“Finally,” exhaled trainer Tim Rycroft after Greek Geek won the Alberta Breeders Handicap - one of seven $50,000 stakes races for Alberta-breds on Saturday’s Alberta Fall Classic card at Century Mile.
“We’ve been waiting all year for him to put it all together and he did,” Rycroft said after meeting his champion in the winner’s circle following his gritty length and a quarter victory over Smart Play.
It certainly hasn’t been a lack of ability that had prevented Greek Geek from, until this past weekend, winning this year. Greek Geek has more than demonstrated that he has the heart of a lion ever since the five-year-old showed up in a starting gate.
Last year was a career year as he won seven of his nine outings - finishing second and third in his other two races. He won the Don Getty, the CTHS Sales stake, the Century Mile and the same Alberta Breeders Handicap. He set a track record when he won an allowance race last August when he stopped the tele-timer in 1:42.36 for a mile and a sixteenth.
For that he was voted last year’s Champion Alberta-bred; Champion Sprinter; Champion Aged Horse which all made him an easy choice as 2021’s Horse of the Year.
No. It certainly hasn’t been a lack of talent. Instead, it has been a frustrating season of feet problems - an abscess in both a front and a hind foot - that hindered Rycroft to get Greek Geek the kind of work he needed to perform to his vast talents.
“I was worried. Plenty worried going into this race,” said Rycroft, the relief clearing showing in his face. “This was a big race for him. I wasn’t sure I had done enough with him. I didn’t know if he was tight enough. I was really afraid that we hadn’t done enough with him. We didn’t get to do what we like to do with him. I wasn’t even sure that we were going to be able to run him. We just couldn’t get him on a regular program. He didn’t even have a workout in him since his last start. His feet just weren’t good enough. He’s a big horse and he puts a lot of weight onto his feet.”
“Growing new feet isn’t easy,” continued Rycroft, who continually soaked and poulticed Greek Geek’s ailing feet. “It’s like watching grass grow. It takes time. I’ve got a lot of people to thank. The barn crew. Blacksmiths John McKenzie and John Harrisko, vet Bob Burko, my owners Riversedge. Everybody.”
“This was a big deal because I didn’t know if Greek Geek could win,” he said of his charge who wears plastic glue-on shoes. But indeed he could. Fanned four wide into the first turn, jockey Enrique Gonzalez got Greek Geek settled into fourth place just ahead of Smart Play down the backstretch.
After an opening quarter in 23.15 with Regal Max in front pushed along by Greek Geek’s stablemate Smarty River Pants, the second quarter went faster (22.71) as both Greek Geek and Smart Play made their bids. Soon it was a two-horse race as Greek Geek and Smart Play drew far away from the others.
For awhile Greek Geek and Smart Play were just a neck apart but down the stretch Greek Geek took over and never looked back. It was at the eighth pole that Rycroft and Gonzalez knew it was pretty much over because that’s when Greek Geek’s ears twitched and went up in the air.
“When he’s the best his ears come up,” said Rycoft. “When he’s the best he likes to loaf and wait for another horse to come up beside him. It makes me nervous. But that’s how he’s always run. Enrique told me after the race that he still had a ton of horse left at the wire.”
Bred by Moonshine Meadow Ranch and purchased at the 2018 Alberta Yearling sale for $9,000, the victory was the ninth of Greek Geek’s career and the $30,000 first-place cheque pushed his career earnings to just under $290,000. “He’s a real nice horse. He deserved to win.” The even-money favourite, Greek Geek paid $4.10 to win.
Here’s how the other six $50,000 races went:
ALBERTA FALL CLASSIC DISTAFF
The first of the Fall Classic stakes was nothing more than an easy workout for Dance Shoes. Down to just three horses when Dance Shoes’ main opponent Plum Blue had to be scratched because of a blister, Dance Shoes romped by six and three-quarter lengths.
Taken back to third and last Dance Shoes effortlessly went to the lead midway around the far turn with jockey Dane Nelson standing almost straight up in the irons. It was simply no contest as the 1-9 favourite paid $2.30 to win.
Owned by Mohamad Khan, bred by Jim McFadyen and trained by Jim Brown, the race for aged fillies and mares was Dance Shoes’ fourth win in her last five starts interrupted only by an inexplicable last-place finish in the August 20 Northlands Distaff.
Big Hug remained perfect in three starts winning the six furlong Sturgeon River for two-year-old fillies. A match race from the middle of the turn almost to the finish line, Big Hug, who had won her previous two starts with huge late moves that produced two easy wins, duelled with Bootiful Rose to the sixteenths pole when Big Hug took over for good and drew out to a length and a quarter victory.
“Leaving from the outside seven post let me control the pace,” said jockey Rafael Zenteno Jr. “I could go or I could sit just off the pace. I decided to sit just behind Bootiful Rose. When my filly kicked in I just went on from there.
“She didn’t win by a lot but I wasn’t worried at all. I was actually more worried in her other two races. I had a clean trip and she won with horse to spare. She’s a champion. She’s a really nice horse. I really think she could go anywhere and win.”
Owned by trainer Rick Hedge, who has had another big year, and Empire Equestrian, Big Hug was purchased for just $3,400 at last year’s Alberta Yearling sale from breeder Chalet Stable. “I liked everything about her at the sale. She was the kind of horse who said ‘Buy me.’ So I did,” said Hedge.
Big Hug paid $3.30 to win.
Stevie Wonder Girl gave trainer Alivia Kettleson her first stakes victory when the three-year-old filly sat third behind the speed of 28-1 long shot The River Grey and even-money favourite Oneofthemgirls, who had won five in a row, before unleashing her talent down the stretch.
Going a mile and a sixteenth, it was Stevie Wonder Girl’s fourth win in her last five starts. Running for just $8,000 in two maiden races - which she won by a combined 16 lengths - in June, Stevie Wonder Girl, ridden by Nelson, got past Oneofthemgirls in mid stretch and then had enough to hold off the late bid of Lilbitspicy by three-parts of a length.
Bred by Side Management, Stevie Wonder Girl was purchased for just $1,000 by Alivia’s husband Todd at the 2020 Alberta Yearling Sale. Kettleson, who is having a superb season - winning with eight of her 35 starts - will be the subject of a longer mention in this space in the near future.
Stevie Wonder Girl paid $7.30 to win.
ALBERTA PREMIER’S FUTURITY
Mudinator duelled on the inside of 13-1 outsider Lil Zapper before drawing away in the stretch to win by two and a quarter lengths. It was his second straight win after impressively breaking his maiden by four lengths in his previous outing.
Purchased for $8,000 at last year’s Alberta Yearling Sale from breeder Ed Keryliuk, Mudinator is owned by KRT Stables and trained by Monica Russell.
The two-year-old colt was confidently ridden by Gonzalez, for his second stakes win and third overall on the card. Another favourite, Mudinator returned $4.50 to win.
The biggest surprise of the Fall Classic was Wildcat Willy who won the race for three-year-olds by slipping through along the rail to win going away for jockey Jose Asencio. Previously winless this year, Wildcat Willy was claimed for $15,000 in his previous start by Pink Cloud Racing for Alberta’s leading trainer Tim Rycroft for his second stakes win - and fourth overall victory - of the day.
Bred by Pierre Esquirol, Wildcat Willy paid $18.70 to win.
RED DIAMOND EXPRESS
Solo Ring broke perfectly for jockey Mauricio Malvaez from his outside ninth post position to engage 33-1 long shot Common Knowledge, who hung surprisingly tough after being claimed for just $8,000 in his previous start by trainer Lionel Joseph for new owner Ted Lewis.
“There was a lot of speed inside of him but he broke so sharp I just let him run,” said Malvaez, who was able to give Solo Ring a bit of a breather around the final turn. “He really likes the front end; I had a really good trip and it all played out great. I still had a lot of horse at the finish. I pretty much thought I had the race won when we straightened out for home.”
Last year Solo Ring, bred by Peaceful Valley Farms, finished second in the Red Diamond but was disqualified and placed fifth so this was a nice change of fortunes for owners Dan and Deb Hurley, who bought Solo Ring for $13,000 at the 2017 CTHS mixed fall sale.
“He ran really tough,” said Dan Hurley, president of the Alberta Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association. “I was worried about the nine post with all the speed in the race. I wasn’t comfortable but (Solo Ring) ran huge. (Common Knowledge) carried him a long way.”
Paying $6.80 to win as the race favourite, Solo Ring is trained by Deanna Walper, who is having another monstrous season. Solo Ring was her 17th winner of the year - the most she has ever had - from just 59 starters, which is the highest win percentage of any trainer with more than 10 starts.
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