Don’t you just love underdogs?
Courtly Choice was apparently an underdog at odds of 34 to 1 in the $545,000 Canadian Pacing Derby Aug. 31, having to face a giant like Lather Up, the 1 to 5 favourite, that had sped the fastest mile in harness history, equaling the world record of 1:46 on July 6 at The Meadowlands in New Jersey.
Courtly Choice’s driver, James MacDonald hollered down the homestretch as he and Courtly Choice came barreling down the Mohawk straight as if his tail was on fire. And the driver did a little yelling afterwards, too. Much hugging and hooting happened in the winner’s circle. MacDonald couldn’t wipe the smile off his face. Neither could trainer Blake Macintosh, of nearby Cambridge, Ont. Who would have guessed that Courtly Choice was the one that could tackle the game’s heavyweight champ and wrestle him to the mat?
Lather Up has been such a behemoth in standardbred racing that he strikes fear into the likes of Casie Coleman, trainer of McWicked, horse of the year in Canada and the United States last year. McWicked has won more than $4.5-million in his career, including an upset win over top down-under star Lazarus in the Pacing Derby last year. And he has paced a mile in 1:46 2/5.
Lather Up had racked up eight wins in 11 starts this year alone. McWicked had been chasing him, not always successfully. And as Woodbine driver James MacDonald said: “Lather Up is just special to watch. Even just to be on the track with him is an honour.”
Courtly Choice has also unleashed fireworks in the past, having won the Meadowlands Pace and the Little Brown Jug last year. He was to end his career at the end of last season, but his group of owners had decided to bring him back as a 4-year-old. In the beginning, it looked like a tough choice. Courtly Choice had won only three of 11 starts this year.
So after Courtly Choice finished eighth in an open pace at The Meadowlands on Aug. 3, his regular driver David Miller bailed on the horse, opting to drive the 8-year-old McWicked instead. Courtly Choice had finished up the track in the Confederation Cup at Flamboro Downs in May and finished a distant ninth in the Graduate Final at The Meadowlands behind the rocketing Lather Up.
“It was a bit of a kick in the crotch,” said Courtly Choice’s trainer, Blake McIntosh, a local, of the loss of a top U.S. driver. “I started feeling disappointed.” But then he noted that MacDonald hadn’t lost with him. And the 33-year-old from Prince Edward Island, has enough chops in the business to get the job done.
MacDonald has been wanting this big moment for a long time. “It was amazing,” he said after the race. “I can’t even put it into words. I’m so happy. I’ve been trying to get a crack at one of those big ones in Canada and I just haven’t had a lot of luck. But I thought the race set up great and the horse was just incredible.”
This Is The Plan left from his rail position, while Lather Up settled into fourth. But on the backstretch, Lather Up exploded to the front with a quick brush. The quarters were clicking off like time bombs. This Is The Plan had paced the first quarter in an electric 25 4/5 seconds, and they went to the half in a slowing 54 1/5 seconds. Meanwhile, Courtly Choice had settled in behind McWicked. As he put it, he had found the right helmet to follow: Dave Miller’s helmet.
A fearless Done Well, loomed up to challenge Lather Up, and actually pushed himself in front. (Lather Up isn’t fond of the turns, and the horse behind was doubled up, trying to avoid running up his backend.) And then into the straightaway, horses began to fan out. Courtly Choice, coming from near the back of the field, fanned out wide and let loose with a stirring stretch drive. It was magic. And he won by half a length in 1:48 4/5, pacing his final quarter in a goosebumpy 25 seconds, according to the charts.
“I can’t even explain this feeling,” MacDonald said. “He was pacing so hard. I knew I had a lot of pace, but he was just trying to get into gear. And then everyone was just kind of fanning out. I didn’t even know what Lather Up would do because he always comes back on. He’s just such a great horse.”
So Courtly Choice became the little engine that could, the local horse with local connections that defeated a monster from away. A 34 to 1 shot had defeated the champ, on home grounds, no less.
“I’m super proud of [MacDonald],” Macintosh said. “James is a great guy and you couldn’t get a better guy.”
McWicked and David Miller finished sixth.