So Long Until Next Year

2015 Woodbine final day prgram

Woodbine Racetrack held their final card of racing for the 2015 season. One hundred and thirty-three days of quality racing which began in April and concluded with yesterday’s fine fourteen race card. It was a day of racing that epitomizes the beauty of this grand sport. Full competitive fields that contained exciting stretch drives, displayed some outstanding performances, and had a wealth of personal intrigue. There was something for everyone to enjoy.

Woodbine always put on a great show, and yesterday was just a snapshot of what to expect when going for “A Day At The Races” Woodbine style. There was a huge pay-out in the seventh race when 45 to 1 shot Wild N Crazy defeated 23 to 1 shot Conn’s Reward. Third place in a photo was 11 to 1 Bear Hunter. Why mention this? Well the exactor paid $1,444.00 for a $2 bet. The $1 triactor paid $3.446.90. No I did not have it.

The co-featured stakes race was the Display Stakes, named in honour of the great race horse and sire. The race is for two year olds and attracted a field of seven well bred and regarded colts and one filly. Don’t Be So Salty shipped in from Belmont to win with popular jockey Emma-Jayne Wilson aboard. Locally trained Greatest Game and Crescent Drive came in second and third respectively. Every horse in the race was expensively bred and in the case of Greatest Game, expensively purchased.

Since yesterday would be the last chance to go to the races at my home track until next April 6, I felt compelled to attend. So with my good friend Michael we set out to enjoy “A Day At The Races”, Woodbine style. While there, three things would grab my attention which I want to share.

First attention grabber, and one of the reasons for Michael and I to attend, was that the final race appearance of multi Canadian champion Pender Harbour would take place. He would be starting in feature race on the card, and the final stakes race of the Woodbine season, the grade three Valedictory Stakes. This race has always been the traditional season ending stakes race and has for as long as memory serves been run at one and three-quarters miles, or in turf parlance, fourteen furlongs. Pender Harbour had finished second in this event last year and would be saying good-bye to his many fans in this renewal.

Everyone in attendance greeted the big chestnut gelding with a warm ovation after he finished third to Melmich, who had lowered the course record for the distance by two and three fifths of a second. The ever improving Melmich captured his first graded stakes win. As impressive his victory was however, Melmich would have to share the spotlight with the outgoing warrior Pender Harbour. There was enough adulation to go around on this occasion.

To add poignancy to Pender Harbour’s retirement, he had passed the family torch to his two year old full brother Mike, making his racing debut. Mike had been the top priced yearling in last year’s CTHS yearling sales at Woodbine, due to his good looks and build and of course because of his breeding. Mike, who is a strapping big chestnut like his brother, took some time to come to hand. The patient guidance by trainer John LeBlanc, a former outstanding jockey in his younger days at Woodbine, had led to the colt’s début in the third race on yesterday’s card, a two year old maiden allowance.

Mike ran a bit green during the race but would straighten in the home lane under Gary Boulanger and power past Philly Completely to break his maiden. The race was a seven furlong affair and with his performance, Mike looks as if he will be a serious contender for next year’s Canadian classic races. He would make his brother proud, if he could perform well in such races, since Pender Harbour won both the Prince Of Wales Stakes and the Breeder’s Stakes during his own three year old campaign.

As a side note, the sire of Pender Harbour and Mike is Philanthropist, who is now currently standing in South Africa at Drakenstein Stud. Philanthropist is dearly missed here in Ontario.

The second attention grabber I noticed was the way in which the fans attending the races enjoyed the long distance races on the card. For not only was the fourteen furlong Valedictory Stakes on the card, but also a starter allowance race of one mile and seven eighths  (fifteen furlongs), and a one and a quarter miles (ten furlongs) maiden Allowance. These races where were boisterously cheered, at a very loud level, by the Woodbine patrons on the day.

Usually there is a certain level of cheering volume that is associated with most of the regular carded races on any given day. Usually such loud and boisterous cheering is reserved for the big stakes races. These longer races however seemed to grab the attention of the fans in a deeper way. Perhaps the length of the races developed a little more intensity due to the longer duration. Perhaps the extended length of the races gave the crowd a longer build up of cheering volume. Perhaps we all just enjoyed the longer races because the races themselves gave us more time to enjoy watching the Thoroughbreds run. Perhaps it was that we do not see such races regularly.

I spoke with many people around us at the betting windows, down in the saddling paddock and elsewhere, after the longer races had run. I asked them what they thought of those races. Everyone, and I mean everyone, I spoke to enjoying those races more because of the excitement built up during the race. As one fan told me, “I get bored with watching six and seven furlong races all the time”.

Personally, I enjoy the longer races. There is an inherent build up of excitement as the race unfolds. Strategic placement by the jockey is key. Exceptional fitness of the horse is vital. There is much more in preparing a horse for such races. The jockey needs to know where he should place his mount during the early race stages and then determine when he or she is ready to go for the win. There is just more appeal to longer races. More distance equals more excitement.

The third attention grabber I notice on the day was a little more subtle. In the ninth race, a $25,000 claiming race for fillies and mares three years old and up, contained a six year old mare named Strawberry Scarlet. The grey mare had won nine of forty-six lifetime starts. Why does she stand out? Well when I looked at the program and noticed her breeder, I had a sense of melancholy. She may be the last of her kind. She was bred in 2009 by Windfields Farm.

Windfields ceased operation in 2009, and the plucky Strawberry Scarlet may have been the last starter bred by the illustrious farm. The farm had enjoyed an unprecedented run of success during the second half of the twentieth century. Windfields Farm bred some of the greatest horses in history and put Canadian Thoroughbred breeding in the upper echelon of the sport. Northern Dancer, Nijinsky, The Minstrel, Canadiana, Nearctic, Flaming Page, El Gran Senor, Storm Bird, Glorious Song, New Providence, Viceregal, and I could go on and on, were bred by E.P. Taylor and later his son Charles, under the Windfields banner.

So to see a mare finish second in a mid-level claiming race, and possibly be the last raced Thoroughbred to come from the legendary nursery, quietly closes a chapter in Canadian history that I followed my entire life.

Next year will bring changes to Woodbine. The Polytrack, which has been the surface of the main racing strip for the past ten years, is to be removed, beginning as I write this. The surface will be replaced by Tapeta, a synthetic surface which is more like dirt but with less concussive strain to the horses. Tapeta not only looks like regular sand based racing tracks, but is also a much more weather resistant material, which will combat the extreme temperature changes that occur in southern Ontario weather.

Another possible change next year will be the implementation of the occasional clockwise, or right handed, turf race on the world renown E.P. Taylor turf course. Due to the course configuration being on the outside of the main track, and with the turf course being a one and one-half mile in circumference length, the possibilities to run races “backwards” exists. There is enough of a straight from the final turn of the track in a clockwise, or right handed direction to warrant the use of such a race.

Many of the greatest races around the world are run in a right handed direction. The King George VI and Queen Elizabeth Stakes, the Irish Derby and the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe are right handed. The great races at Ascot and Newmarket are predominantly right handed. Most of the racing in Hong Kong and Japan are run clock-wise. Australia conducts many of their big races on right handed circuits. Right handed racing would be a novelty in North America since all racing is done on left-handed, counter clockwise, circuits. This should be a very interesting and compelling novelty. It will also be refreshing to see.

So another year at Woodbine is over. Next year Woodbine will turn sixty and will implement new innovations and a new sense of renewal. The racing will as always be first class. It will be as much fun as ever. I can hardly wait.

Woodbine grandstand

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