This one you could see coming from Jupiter. In a decision as one-sided as an avalanche Escape Clause was voted Horse of the Year and champion aged mare at Saturday’s Alberta Thoroughbred Awards dinner.
After all, Escape Clause recently won a Sovereign Award as Canada’s aged mare of the year. If she hadn’t won Alberta’s top award it would have been larceny.
“To be the champion mare in Canada is a little mind boggling. A horse coming from the small tracks just doesn’t do that,” said Schnell, who couldn’t be at the Alberta Awards dinner but was represented by his two daughters, Mariah and Juliann, sister Marlene York and brother-in-law Jim York.
Escape Clause won so often and ran so many great races that you figure there must have been three of her. Consider: 13 starts last year, nine wins - all in a row.
She won three times at Assiniboia Downs in Winnipeg. She won at Canterbury Downs in Minnesota. She won at Northlands Park. She won twice at Century Downs including a track-record-setting performance in the CTHS Sale stake when she was nine lengths in front and stopped the clock in 1:22 flat for seven furlongs. And she won at Del Mar in California when she crossed the finish line second but was moved up to first place because of interference.
Relentless and determined she was simply fantastic.
If you can imagine, Escape Clause has only gotten better. This year she won the La Canada at Santa Anita by five and a half lengths and the Harry Henson at Sunland Park in New Mexico where she set another track record getting the mile in 1:34 flat despite being eased up down the stretch and still winning by seven and a quarter lengths.
Then she turned in what trainer and co-owner Don Schnell believes was her best effort ever when she was second - beaten a nose by Midnight Bisou, who was third in last year’s Breeders’ Cup Distaff - in the Grade 1 $750,000 Apple Blossom at Oaklawn Park in Arkansas. That was despite getting bumped hard going into the first turn.
Headed a 100 yards from the finish line, Escape Clause, also owned by Barry Arnason and True North Thoroughbreds, dug back down and almost came back on for the win.
“A few steps past the finish line Escape Clause was back on top. It was that close,” said Schnell, who bought her for just $5,000 at the Manitoba Yearling Sale.
“Mike Smith, the jockey on Midnight Bisou told my jockey, Tyler Baze, that he doesn’t want to run against Escape Clause again. He said she’s just too tough. But hopefully we do get to meet up again.”
Schnell said Escape Clause’s next start will likely be in the Grade 1 $700,000 Ogden Phipps on June 8 on the undercard of New York’s Belmont. Then he is looking at the July 15 $750,000 Delaware Handicap.
“John Mooney Jr., the executive director of racing at Delaware Park, wrote me one of the nicest letters I’ve ever received in my life. He said Delaware would be honoured to have Escape Clause run there. “It’s unbelievable all the attention she is getting.” The ultimate goal for Escape Clause is the Breeders’ Cup at Santa Anita in November.
“As we all know one wrong step and plan are thrown out the window. But you have to have plans and that’s what ours are,” said Schnell, who has left Phoenix’s Turf Paradise and is now headquartered at Canterbury Downs. “Escape Clause is dong really good, super good. Her last race, the Apple Blossom was April 14 so this will be the most time she’s had off in quite a while. With a little time off she usually runs a huge one.”
In other awards, trainer Rick Hedge, who had his best year as a conditioner, and owners Janet and Brian Alexander got to make three trips to the podium: Sir Bronx won Champion Sprinter and top Aged Horse while Regal Max was named the Champion Three-Year-old colt.
Sir Bronx won four of 11 starts including the Westerner. Second by a neck in the mud in the Harvest Gold Plate, Sir Bronx also set the track record at Century Downs when he won an optional claimer going seven furlongs in 1:22 1/5.
Regal Max, who was in the top three in eight of his 11 starts last year, went wire-to-wire to win the Alberta Derby in Grande Prairie in track record time and also took the Beaufort Stakes at Century Downs.
Supreme Rush won the HBPA trophy for Champion Claimer when she won seven of her 18 starts while also adding five seconds and two thirds. Owned and trained by Tom Rycroft, Supreme Rush went from $8,000 claimers all the way to winning an optional claimer.
Owned by breeder Ole Nielsen, Notice was voted 2018’s Champion Two-Year-Old Filly. Only out of the top three once, Notice banked over $100,000 while taking the CTHS Sales stake in Vancouver and the CTHS Sales sake at Century Downs.
Another given was Smarty River Pants winning Two-Year-Old Colt of the Year and Champion Alberta-bred. Owned and bred by last year’s leading owner Riversedge Racing Stable, the precocious Smarty River Pants won her first four starts taking the Princess Margaret by 9 lengths, the Birdcatcher by 5 3/4 lengths, and the Alberta Premiers by two and a half lengths. Her only loss was when she was second beaten a head by stablemate Purple Storm in his final start of the year in the Canadian Juvenile.
Raider was also a decisive winner taking the Dave Kapchinsky Memorial Trophy as Champion Three-Year-Old Filly. Owned by Curtis Landry, Raider won four of her seven starts - three of them stakes - capturing the Chariot Chaser, Northlands Park Oaks and the Sonoma.
Other awards went to Rico Walcott as both the Ken Cohoe Trophy’s Horse Person of the Year and the leading jockey for the eighth straight time. Walcott is recovering from successful surgery to remove a golf-ball sized tumour on the front left side of his brain.
The leading breeders were Andy Stronach and Wally Pugh; Tim Rycroft was the leading trainer for the first time and Jason Teague was awarded the Lloyd and Mary Wilson Special Appreciation trophy.
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