When Escape Clause, the filly from Manitoba by way of Alberta, strode into the winner’s circle at Del Mar California Friday night in the $75,000 Kathryn Crosby stake thousands of disbelieving eyes blinked in unison while agape jaws and Racing Forms hit the pavement harder than Mike Tyson’s opponents used to hit the canvas.
Born of humble parentage, purchased by veteran owner/trainer Don Schnell for just $3,200 as a yearling and running on turf for the first time in her life Escape Clause parked the pumpkin and returned $39.40 for every $2 win wager when she crossed the finish line second but was moved up to first because of interference at the sixteenths pole.
But, really, the question is not how Escape Clause recorded another victory but why not? After all Escape Clause is no fly-by-night, out-of-the-blue thoroughbred. Friday’s win was her 18th in just 25 starts and ninth in a row. It was also her eighth stakes victory this year alone and other than this latest the others have come very, very easily winning by as much as she wanted.
“I guess nobody believed in her,” said Schnell, who wasn’t so sure he wasn’t overreaching a little himself. “I honestly thought she could run third or fourth in there. I knew she had a chance. One thing I did know for sure was that she shouldn’t have been sent off at 18-1. Eight-to-one or 10-to–1 maybe. But not 18-1,” he said of the filly who destroyed her opposition in Canada winning seven stakes by a staggering total of 43 gaping lengths.
“I know she had been running against weaker company - these weren’t the best fillies and mares in California but they were definitely in the second tier. But any horse who has won eight or, now, nine in a row, they’ve got to have a little talent. Mike Smith wanted to ride her so bad. He even phoned me to see if he could get on her. He said any horse that can win eight races in a row I want to ride. So I thought it was set. Everything was a go. I was going to have Mike Smith, one of the best jockeys in the world. But after they drew the race the racing office contacted me and said I needed a rider. I told them no, that Mike Smith was going to ride her. But they said no he was named on two other horses. So I put Ruben (Fuentes) on her and he gave her a perfect ride.”
(As an aside the filly Smith chose to ride, Birdie Gold, who ran in last year’s Breeders Cup Filly and Mare Turf, finished 10th in the field of 11.)
Stalking the early pace, Escape Clause started to drop back as the field headed for home in the one-mile race which gave Schnell some anxious moments. “Yeah, I don’t know what happened there,” said Schnell, who has been training thoroughbreds for 40 of his 66 years. “But she has done that before. She’ll relax and start to loaf a little bit. I’m assuming that’s happened. The other thing is that Ruben has a lot of patience. He doesn’t get excited. When he set her down at the eighth pole she came running again.”
Splitting rivals, Escape Clause was in full flight when Excellent Sunset, who had moved to the top, came over on her at the sixteenths pole forcing Fuentes to check. “If that doesn’t happen I think she wins the race,” said Schnell. “That’s what Rueben told me too. He said she would have won if she didn’t get stopped. They (the stewards) made the right decision.”
Schnell said he was happy to run second but added “When they moved me up I felt a lot better. I was really excited. “I got 40-some messages on my phone. I did interviews with the Daily Racing Form, Blood Horse, the San Diego Tribune and now you. That’s more interviews than I can believe.”
With the victory worth $48,660 (US), Escape Clause has now won over $350,000 (Cdn) and has to be considered as the favourite for a year-end Sovereign Award as Canada’s top aged filly or mare. “She’s just getting better and better,” Schnell said of the four-year-old filly by Going Command, a son of Unbridled’s Song. When I bought her for $3,200 at the 2015 Manitoba Yearling Sale she was pretty small. She wasn’t near as big or as strong as she is now. She even grew from her three-year-old to her four-year-old season. I’ve always thought I had an eye for a horse that I felt would mature into a nice horse. But I never believed she would be this good.”
Schnell said he wasn’t sure where he was going to run Escape Clause after she ended her Canadian season with a nine-length, track-record setting performance in the Canadian Thoroughbred Horse Society Sales stake at Balzac’s Century Downs on Oct. 21 getting the seven furlongs in 1:22 flat.
But he knew he couldn’t just turn her out as good as she was running. “After that stake at Century she came to the test barn and didn’t even draw a deep breath. After that race, I said, 'We've got to go somewhere while she's good. Maybe we'll try her once on the turf while she's good.' That's when you should try new things—when they're good. You don't want to try something different when they're down. She’s one of those naturals. Talent, speed and brains and everything to go with it.”
Now the question is where Schnell runs Escape Clause next. “There’s the Grade 1 Matriarch at Del Mar on Dec. 2. But I don’t know if we want to try the big girls. I thought I might be a little crazy running her in the Crosby.”
Schnell has trained many very good thoroughbreds including Majestic Horizon, who won over $500,000 winning just about everything as a three-year-old in 1990 when he won 10 of 15 starts while setting a then-Alberta record of $281,958. But right now he believes Escape Clause is the best horse he’s ever trained. “She’s had eight different riders in her 11 starts this year. She’s won at four different tracks - Canterbury Downs in Minnesota, Assiniboia Downs in Winnipeg, Century Downs in Calgary, Northlands Park in Edmonton and now here at Del Mar on the turf.
“She doesn’t need to carry a jockey or a race course around. She will adapt to whatever surface or track she is asked to run on. She’s just very, very special. She’s a win machine. A very confident win machine.”
Follow me on Twitter at CurtisJStock