.
“He’s learned to deal with it. When I first started training him down he would cock his head to one side. So we put two line poles on each side of him to keep his head straight. He’s worn those two small head poles from the start. “He also wears a full cup over his left eye as protection from dirt or small stones hitting him because he can’t see it coming.
“We took a chance on him and he sure hasn’t let us down.” Currie, Currie’s wife, Christine Cutting, and Marino, decided to buy Mateo after Currie helped Marino recover from an accident at Fraser Downs, B.C. early in 2015.
Marino, who broke his left femur, tore his left ACL and broke bones in his left wrist, had offered Currie a trip to Mexico in repayment for his kindness and hard work looking after his stable while he was sidelined. Instead, Currie suggested buying a yearling together. “I told Jim maybe we can find a good one that can win us more money than a trip to Mexico is worth.”
That yearling, of course, is Mateo who has now won $286,523. “Jim, Christine and myself have been together with Mateo from the day we bought him. We’ve got to see him develop from a baby into a super nice horse. “You won’t see a happier horse than Mateo when he is around Christine.
“It’s a nice feeling. Despite the post we had we didn’t change anything. We did our job and Mateo did his.”
As for the Filly Pace, a very similar hot early pace melted down and Outlaw Fireball, who got an absolutely perfect drive from Jean Francois Gagne, took full advantage.
Getting away in fifth position through early fractions of :27 4/5 and :56 2/5 set by Yoga Pants, Outlaw Fireball got a a second-over trip behind Last Time To Play, swung three wide around the final turn and then prevailed by three-quarters of a length over Thats It, who won a photo for second over Steady Breeze.
Yoga Pants, who didn’t make the lead until well past the first quarter mile, wilted. “She raced super,” Gagne said of Outlaw Fireball, who stopped the timer at 1:55 1/5. “At the start we were all full trying to keep up with the early pace. “Serge (Masse, driver of Last Time To Play) moved first and I got on her back. “Around the final turn I started feeling confident.”
But, then, Gagne said he got worried again. “When she cleared and made the top she started looking around. Then about 50 feet from the wire a camera flashed and she tossed her head and put on the brakes.” By then, however, it was too late for any of the other eight fillies to do anything about it. The second favourite at 3-1, Outlaw Fireball has now won 11 of her 19 races.
The victory for her owners - Gagne, Peter Van Seggelen, Carl Warner and Tapron Holdings - was a cheque for $66,185 giving Outlaw Fireball career earnings of $274,163. “If she’s not first, she’s almost always been second or third,” Gagne said of the mare, who, like Mateo, was sired by Blue Burner.
Outlaw Fireball could only finish third in last week’s Filly Pace eliminations but, as Gagne noted, she needed that race. “She hadn’t raced in over a month. I was worried she wasn’t going to be fit enough. That start tightened her up and she showed it.”
Follow me on Twitter at CurtisJStock