Sunday’s prestigious $750,000 Grade 1 Apple Blossom at Arkansas’ Oaklawn Park resulted in a soul-wrenching, razor-thin loss for Western Canadian sensation Escape Clause.
But any heart-break only lasted for a few sombre moments. “Before the race I said if we could run third I’d be the happiest guy in the world,” said co-owner and trainer Don Schnell. “I was disappointed for about one second and that was when the photo result came up. I thought maybe she had won it. “But after a try like that I couldn’t be disappointed for very long.”
That ‘try’ - a dramatic, heart-pounding stretch drive that saw Escape Clause and the winner, favoured Midnight Bisou, now a three-time Grade 1 winner, hook up at the top of the lane and then battle head-to-head - neither willing to give up an inch - to the wire epitomized courage and drama.
It was also - probably inarguably - the best performance by a Western Canada thoroughbred since, at the very least, the days of George Royal, the B.C. bred who won nine consecutive stakes in Canada in 1964 before twice winning both the San Juan Capistrano at California’s Santa Anita and the Canadian International at Toronto’s Woodbine.
“She almost beat the best mares in the world,” said Schnell. Almost.
Taking over the lead from Queen’s Plate and Prince of Wales winner Wander Gadot down the backstretch, Escape Clause was almost immediately met by Midnight Bisou, who was third beaten by just a length and a half in last year’s Breeders’ Cup Distaff.
Maybe 50 yards from the finish line, Midnight Bisou, and jockey Mike Smith took the lead by about a head. But Escape Clause, with Tyler Baze aboard, wasn’t finished. Refusing to give in, she battled back and was inching back in the final desperate yards. “A few steps past the finish line Escape Clause was back on top. It was that close,” said Schnell.
‘That close’ meant a difference of $300,000. Midnight Bisou picked up $450,000 for the winner; Escape Clause won $150,000 for Schnell and co-owners True North Thoroughbreds and Barry Arnason - the latter which were original owners, sold their shares to Schnell after she left her home in Winnipeg, Manitoba last year and then bought back in just before the Apple Blossom.
But money wasn’t on Schnell’s mind on Sunday. It was more self satisfaction and gratification. “I couldn’t be more proud of her,” he said of the five-year-old mare who has won 20 of her 31 career races - nine in a row at one point - for earnings of $650,000. “She’s one tough mare.”
“Escape Clause ran too good to lose,” said Vic Stauffer, Oaklawn’s track announcer. “She's really and truly probably one of the best horses I've ever been on in my life,” said Baze. “She gives it her all. She got beat a nose and I got slammed pretty hard going into the first turn… She gave me everything. We were a little unfortunate we didn’t get the bob.”
Schnell said over a fish dinner Sunday night, Baze told him that if Escape Clause hadn’t been bumped - by Wonder Gadot - she wins the race. “She got knocked sideways and Tyler told me that probably cost her four lengths.
“There were three Canadian horses in the race. Escape Clause, Wonder Gadot and Viva Forever, who was bred in Ontario. Wonder Gadot hit her pretty hard and Viva Forever acted up in the starting gate and Tyler said the delay that caused bothered Escape Clause as well. “She got bothered by the other two Canadian horses and still prevailed to get beat by just a nose.”
Bred in Manitoba, where Schnell bought her for just $5,000 at auction, Escape Clause had won at seven different tracks coming into the Apple Blossom: Assiniboia Downs in Winnipeg, Century Downs in Balzac, just outside of Calgary where she set a track record, Northlands Park here in Edmonton, Del Mar and Santa Anita in California and then, in her previous start, Sunland Park in New Mexico where she set another track record winning the one-mile Harry Henson by seven and a quarter lengths despite being eased up down the stretch.
As well as recalling George Royal for greatness, Escape Clause, who is a finalist for two Sovereign Awards on Thursday - champion aged mare and champion female sprinter - is also most definitely the best thoroughbred to ever race in Alberta.
Next on the list - pick whatever order you like - would be Prix de Crouton, who won the Tampa Bay Derby in 1994, Pole Position who won California’s San Felipe and Santa Catalina stakes in 1979 and Fancy As, who ran third in a pair of Grade 2 stakes, including the $400,000 Strub in 2002.
What’s next for Escape Clause? Schnell isn’t sure. “I’ll head back to Phoenix (on Tuesday) and then we’ll see. There’s a win-and-you’re-in the Breeders’ Cup at Santa Anita on May 27 which we are considering. It’s a mile and an eighth on the turf and I think she's even a better horse on the grass than she is on dirt. But nothing is for sure. We’re considering all our options. She came out of the Apple Blossom great. She could run back today, she’s feeling so good."
“Most horses would be laying down and sleeping after a race like she just ran. But she was bucking and playing (Monday morning.) “She's a throw back to the old horses from 100 years ago - horses that would run two or three times a day to get into a final. But right now I think she needs a little bit of a break.”
Naturally Escape Clause is drawing a lot of interest both from racetracks and other owners. “I’m getting a lot of calls from people wanting us to go to Delaware, Kentucky, Santa Anita and Woodbine. “She’s a huge draw. Everybody loves her,” Schnell said of the David vs. Goliath tale. Everybody likes her story - a cheap, Manitoba-bred beating up on the giants. It’s a remarkable story really. I had dreams but they were never this big.”
As for entertaining offers, Schnell said there have been many including one from Japan where they want her as a broodmare. “She’s extremely sound but she’s not going to be completely sold until this fall. I thought for a little bit about keeping her at Oaklawn and letting someone else train her but she’s tricky to train and I didn’t want to do that. A lot of good horses have quirks and she’s got a couple of quirks."
"She’s tricky to get the tack on, nobody else can bridle her and she can dump her rider at any time. Taking her back to Phoenix where I’m now based allows me to keep her under my care and my supervision. That way she gets the special care that she deserves. That’s worked pretty well so far.”
Has it ever.
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