Follow the money, aka jockey Rico Walcott. Maybe it’s that simple when it comes to picking the winner of Sunday’s Canadian Derby, Alberta thoroughbred racing’s most anticipated race at Century Mile. Walcott, who has dominated the jockey standings once again this year, had his choice of five of the best horses in the Derby. Looking for his sixth Canadian Derby triumph Walcott picked Vancouver-based Synergy.
“It was both of our decisions,” said Walcott’s agent Bob Fowlis. “We like the fact Synergy is three-for-three this year. We like that he just won going a mile and a sixteenth despite being three wide every step of the way and still drew off to win by three lengths. “And we like that he is bred to run a mile and a quarter which is the Canadian Derby distance. His sire is Sungold who is by A.P. Indy,” said Fowlis referring to the 1992 American Horse of the Year who won the mile and a half Belmont Stakes and the mile and a quarter Breeders’ Cup Classic.
“And Barb’s (trainer Barb Heads) horses can usually run long.” Heads said she believes Synergy will get the distance too. “It certainly appears that way,” said Heads, who is tied with Glen Todd for leading trainer honours at Vancouver’s Hastings Park this year. “Synergy settles nicely. He’s shown that in his races. He relaxes very well - sometimes almost too relaxed in mid race. The way he races the distance shouldn’t be a problem. He gives every indication that he will like the extra ground.”
That was certainly on exhibit in Synergy’s last race, the Sir Winston Churchill stake on Aug. 13 at Hastings Park. As Fowlis said Synergy never came close to seeing the rail until the finish line. He was fifth and sixth during the early going while chasing three wide and then, when asked at the top of the stretch, he blew by the pace setting Porter Gent to win going away.
“He’s done everything right,” said Heads of the three-year-old owned by Russ and Lois Bennett, who are affectionately known as the Royal Couple of British Columbia’s racing industry. Inducted into the Canadian Horse Racing Hall of Fame in 2007, the Bennetts are the most successful breeders in the history of racing in B.C. “(Synergy) was good as a two-year-old and he’s a lot stronger this year. He’s developed into a very nice three-year-old. He’s easy to do anything with.”
Placed first in last year’s Jack Diamond, Synergy is a perfect three-for three this year having won an allowance race by a nose and then the Chris Loseth - also by a nose. But, as mentioned, there was nothing close about the Sir Winston Churchill.
And then there’s the Walcott factor. About to be Alberta’s leading rider for the ninth time, Walcott has won 57 of his 162 mounts at Century Mile this year for an incredible 35 per cent winning percentage. Even more astounding is that Walcott, who also has 31 seconds, has finished first or second more than 50 per cent of the time.
“You just don’t find that anywhere,” said Fowlis. If anything Walcott is arguably even riding better now than he ever has which is saying a whole lot. He won six races (albeit disqualified from one of those wins) on Sept. 13. This past weekend he won five races from 11 mounts and was only out of the top three once.
“It’s great to have him,” said Heads. “Rico and I have had some luck together in the past. We won the RedTail Landing stake at Century Mile earlier this year and we won the Freedom of the City at Century Downs last year. “Hopefully that continues on Sunday.”
Despite all the positive signs from Synergy, Fowlis said it wasn’t an easy choice. “It was tough. There are five or six horses that are legitimate contenders. We’ve won four Derbies for Robertino Diodoro. If the horse he has entered this year, Something Natural, runs back to his back class he’ll be really tough.
“Something Natural ran second to Wells Bayou early in the year and Wells Bayou won the $1-million Twinspires Louisiana Derby at the Fair Grounds. And Something Natural also won a tough allowance race at Oaklawn Park. But he didn’t run great in the Manitoba Derby.”
Then there are horses like Maskwecis, who has won three of four starts this year in Edmonton including the Western Canada and Beaufort Stakes; Rail Hugger, who defeated Maskwecis while winning the Count Lathum at odds of 10-1 and definitely looks like he wants a mile and a quarter; Mongolian Wind, who won the mile and an eighth Manitoba Derby and the Gold Cup at Winnipeg’s Assiniboia Downs and Real Grace, who ran second in the Count Lathum and a good fourth against older horses in his last appearance, the Arctic Laur (he was fifth in the Manitoba Derby but you can throw that race out because he was on a dead rail).
In short, it’s a very competitive race. Post positions and entries will be drawn at Century Mile on Wednesday.
STOCK REPORT - Talented veteran jockey Shannon Beauregard is on the injured list from a spill on Saturday night at Century Mile. “The first thing Shannon asked the surgeon was ‘How soon can I ride again?’” said trainer Ron Grieves. “She’ll probably need a few plates and screws so it obviously won’t be this year. She’s been told that if everything goes right it’s about a three-month healing program.”
Heads doesn’t just have Synergy here for the Derby. She is also bringing Infinite Patience and Sangria for Sunday’s Century Casino Oaks and Sunburst for the Northlands Distaff, two other stakes on Sunday’s program. Infinite Patience, who is co-owned by Edmonton Oiler Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, is flying back west after competing in Ontario. “Ryan is a real racing fan and loves to see his horses run so he’s trying to make it work and come to Edmonton for the race,” said Heads.
Last year Infinite Patience was named B.C. Bred Horse of the Year, Open Horse of the Year, Champion Sprinter, Champion 2-Year-Old Filly B.C. Bred Division and Champion 2-Year-Old Filly Open Division after winning all five of her starts in Vancouver last year very easily. “She is probably the most talented horse I’ve ever trained,” said Heads. After running third in the Fury Stakes at Woodbine, Infinite Patience led the way in the $500,000 Woodbine Oaks before tiring and then faltered in the Bison City.
“I think she is looking forward to getting back on the dirt,” said Heads. “Tapeta (Woodbine’s artificial racing surface) isn’t for every horse. Sangria won the Freedom of the City at Century Mile last year. Sunburst is a two-time stakes winner who took the RedTail Landing stakes earlier this year at Century Mile. But it’s a very tough field with the likes of Raider, Hidden Grace, Cypress Point, Special Brandy and Under Par all entered.
There are also two stakes races on Friday’s card: the Birdcatcher for two-year-old colts and geldings and the Freedom of the City for two-year-old fillies. The Birdcatcher will see the top five finishers in the recent Alberta Premier’s Futurity renewing acquaintances along with Lightening Anna, who broke his maiden by eight lengths. The Freedom of the City is headlined by She Likes to Party, who broke her maiden by six lengths and then won the Princess Margaret by 14 1/2 lengths.
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