Prince of Wales Stakes
Fort Erie Race Track is one of the more beautiful tracks in North America to watch and enjoy thoroughbred racing. The scenic setting as well as the pleasant and friendly people provides a charming atmosphere at the track which is located one mile from the Canada/US border. My wife and I brought our family last Tuesday to see the Prince of Wales Stakes, which is the second jewel of the Canadian Triple Crown. What we saw and became part of was a record breaking day in the long history of this wonderful slice of Canadian history that is Fort Erie Race Track.
The old track was packed to the rafters with race fans. Many were veteran race fans, but I spoke to many who had never been to a horse race before. These new attendees were wide-eyed and totally enthralled with the excitement of a day at the races. The thrill of the action, the thrill of cheering for the horse you bet on, and the inherent colour and thrill of watching the majestic horse strive to be the best in any given race captured the imaginations of the new fans and of course those who have been enjoying such wonders for years. This was a great day for racing in Ontario, and at Fort Erie in particular.
The day was memorable in so many ways as the stars aligned to make July 26, 2016 such a wonderful memory. Mother Nature co-operated with perfect weather. A card of competitive races ensured a gamut of great action leading up to the main event. Music provided by local musician Brian Barber, who by the way is a very talented singer/guitarist, provided the patrons wonderful entertainment between the races on the main concourse in front of the grandstand. Throughout the day there was much to take in and enjoy. There was also a little bit of comedy in the immediate race that preceded the Prince of Wales Stakes. I’ll explain.
The race was a five and one half furlong sprint for fillies and mares. Horse number four, Molly Morris, became anxious in the gate causing her jockey to dismount. Molly Morris was then brought out of the gate but she broke free and decided to have a run right handed around the track. As she flew past the grandstand pursued by one of the outriders, Molly Morris proceeded to the entrance to the stable area at the top of the home stretch by the far turn. Unhurt, she slowed down and went into the stable park. Perhaps the mare was hungry and just wanted to get back to her stall for a meal.
Five minutes later horse number one, appropriately named Probably, decided to not wait for the rest of the field to start, nor for her jockey to re-mount and bolted down the back stretch. As Probably came around the far turn and down the stretch to the finish line with her tail stretched out, she crossed the line and pulled up at the clubhouse turn to be gathered by the outrider. Probably was prancing and full of herself as she was escorted back to the stable, thinking she had won without the 120 lbs she would have had to carry. Horses can be so much fun.
The undercard stakes race, the Rainbow Connection Stakes run as the fourth race on the program, provided a stirring stretch duel that was won by Dancing On Fire over second placed Marilyn’s Last Love and Quidi Vidi. This was the first career stakes win for the daughter of Philanthropist who was piloted by Luis Contreras.
The Prince of Wales Stakes was however the main draw for the record number of fans on the day. Queen’s Plate winner Sir Dudley Digges was entered as well as the runner up Ami’s Gizmo. The field also included the Plate third place finisher All On Red, the improving Leavem In Malibu, US invader Battery, and hopefuls Niigon’s Edge, Leo From Heaven and Narrow Escape.
Ami’s Gizmo went to the post as the favourite and did not disappoint those who backed him. Sitting behind the pace setters All On Red and Narrow Escape, Ami’s Gizmo claimed the lead at the far turn and drew away under a hand ride down the stretch to win by a commanding five and one half lengths. Luis Contreras was his jockey and not only claimed his second stakes win on the day, but also his second career Prince of Wales victory as well. Leavem In Malibu got up for second and Niigon’s Edge finished third. Josie Carroll is the trainer of Ami’s Gizmo and became the third woman to train a winner of this prestigious race.
The Prince of Wales Stakes has been held at Fort Erie since 1959, the year it was included as the second leg of the Triple Crown. The storied race had been run at different tracks prior to Fort Erie and at different distances since it was inaugurated in 1929, but has remained at the nine and one half furlongs distance since 1988. Long gone Thorncliffe Park was the site of the first Prince of Wales Stakes in 1929 and was run at nine furlongs. The race was reduced in length to eight and one half furlongs and shifted back and forth between Thorncliffe and Old Woodbine (later known as Greenwood) and had one running at New Woodbine in 1956.
The first runnings of the race at Fort Erie were at eleven furlongs on the grass course, increasing in distance to twelve furlongs in 1976. Throughout the history of the Prince of Wales Stakes at Fort Erie, some of the greatest thoroughbreds in Canada have won the race. Hall of Fame legends such as Dance Smartly, With Approval, Izvestia, Wando, New Providence and Peteski have claimed the race on their respective journeys to win the Triple Crown.
Other memorable legends such as Norcliffe, L’Enjoleur, He’s A Smoothie, Overskate, Regal Classic, Archer’s Bay and Runaway Groom have won the Prince of Wales. The Prince of Wales is the prime event on the Fort Erie racing calendar, with this year’s renewal being the most attended in the track’s history. This is also the only race of the Triple Crown run on a dirt surface. For the past ten years, the Queen’s Plate has been run on synthetic surfaces, this year for the first time on Tapeta, while the Breeder’s Stakes is traditionally run at twelve furlongs on the Woodbine grass course.
The massive turnout for the 2016 Prince of Wales Stakes at Fort Erie is a wonderful testament to the dedicated hard working staff at the track, which includes the volunteers who helped out on Prince of Wales day. There have been some very lean years and the threat of closing down the venerable race track has been documented on several occasions.
However with the record betting handle and the largest crowd at Fort Erie in the one hundred and eighteen year history of this historic track occurring this year, the hard working and people friendly Fort Erie staff can now see a light at the end of the tunnel. A tunnel that was bleakly dim for many years. They are doing it right, and they deserve to continue and fulfill their dream of returning “The Fort” to a place of prominence on the racing calendar.
The magic of Fort Erie Race Track was evident for all to see last Tuesday. There was a mood of fun, excitement and a party atmosphere that is uniquely Canadian. There were plenty of families having a grand time. Concessions were as busy as the betting windows. The smell of great barbeque wafted around the concourse, and my personal experience will tell you the food was excellent. The lovely tree lined paddock was five to six layers deep, as fans watched the stars of the show prepare for the main event. Everyone was smiling, laughing and having a great time. The day was a party, a celebration, an event. History brought to the present.
I spoke to many people who had made the journey from parts of Ontario and the US to attend the event. Some of them stayed at the same hotel as we did, while others came just for the day. One couple in particular I talked to had never been to a horse race before the day. My question to them was obvious; “What do you think?” I asked. “Fantastic! We can’t believe we have never done this before!” Music to my ears.
I sincerely hope that this year’s Prince of Wales is the first of many such days for the future of Fort Erie. The people of the town, the staff who take care of the patrons, and the racing community in Ontario deserve no less.
Long live “The Fort”, and may she thrive in the future.
(Photos of the Fort Erie program and Ami’s Gizmo courtesy of the author)