The Canadian Derby has and always will be the stuff of dreams. Just ask thoroughbred owner Ole Nielsen who won Saturday's allowance race at Century Mile with favoured Vancouver invader Explode to move squarely into the forefront of the $250,000 August 18th Derby.
"Winning the Canadian Derby would be a boyhood dream," said Nielsen after his charge Explode got up in the final strides over a bowl of mud and the wind blowing the starched flags sideways having just enough to get past a very game filly Im Evin Im Leavin to win by half a length.
Sharp Dressed Beau, the 3-1 second choice in the wagering who had three straight wins coming into the race, was another length and a half back in third.
"I'm an Edmonton boy. I was raised here," said Nielsen, who now lives in Vancouver. "I went to the University of Alberta and then moved to Vancouver to go to the University of British Columbia. I remember picking up empty pop bottles so that I could have enough money to bet $2 to win, place and show on a horse at Northlands. And when I was a little older I remember betting $100 to win on Chariot Chaser," he said of the 1965 Derby when Chariot Chaser splashed through a similarly muddy track coming from 21 lengths back with Sandy Shields in the irons to run down Vancouver's Weedbender.
Chariot Chaser paid $26.00 to win that day. "I had more than enough money to buy a train ticket to Vancouver for a nice holiday trip. Now I'm not going to say Explode is going to win the Derby - too many things can happen and you don't know who else is going to show up - but he will get the distance; he'll run all day."
The Derby is 10 furlongs. Saturday's allowance race was nine furlongs. But Nielsen is probably correct that Explode will handle the extra eighth of a mile. That was in full evidence on Saturday when he overcame his outside 10th post position, raced four wide around the first turn and then five wide down the backstretch before unleashing his move.
After the wire winning jockey Amadeo Perez had Explode gallop out another eighth of a mile which he accomplished with aplomb.
It was also in full evidence back in Vancouver at Hastings Park when he won his last two stakes starts by a combined total of 10 1/2 lengths - first going six-and-a-half furlongs when he came from last place and then the mile and a sixteenth Chris Loseth when he stalked the early pace and then fluidly drew away by half a dozen lengths.
"I felt good about (Saturday's race) but he gave me some anxious moments down the stretch gawking around here and there - something he absolutely doesn't do in Vancouver - and then jumping the tire tracks left by the starting gate," said Nielsen, who runs a breeding operation in Vancouver.
"I was shocked the way he ran down the lane. But he got the job done. And that filly…," Nielsen said of Im Evin Im Leavin. "Boy she ran a huge race. That's some filly. Amadeo had to ask him at the end to go. Fortunately he did."
The victory was Explodes third in a row and fifth in his last six starts. The only blemish - a small one - came when he simply ran out of real estate and finished second in the Jim Coleman Province stakes missing by three-quarters of a length to Dr John after being 10th during the early going in the six-and-a-half furlong dash.
"After he won the Ascot Graduation and was named champion two-year-old in B.C. I said at the Awards Dinner that I'd had quite a few good horses over the years and it's hard to convince me that they are good horses," recalled Nielsen, who said he has been a "horse nut" all his life winning his first race way back in 1971. "But I said ‘This might be a good one.'"
For sure. "As I said at the dinner I've had several good horses," he said mentioning horses like Winmor Miss that he owned with with Jim Sapara who beat the boys including highly regarded Rockcliffe in the Alberta Derby and Monashee who won over $800,000.
"Monashee won three races in Edmonton. I really liked sending her to Alberta when my mom and dad and my sister were still alive and lived here. It was a lot of fun."
Nielsen bought Explode as a weanling in Kentucky and then put him into the B.C. Yearling Sale. "We're short of horses in Vancouver so I bought six weanlings and ran them all through the B.C. sale as yearlings. I had a $15,000 reserve bid on Explode which I thought was fair but nobody put up their hand," said Nielsen adding that he wound up selling only one of those six weanlings. Luckily Explode was one of the ones I kept. I'm very, very happy with him."
"He only arrived in Edmonton (on Friday). Mark (trainer Cloutier) brought him out here with Harold Barroby's son, Trapper, in Harold's rig. It was a new spot for him. He was a bit nervous in the paddock and it wasn't a very nice bloody day. The experience will do him good. That was one tough race. In my opinion these were better horses than he was running against in Vancouver."
"It should set him up nicely for the next one," said Nielsen, with ‘the next one' of course being the Canadian Derby. "We were going to stay in Vancouver and run him on Aug. 5. But it made more sense to come here if you are trying to get the big prize. We'll see how smart we are in three weeks."
Nielsen was glad to hear that Im Evin Im Leavin isn't going to run in the Derby with trainer Greg Tracy and the filly's owners Wayne Bakke, Nathan Hoines and Jodee Hoovestal opting instead to run her in the $100,000 Century Casinos Oaks the day before the Derby.
While most people were surprised with Im Evin Im Leavin's inspired performance while being sent away at 20-1 Tracy wasn't.
"In her last start she rattled the starting gate and had blood running down her forehead. I mean she literally shook the whole gate," said Tracy of a race where she ended up third defeated by nine-and-a-half lengths.
"Prayven (jockey Badrie) also lost his whip when she acted up in the gate." If you threw that race out, you'll see that Im Evin Im Leavin had won her previous three starts - two in New Mexico and the other at Century Mile - in most convincing fashion. Furthermore, in Im Evin Im Leavin's last start of 2018 she finished second to B.C. powerhouse Summerland, who has won eight of her nine career starts.
Tracy will probably run Flatout Winner in the Derby. Fifth on Saturday he could be a live longshot. Bumped hard leaving the starting gate, he lost several lengths at the break, made a good wide move down the backstretch before being taken back to the rail where he flattened out. Moved off the rail again he started to run again.
"I think he'll get a lot from this race," said Tracy. "He just shipped in (from Churchill Downs in Kentucky) before the race. I think he'll be a different horse in the Derby."
STOCK REPORT - In other Derby news trainer Robertino Diodoro is looking at sending two horses to Edmonton for the Grade 3 race.
Diodoro, who has won the last two Canadian Derbies and four of the last six - although, amazingly, the verdict of the 2017 Derby which was won by Chief Know It All is still tied up in the courts - intends on sending both Señor Friday and Miltontown to Edmonton on Thursday. Senor Friday has won at Prairie Meadows, Canterbury Downs and in Phoenix. He's owned by Charlie Garvey.
Miltontown, who was claimed for $50,000 is owned by the same connections that won last year's Derby with Sky Promise: Rick and Clayton Wiest, Tim Rollingson and Norman Tremblay. "Miltontown's last race was in the Iowa Derby but I think you can throw that race in the garbage. He got a terrible trip. It was a speed-biased track and he was trapped behind horses."
Asked if he thought he could win the Derby with either of them Diodoro said "Both are doing well. If I didn't think they could win they wouldn't be coming to Alberta."
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