Just a few weeks ago Edmonton native Ole Nielsen told Horse Racing Alberta in this space that winning the Canadian Derby would be a “boyhood dream”. Sunday afternoon at Century Mile that dream became a reality as Nielsen’s Vancouver-based Explode won the 90th running of the Derby after the stewards disqualified Chicago invader Journeyman, who had crossed the wire on top by a neck, for interference.
“It’s always been a dream of mine to win it,” said Nielsen. “I grew up here in Edmonton. I went to Scona high school; I went to the University of Alberta. I used to collect pop bottles so that I could bet a $2 show parlay at Northlands. Winning it this way wasn’t quite the way I envisioned it. I feel bad for people who get their number taken down. Like trainer John Servis in the Kentucky Derby with Maximum Security.”
Nielsen said he thought there was a good chance that the stewards would take down Journeyman after watching the head-on stretch drive replay where Journeyman and jockey Dane Nelson drifted out taking Explode to the middle of the track. “At first I thought we were going to win the race. That Explode was going to get by (Journeyman). I thought he had it. When he didn’t I thought to myself ‘bummer.’ Then I thought, oh well, second is second and it’s not the end of the world. But when I saw the replay I thought ‘Hmm, this will be interesting.’”
Nelson, however, couldn’t believe the steward’s decision. “We were both bumping each other. He (Explode’s jockey Amadeo Perez) bumped my horse and I bumped his horse,” said Nelson, who kept urging his horse down the stretch with his left arm. “That’s what happens when horses get that close together. One horse pushes and the other horse shoves him back. I can’t believe it.”
Interviewed while still aboard Journeyman, Nelson also said “I just kept riding him and he kept giving me everything. Every time I asked him he gave it to me so I said ‘Ok, let’s fight.’”
Perez and the stewards thought otherwise with Perez saying that the interference down the stretch cost him the race — “It was enough to make him lose” - and that he would have gotten by Journeyman if it wasn’t for the bumper-car stretch drive.
So did Explode’s trainer Mark Cloutier. “From my vantage point Explode was herded out quite a bit. They went from the three-path to the six-path. Or maybe farther. It’s a thrill of a lifetime to win this race. It’s a race everyone dreams about winning.”
Nielsen said the same. “I’m ecstatic. I’m thrilled,” said Nielsen, 74. “I’ve won three Derbies before - two in Vancouver and one in Longacres - but this is the first time I ever ran a horse in the Canadian Derby and this is a race I always dreamed of winning as a kid when I was collecting those pop bottles. When I started this journey, that’s all I had in my mind was to win the Canadian Derby. And quite honestly I’d rather win this one than the B.C. one,” said Nielsen, who said he bought his first horse, Decidedly D in 1972 “after I had one too many beers.
“I remember Chariot Chaser winning the Canadian Derby,” he said of the 1965 edition when Chariot Chaser and jockey Sandy Shields plowed through the mud returning $26 for every two-dollar bet. “I bet a hundred bucks on the nose of her that was a big price to bet back then. It paid a pretty nice sum and I remember buying a train ticket to Vancouver to treat myself for a weekend.”
The victory for Explode was worth $129,000 for Nielsen. Second-place paid $43,000. The Derby was Explode’s fourth in a row and sixth in his last seven starts. As the second favourite Explode paid $9.60 to win. Both Explode and Journeyman were placed forwardly in the mile and a quarter $250,000 race that boasted arguably the best Canadian Derby field of all time.
Sharp Dressed Beau set the early pace but Explode, who had come from well off the pace to win his previous three races, was right behind in second. Not far behind was Journeyman, who had won his previous two races at Chicago’s Arlington Park. The trio stayed that way until Sharp Dressed Beau called it a day at the head of the lane and Explode and Journeyman began to separate themselves from the rest of the full field of 12.
With a quarter of a mile left to run Journeyman took the lead but Explode was hot on his heels and they raced as a pair down the long stretch neither willing to give in. Then the bumping started and it continued from the eighths pole all the way to the wire.
The biggest surprise was probably the disappointing third-place finish of 6-5 favourite Final Jeopardy. Slow to get away, Final Jeopardy had only one horse headed after a quarter of a mile. Second to Code of Honour - one of the top three-year-olds in North America - in his start before the Derby in the Dwyer stake in New York, Final Jeopardy made a move around the final turn, finished third, but was never a serious threat.
“I never for one second doubted (Explode) could get the distance,” said Nielsen. “I had no idea whether he was going to win or not but I knew he’d get the distance. I don’t know if you saw it but after the finish line he pulled ahead by five or 10 lengths.”
Nielsen thought he was never going to win the Derby and fulfill his dream because he has mostly been campaigning fillies and mares instead of colts and geldings. “Fillies are worth more than colts when their racing careers are over because you can always breed fillies and mares,” said Nielsen, who has won six B.C. Oaks with his fillies. The only reason he ended up with Explode was because he went to a sale in Kentucky and bought half a dozen weanlings which he never intended on keeping.
“We’re short of horses in Vancouver so I bought six weanlings and put them all into the B.C. Yearling Sale to increase the horse population.” Nielsen, however, only sold one of the six. “Otherwise I probably would have never bought a colt for myself. Fortunately Explode was one of the horses I didn’t sell,” said Nielsen, who had a $15,000 reserve bid on him.
Cloutier said he thought “We were in deep,” when he saw the list of horses that had entered the Derby. “To be honest, I was crossing my fingers. (Former Alberta trainer) Lance Giesbrecht told me that this was the toughest Derby he had ever seen. The first thing I thought when I saw the Racing Form was that we were up against Godolphin,” Cloutier said of the owners of Journeyman.
A global thoroughbred breeding and racing operation which involves around 1,000 horses worldwide, Godolphin races and breeds horses in four continents from their home in Dubai to Europe, Australia, Japan and North America.
The first Derby ever held at Century Mile, Cloutier said “The people at Century Mile put on a great show. They didn’t disappoint anyone. Everything was handled fabulously. The way they handled the fans and the way they handled the parking was great. We were welcomed as soon as we arrived here. They made sure everything was good for you and for your horses.”
With an estimated crowd of about 7,000 fans, total wagering on Sunday’s card was $838,428. Of that $557,261 was wagered off track.
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