To Canada with a target

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Last year, they were galloping on the track at Gulfstream Park – 2-year-olds not quite up to blasting through rapid 1-furlong works to impress potential buyers. Now, they’re in the Queen’s Plate.

Esposito and Scholar Athlete, both bred in Canada by Adena Springs, represent Maryland’s Fair Hill Training Center in the Canadian classic at Woodbine Racecourse Sunday. They’re 8-1 and 12-1, respectively, in a field of 13 and taking their connections on a unique ride.

“When we look at the Queen’s Plate from America we say it’s their version of our Kentucky Derby and I’m sure Canadians look at America and say the Kentucky Derby is America’s version of the Queen’s Plate,” said Terry Finley of West Point Thoroughbreds, owner of Scholar Athlete. “We’ve run in it twice and people in Canada take their Queen’s Plate very, very seriously.”

“I was born and raised in Canada, that’s Canada’s Derby,” said Donato Lanni of the Chartwell Partners group which owns Esposito. “It would mean a lot to have a shot at winning that race. It’s got a lot of history. Some of the best horses in the world have run in that race.”

First run in 1860, the Queen’s Plate is the oldest continuously run race in North America and counts among its previous winners Northern Dancer, Dance Smartly, With Approval, Awesome Again, Steady Growth, L’Enjoleur, Kennedy Road and others. The 1 1/4-mile race on Polytrack forms the Canadian Triple Crown with the Prince of Wales Stakes on dirt at Fort Erie and the Breeders’ Stakes on turf at Woodbine. The series has been swept 12 times, the last in 2003 by Wando. 

The Maryland shippers were lured by the race’s $1 million purse and a chance to race against restricted competition. Each exits a winning race, Esposito in an allowance at Woodbine June 5 and Scholar Athlete at Belmont Park May 12. They’re part of a fairly wide-open group. Only 3-1 favorite Amis Gizmo haw won more than three races. The son of Giant Gizmo sports a 5-for-6 mark including a win in the Plate Trial for trainer Josie Carroll June 12. Carroll also entered Woodbine Oaks runner-up Gamble’s Ghost, the race’s lone filly. Trainer Mark Casse counters with 7-2 second choice Leavem In Malibu, a clear winner of his last two. Queen’s Plate stalwart Roger Attfield brings Shakhimat, who won th Grade 3 Transylvania at Keeneland in April and finished second in the Plate Trial.

A son of Ghostzapper, Esposito sold for $45,000 at the Fasig-Tipton March 2015 sale – part of the Adena draft that just galloped rather than working. Lanni compared the experience to a yearling sale.

“He had good bone, and was kind of a throwback Thoroughbred,” he said. “He looked a lot like Ghostzapper. Nobody wanted to give a lot of money for those horses, but you can tell a lot about a horse at a gallop too. I’ll be honest, I took a shot. We really got lucky.”

The Chartwell partnership includes Lanni, Craig Bernick of Glen Hill Farm and five others. Bernick likes the idea of buying horses to race.

“We’ve always invested in a lot of Donato’s pinhooking ventures where we bought weanlings and sold yearlings,” he said. “We just figured we’d all have a lot more fun if we raced the horses instead of pinhooking them. Donato went to the sale, he liked the horse and I don’t think any of those horses brought that much money. Buyers are in one mode and when you do something else it’s hard to change people’s opinions. We thought he was a really nice horse when we got him.”

Sent to trainer Tom Proctor, the bay colt finished third in his debut at Santa Anita last fall, and broke his maiden at Del Mar in November. He finished third behind Discreetness and Suddenbreakingnews in the Springboard Mile at Remington Park to close his 2-year-old season.

Sidelined by a minor injury through the early part of 2016, Esposito returned with the Queen’s Plate in mind and won a first-level allowance going 7 furlongs at Woodbine. The race over the track and a steady series of works on Fair Hill’s Tapeta surface put the Queen’s Plate in play.

“The restricted money for Canadian-breds while they’re 3 is huge so we brought him back to get him ready for these races,” said Bernick. “I know Tom was confident he’d like Woodbine because he was working on synthetic at Fair Hill. It’s not how you’d want to go into a mile-and-a-quarter race, off one short prep, but it is what it is. If the horse is good enough he’ll be able to overcome it. I don’t think there are very many million-dollar races he’d be competitive in right now.”

Like Lanni, Bernick has a Canadian connection.

“My dad is Canadian and I have family up there,” he said. “Tom is a history buff and I am too, and that race would be wild to win. It’s a classic race. We’re taking a huge step forward because he’s late to the game but he may be able to do it.”

The horse’s name – in honor of two Ontario-born NHL stars – doesn’t hurt either. Phil Esposito starred for the Boston Bruins in the 1970s – winning two Stanley Cups and setting a record with 76 goals in a single season. His brother Tony played goalie for the Chicago Blackhawks, winning the Vezina Trophy as the league’s top goaltender three times. The brothers are in the Hockey Hall of Fame. The horse is named for both of them.

A Blackhawks’ fan, Bernick insists it’s Tony. Lanni leans toward Phil.

“We all had the same idea,” said Bernick. “It would be funny if Nyquist (named for current Red Wings star Gustav) won the Derby and Esposito won the Queen’s Plate in the same year.”

Scholar Athlete (outside) works at Fair Hill in preparation for the Queen’s Plate. Anita Motion photo
– Trained by Graham Motion, Scholar Athlete brings no hockey connection though he should be familiar to Woodbine fans after four starts there last year. The bay gelding won a maiden race in September and finished third in the Coronation Futurity (behind Queen’s Plate rival Shakhimat) in November.

This year, the $85,000 purchase lost twice in Florida and finished fifth in Turfway Park’s Rushaway Stakes in April before winning a first-level allowance on the turf at Belmont in May.

Finley likes the progression.

“He never showed a real affinity for the dirt which made it a lot easier for us – you get the dream of being on the Triple Crown trail very quickly out of your mind when they don’t show an affinity for the dirt,” he said. “That’s helped us along the way here, but we like him. He could be a fun horse. We’ll have no excuses going up there and just hope we run a good race and no one else really jumps up and has an awesome day.”

Like Lanni, Finley was simply scouting for prospects at the 2-year-old sale last year. The Adena Springs horses didn’t work, but would have attracted attention if they’d simply walked the shedrow.

“You know (Adena) has a very good program so you know they were raised the right way from the time they were conceived,” Finley said. “They hadn’t been through two or three different programs. It was really nice to go to a 2-year-old sale and see a horse just gallop and come off the racetrack with some energy to them. You’re really asking for a lot at the 2-year-old sales and hopefully this could send a little bit of a message to the consignors and the buyers that you can get good horses and identify good horses by just having them move on the racetrack.”

Finley got some input from a friend with a little bit of inside information, too.

“Angel Cordero was there when we watched him go,” Finely said of the Hall of Fame jockey and agent for Hall of Famer John Velazquez. “Angel said the horse looks just like Spend A Buck.”

The 1985 Kentucky Derby winner earned $4.2 million on the track, and sired Scholar Athlete’s sire Einstein.

NOTES: New York-based Jose Ortiz rides Scholar Athlete from post 12 while the Woodbine-based Alan Garcia gets aboard Esposito from post 11 . . . With a post time of 5:36 p.m., the Queen’s Plate is the 10th of 12 races on the day . . . The day includes four other stakes – the Grade 3 Singspiel at 1 1/2 miles on the turf, the Grade 2 Dance Smartly for fillies and mares on the turf, the Charlie Barley for 3-year-olds on the turf and the Grade 2 Highlander at 6 furlongs on the turf . . . Lady Shipman headlines the Highlander, while Conquest Enforcer is favored in the Charlie Barley . . . Generous Kitten is 8-5 in the Singspiel, which also features Arlington Million winner Hardest Core . . . Strut The Course and Heath battle in a crowded field of 11 for the Dance Smartly.