“Come on, mama,” Tino Attard repeated to Starship Jubilee as she floated into the paddock before the $1-million Woodbine Mile on Sept. 19. It was almost like a chant. He was rather like a pacing parent. The elder Attard was a believer in this spunky 7-year-old mare. She made believers out of the rest of us moments later.
At odds of 6 to 1, Starship Jubilee trounced a Preakness winner and a field of other talented males in the event, to become only the third mare to win the Mile. Other females had come to Woodbine highly touted: Ventura in 2009, Tepin in 2016. Starship Jubilee won by a length in a sprightly time of 1:32.06, the third fastest of all.
Starship Jubilee came from the blue-collar ranks, scooped up by trainer Kevin Attard in Florida for $16,000 in February of 2017, only 3 ½ years ago. What miracles she has wrought since, eventually becoming Canada’s Horse of the Year last season. Starship Jubilee has had to win her respect the hard way, from the barracks. In winning the mile, the mare surpassed $2-million in earnings. She won $600,000 in winning this one race alone.
As Starship Jubilee tipped out at the head of the stretch, a party of three – Attard, his son trainer Kevin Attard, and Kevin’s son Joshua – began a chorus on the Woodbine apron. There was a lack of spectators this day, but this group made up for it, yelling, screaming at the top of their lungs. Then when Starship Jubilee ran right past 2019 Preakness winner War of Will, the 2 to 1 race favourite, the threesome slammed each other with hugs. It was a jubilee of noise, Josh in tears. Maybe the others, too.
Back at home, all of the other Attards that couldn’t come were doing much the same.
Kevin Attard admitted he was a little taken aback that punters weren’t as convinced as he that Starship Jubilee – in her first stakes race against males – could win the whole thing. (She went off as fourth choice in the field of eight behind War of Will, King Edward Stakes winner March to the Arch, and Shirl’s Speight, a 3-year-old that had run only twice before. And a 3-year-old had never won the Mile).
“Obviously War of Will is a very nice horse, but I thought if our filly ran one of her better races, that she’d be competitive and could win,” he said. “There were other horses taking considerable action above her that I thought wasn’t justified when you look at her record and what she’s done at this point in her career.”
After all, Starship Jubilee had started 38 times and won half of them. Few can boast such consistency in top company. “Any time you see a horse that’s run that many times and won that many races, it’s a pretty special feat and that horse has to be respected,” Attard said. “Unfortunately she doesn’t get it. I’m not sure why, but she just keeps proving the doubters were wrong. The expert handicappers: Nobody gives her the respect she deserves. She just keeps showing them that’s she’s better than they think.”
She won her first five starts this year and ran off with the Grade 2 Balston Spa at Saratoga on July 25, defeating Sistercharlie, winner of the Breeders’ Cup Filly and Mare Turf and an Eclipse winner as top female turf horse.
Last fall, at home at Woodbine, Starship Jubilee showed her little heels to top international fillies when she won the G1 E.P. Taylor Stakes. Her only loss this year came in her previous start, the G1 Diana when she tangled with the brilliant Rushing Fall, defeated only four lengths by her. She’s won here in Canada, down there in the U.S. Unfortunately, she hasn’t run in Canada often enough this year to be considered as Horse of the Year again.
“Honestly, it’s a little sad because she’s been the reigning turf filly for the last three years,” Attard said. “Most likely if she had the necessary amount of starts [three], she’d definitely be filly and mare turf horse for this year. With a Grade 1 win like this, you would expect her to be Horse of the Year. But it looks like Pink Lloyd’s race to win there.”
In winning the Woodbine Mile, Starship Jubilee earned an all-fees paid trip to the Breeders Cup Mile at Keeneland in Kentucky on Nov. 7 against males, of course. Attard said he’s also considered the Breeders Filly and Mare Turf. The young trainer – who had never had a horse run in the Woodbine Mile before – has charted her course so well to this point. Starship Jubilee wasn’t originally nominated to the Breeders Cup, but her owners, Blue Heaven Farm, paid a fat fee last month to make it possible.
The ultimate goal from the start of the year was to get Starship Jubilee to the Breeders Cup. Running in the Woodbine Mile was convenient. (Who would have thought?) Attard said she had run such a good race in the Balston Spa after a layoff, and maybe she had come back too quickly in the Diana, her only loss this year.
“So I definitely wanted to find a local race for her and not have to ship her,” Attard said. “Obviously it’s a little strenuous for them. She’s a filly that always around this time of year seems to thrive and get good. Everything just fell the way we needed it to fall.”
Running against the boys in the Woodbine Mile hadn’t been on Attard’s radar. But he just wanted another start in her and the Canadian Stakes at Woodbine just came up too soon. “I just wanted to buy her a little time,” he said. “It was a big factor in me not wanting to ship her anywhere with COVID and the situation this year, making it more difficult for horses to travel.
“It was like a golden opportunity to face the boys today and we just took full advantage of it. And she obviously did as well.”
Perched like a burr in her mane for this epic trip, Justin Stein also reached a milestone in his life with the win. He had ridden the Mile only twice before, finishing 11th with Ancil in 2014, and ninth with Artic Fern in 2012. He remembers getting a few race calls because one of his mounts set the pace for half a mile. That was as good as it got then.
But most incredibly, he took three years off from riding to move to his native British Columbia with his wife and four sons to carve a home out of the wilderness. It turned into a life struggle that broke up his family and left Stein returning to Woodbine last year with what he could carry in his patched-together old truck. (Recently, with his successes, he bought himself a slick, shiny Corvette that has power to spare.)
This season, Stein’s career has caught fire. He is currently leading rider at Woodbine with the most money won ($3,436,127), about $160,000 ahead of his closest rival Rafael Hernandez; with the most wins (84 to Hernandez’s 81) and the highest win percentage (21 per cent to Hernandez’s 20) The two are well in front of the rest of the Woodbine jockey colony.
“It feels like I am in a fairy tale,” Stein said after the Woodbine Mile win. “I’m riding the best horses at Woodbine. I rode the best horse in Canada today and she ran her eyeballs out for everybody, including me. I was just the lucky passenger.”
Attard was more than happy with Stein’s ride. He thought Starship Jubilee a little rank early, but Stein calmed her down. She seemed a little hot to Attard in the post parade, too. That wasn’t typical of her. And early in the race, she didn’t have the easiest trip. “We were between horses and if anybody moved around, we’d get shut off,” Stein said. War of Will was to the outside of her,.
“Then I had to wait a second to let War of Will go, so I could get to the outside of him, because there was nowhere to move. She flew home.”
Stein and Attard had already teamed up this season with much success. He hadn’t ridden her in a race before the Mile, although he worked her a week ago to get acquainted with her. He studied her form and watched replays of all her wins. “She impressed me,” Stein said. “She wanted to win. Her ears would be flat on her neck and she’d stretch her nose out and you could see the grit, the determination. I think I only had to smack her twice. I really only hand rode her down the stretch. She was giving me everything. I didn’t need to ask her for more. She’s just all heart.”
The night before the race, he read the Daily Racing Form. One analyst called War of Will a “one-paced grinder.”
“I was like, well, that’s good to know,” Stein said. “She’s got a turn of foot, and will just blow on by him. I didn’t think [War of Will] was going to be the winner. I felt in my heart that she could win. She’s just better than them.”
Stein calls Starship Jubilee the best horse he has ever ridden. His rush down the homestretch with her was “exhilarating,” he said. “My emotions were exploding because I knew at the eighth pole, I felt like the winner….I was making noises I had never heard myself make before.”
He knows now his name is in the history books in horse racing. “To be part of a team that brings a champion over here – I don’t take it lightly. It’s special and it’s hard to find the words for it,” he said.