Can it happen again? Can lightning really strike twice? The connections of Codename Cigar Box are certainly hoping so.
Two years ago, with a perfect trip, Kneedeep N Custard won the Western Canada Pacing Derby at Century Mile for owners Kelly Hoerdt, Fred Gilbert and Blair Corbeil. Two years later those three are poised and ready to do it again with Kneedeep N Custard’s full brother Codename Cigar Box, who will strut his stuff in Friday’s first elimination for the New Year’s Eve Derby Final.
“That would be great,” said Hoerdt, who is also Codename Cigar Box’s trainer and driver. “But this is a completely different year.”
No kidding. With a virus that ran rampant through the backstretch of Century Mile costing harness racing two weeks of racing, Covid, and a very cold forecast Hoerdt said anything could happen.
Even if Codename Cigar Box is the 7-5 favourite. “With the weather, the different size of track and the different surface any horse can show up. If the stars align and you can overcome the elements you may be surprised what horses have a shot,” said Hoerdt, who has won three Derbies. “It’s been a tumultuous year.”
Codename Cigar Box certainly has the credentials and the resume to win Friday’s elimination and then the December 31 Final. The three-year-old has won seven of his 17 starts this year and has been in the top three in 15 of those 17 starts. He’s coming off a plucky win in the $75,000 Robert Murphy at B.C.’s Fraser Downs when he came from well back to get up just in time in a photo. He’s won the Moores Mile and the Marquis stake — where he took his mark of 1:53 2/5 — at Calgary’s Century Downs. He’s done just about everything he’s been asked to do. But he’s never raced at Century Mile; never raced on a mile track and certainly not in the temperatures that are forecast for Friday night.
“He’s been fairly consistent. He’s shown a lot of durability and he is flexible in the way you race him,” said Hoerdt, a former O’Brien Award of Horsemanship winner. “He’s turned in some very gritty efforts.”
His victory in the Robert Murphy was a case in point. After a quarter of a mile, Codename Cigar Box was seventh - 13 lengths back of the leader. “There was a mad dash out front so I just settled him back and stayed off the pace. “Down the backstretch I got on the back of one of the best horses in the race and just followed him. The trip worked out very well.”
But then just about everything has worked out well for Codename Cigar Box, who was the sales topper with a price tag of $47,000 at the 2019 B.C.Yearling Sale. But that’s the price you have to pay for a full brother to Kneedeep N Custard, who not only won the 2019 Derby but also won eight of his nine starts in B.C. In Alberta he won six of his 13 appearances.
After Kneedeep N Custard won the Derby — in 1:51 2/5 by two easy lengths — he won his next seven races and ended up with $332,000 in earnings. Hoerdt liked what he saw in Kneedeep N Custard to buy not only Codename Cigar Box but also has a two-year-old full sister and a a yearling full sister. All three are sired by Custard the Dragon and out of the mare Art Amour.
“I’m buying the line,” said Hoerdt. “Codename Cigar Box has lived up to all the expectations we had for him. Hopefully so will his two sisters. Now we just hope he stays healthy until the Derby Final. The way these last two years have gone I think everybody is saying the same thing.”
Codename Cigar Box’s main opposition on Friday will likely come from Rod Hennesy and Lorne Duffield’s Shark Week, who lost by half a length -as the betting favourite - to Codename Cigar Box in the Marquis. Also in the picture is Christopher Lambie and Christopher Lancaster’s Nevada Vacation.
In the second elimination leg for the Derby Sunshine Boy, who has won his last three starts very convincingly, and Samba Beat, who won the Alberta Super Final by five lengths, are expected to battle it out. But bettors should also pay attention to Saltwater Savage, who has done virtually all of his racing this year at ultra-tough Woodbine Mohawk Park. Saltwater Savage has had just one start in Alberta and that was in his last appearance when he had a brutal three-wide trip.
Friday’s card at Century Mile also has two elimination legs for the Century Casinos Filly Pace with the Final also taking place on New Year’s Eve. In the first elimination of the Filly Pace Exotic Dragon has been anointed as the 4-5 favourite by racing coordinator Josh Murphy. Exotic Dragon, who we wrote about earlier this week, is looking for her fifth straight win. Incredibly consistent, Exotic Dragon has been in the top three in 17 of her 18 starts this year including a sweep of the Mary Murphy three-race series at Fraser Downs.
Owned by Stony Plain’s Robert Jones and trainer/driver Nathan Sobey, who has had an incredible year, Exotic Dragon also won the Diamond Stake and the Shirley McClellan Final. Like Codename Cigar Box, Exotic Dragon is also sired by Custard the Dragon. Last week Exotic Dragon went wire-to-wire to win a condition pace which was one of five races driver Dave Kelly won.
Looking to turn the table is Burning Hot, who finished second - by three-parts of a length - to Exotic Dragon last week. Burning Hot also finished second - by a head - to Exotic Dragon in the McClellan Final. Burning Hot, however, hardly went away empty this year. The daughter of Blue Burner won both the elimination and Final of the Gord and Illa Rumpel. Exotic Dragon got the rail; Burning Hot is right beside her in post two.
In the second elimination of the Century Casinos Filly Pace, Hoerdt is in the spotlight again with Uptown Hanover, who was recently purchased by Hoerdt and Carole Dunbar for $43,000. Uptown Hanover has done virtually all of her racing in the U.S. where she competed last year against some of the best fillies in North America. She made two starts this year at Century Mile and was a relatively easy winner both times.
“She’s shown me a lot of speed. We’ll find out what she’s made of on Friday,” said Hoerdt. “She’s paced in 1:50 4/5 so she knows what it’s like to go fast. But we’ll see what she says in minus 30.
“Uptown Hanover wasn’t really tested in her two wins at Century Mile.”
Uptown Hanover drew the rail while her main opponent Graceful Horizon - a horse Hoerdt knows very well - starts right beside her. “I drove her all year,” Hoerdt said of Graceful Horizon, who is trained by Lancaster. “She’s an ultra tough mare. Very big. Very rugged and very fast.”
STOCK REPORT - Post time Friday is 6:15 p.m. Post time for the first race on New Year’s Eve is also 6:15 p.m. There is also racing this Saturday with a first post time of 1:15 p.m.
Follow me on Twitter at CurtisJStock