The sky is the limit. Today. This weekend. Who knows for how long. Chris Lancaster, who was named Canada’s Future Star winner at last year’s O’Brien Awards, will have not one but two of the logical favourites - Lady Neigh Neigh and Rockin Mystery - in Sunday’s $125,000 Don Byrne Memorial for three-year-old fillies
If that’s not enough he’ll also be sending out Jewels Dragon in the $125,000 Western Canada Pacing Derby which will also be contested Sunday afternoon at Century Mile. “It was a great weekend,” he said of Saturday’s Derby and Don Byrne eliminations.
“It’s an accomplishment just to have three horses in the two biggest races of the year. And to have three of the favourites…well, you really can’t have a better set up,” said Lancaster, 28, after winning both divisions of the Don Byrne eliminations with Lady Neigh Neigh and Rockin Mystery and the second elimination for the Derby with Jewels Dragon this past weekend.
“Lady Neigh Neigh was back to herself. Rockin Mystery looked good and I wasn’t sure if Jewels Dragon would be fit enough but he showed all of his heart,” said Lancaster, who is in his first full year on his own as a trainer, after previously working for some of the top stables in the province - Rod Hennessy, Kelly Hoerdt, Jamie Gray, Gerry Hudon, Brandon Campbell and Travis Cullen - getting ready to step onto the big stage by himself.
It’s hard to say which of Lancaster’s three horses was the most impressive. Lady Neigh Neigh had to do all the work herself moving first over down the backstretch and racing all the way to the wire without cover. Lady Neigh Neigh won in 1:52 4/5 defeating pace setter Blackcheddar by half a length.
Rockin Mystery went wire-to-wire to win by a very comfortable three and a half lengths. Rockin Mystery was clocked in 1:54 4/5 - two full seconds slower than the Lady Neigh Neigh but Rockin Mystery’s driver Serge Masse never had to turn her loose after setting easy fractions. Driven by Brandon Campbell, Lady Neigh Neigh came her last quarter in 27 1/5; Rockin Mystery came home in 27 2/5. And then there was Jewels Dragon, who despite not having raced since July 21 won in a track record 1:51 4/5 after a perfect trip by Masse.
Lady Neigh Neigh started the year winning five races in a row - four at B.C.’s Fraser Downs including the Penny Bath stakes against Rockin Mystery - and then the Moores Mile at Century Downs in Calgary. She also won a fillies and mares Open but then she had a setback finishing seventh in the Gord and Illa Rumpel and eighth and last in a fillies and mares Open.
“She was sick her last two starts. She had a virus and a throat infection,” explained Lancaster. “But we treated her and she showed up with her A game on Saturday.”
Lancaster also made a bridle change in the elimination. “It got her back on both lines and steering well.” While she only won by half a length, Lancaster said “It looked like she had more at the wire and was pulling away. We’ve got her dialled in for this weekend. Hopefully there are no more excuses,” Lancaster said of the three-year-old whose young career has already been dotted with alibis.
As a two-year-old, Lady Neigh Neigh convincingly won her division of the $22,500 Emerald stakes at Century Downs. But then she broke stride in her next start, the Aug. 25 ASHA Filly stake; choked down when she was boxed in through a dawdling 32 second second quarter and then couldn’t handle a sloppy track.
But, just as she did in the Don Byrne elimination, she bounced back to win a division of the Jim Rogers final by five lengths with Rockin Mystery winning the other division. Owned by Lancaster and Chris Lambie, Lancaster said Lady Neigh Neigh “has got a crazy amount of reach. Her stride is flawless and effortless. It's a gorgeous, beautiful stride. “It’s a big stride. She was meant to race on a mile track and she showed that on Saturday with that 1:52 4/5 mile.”
Asked who Lady Neigh Neigh’s main competition will be in Don Byrne Final, Lancaster didn’t hesitate: “Her stablemate, Rockin Mystery.” That makes sense. After all Rockin Mystery has already defeated Lady Neigh Neigh this year winning the Alberta Standardbred Horse Association Breeders on June 15 when Lady Neigh Neigh finished third while Rockin Mystery went wire to wire.
A similar scenario could develop in Sunday’s Don Byrne Final. “Rockin Mystery has a lot of speed,” said Lancaster, of the filly owned by Langley, B.C.’s Rod Therres and Blair Miller.
“And with the rail I’m pretty sure she’ll make the front and she’s real strong on the front end. She’s such a nice animal. You can drive her with two fingers. She can leave, you an shut her down and then you can send her right back up. It’ll take a nice fill to beat her,” he said of the filly who won the $75,000 Super Series Final by eight lengths, the Star Dust by two and three-quarter lengths and the afore-mentioned Jim Rogers last year.
This year, in addition to the ASHA Breeders, Rockin Mystery won the B.C. Sales Stakes and finished second in the Rumpel to Stash The Cookies, who broke stride for the second time in a row in the Don Byrne’s first elimination and therefore failed to advance to the Don Byrne Final as she is now on the judge’s list and has to qualify.
“That’s horse racing,” said Stash The Cookies’ trainer and co-owner Rod Hennessy. “If Lady Neigh Neigh beats ‘Rocky’ I’ll be happy," said Lancaster. “If ‘Rocky’ wins I’ll obviously be happy too.”
As for the Derby, Jewels Dragon almost certainly has to benefit from Saturday’s elimination win which was his first start in two months. “He’s lightly raced but I don’t know a lot about him. Justin Currie, who used to train him just gave Jewels Dragon to me two weeks ago to train because he moved back to B.C.,” Lancaster said of the three-year-old colt who got the trip on the back of Kneedeep N Custard and won by a length and a half. Favourite Crackle N Burn, who was pressured throughout, finished third with Go Nine O getting up for fourth to also qualify for the Derby Final.
“I didn’t know if he would be short or not,” Lancaster said of Jewels Dragon, who is owned by Currie’s girlfriend Christine Cutting and Paul Sanders. “We supplemented him to the Derby. I was actually hoping that he could just finish fourth or fifth and qualify for the Derby. I don’t know much about his history other than he’s just been babied along. He’d shown some nice miles so we gave him the green light and said ‘Let’s roll.’ Then he comes up with a mile in 1:51 1/5. It’s great to see the miles at Century Mile that everybody hoped for. I can see the three-year-old colts breaking the 1:50 barrier in the Derby if the weather cooperates.”
As for who Lancaster is worried about the most in the Derby, he said “Outlawgrabbingears, who won the first elimination division in 1:52 1/5 is the horse to beat. He was last year’s two-year-old Colt of the Year,” he said of the horse owned, trained and driven by Paul Davies.
“The other horse I worry about is Kneedeep N Custard.” A winner of 14 of his 22 starts, Outlawgrabbingears, left out of his outside seven post to find the four-hole on Saturday. Not waiting long, Outlawgrabbingears made a powerful move to take the lead down the backstretch and then was all out to hold off Rockin N Talkin by a neck.
Night Stick finished third to also advance to the Derby Final along with fourth-place finisher Outlaw Gunsablazin. Second to Jewels Dragon on Saturday, the Kelly Hoerdt trained Kneedeep N Custard has won eight of his 16 lifetime appearances. Kneedeep N Custard won the Brad Gunn stakes this summer setting a three-year-old gelding track record of 1:52 1/5 in Calgary in the process.
Last year when Lancaster won the O’Brien Award as Canada’s Future Star he won 29 races from 103 starts. This year he has 47 wins from 164 starts along with 26 seconds and 16 thirds for purse money of just under $400,000 - almost double what he achieved last year.
“To come back with stats I have now is incredible,” said Lancaster. “This is my life now. What I chose to do. I’ve got great owners and great staff. I couldn’t ask for a better setup. I’m right up their with the heavy hitters, competing against the big boys. Just to compete against the likes of Keith Clark, Kelly Hoerdt and Rod Hennessy - guys I watched on t.v. growing up - is special."
“Now we’ll just have to see how Sunday turns out.”
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