Four years ago, Angus Buntain took out his trainer’s licence. Eight years ago, Jeffrey Alderson rode the first winner of his career. Somehow, they have both found their way to the Queen’s Plate, Canada’s most prestigious race, with a horse whose name sounds like “cracking heads.” Who could believe it?
Krachenwagen. A big, smart gelding with only seven starts in him and one win. All the same, he’s made the hearts of those around them beat faster. He’s given his people Plate fever.
There was always something about Krackenwagen, named by Buntain’s daughter, Libby, after the bumper cars that she and her dad love so much at Canada’s Wonderland. After all, he’s by Head Chopper. He needed a tough name, Buntain thought. Buntain has always liked this light chestnut. So much so that he made him eligible for the Queen’s Plate, right from the beginning.
That’s thinking big for a trainer whose previous star was Ratface Macdougall ( see The Legend of Ratface Macdougall,) whose best win was in a high-level allowance. His name made him a bit of a celebrity in the non-stakes world.
Krachenwagen, a homebred that is Ratface’s half-brother, surprised even Buntain when he won his very first start last year by 4 ¾ lengths. Then he actually finished third in a stakes race, the Frost King. Heady stuff for Buntain, whose stable lives in a sales barn at the outer reaches of Woodbine.
Krachenwagen has defied everything Buntain has known. Built like a sprinter, with afterburners that suggest he might like the route of the Plate: 1 ¼ miles, Krachenwagen was tasked to run in 1 1/16-mile optional claimer against older horses – and he rallied to finish third. The way he did it was key.
That effort led to the Plate Trial – imagine! Bumped at the start from the outside post, Krachenwagen had a troubled trip, jammed up into the far turn, hemmed in. When he finally found a hole in the stretch, he rallied under Alderson’s hand to finish fifth, beaten only by 2 ¾ lengths. “He found another gear,” Buntain said. Krachenwagen’s humans did a little dance on the Tapeta when they collected him after the race.
“After the Plate Trial and the way he galloped out after the Trial, that was the moment I decided he looks like he’ll want to go a mile and a quarter. (The Plate Trial was Krachenwagen’s furthest test at 1 1/8 miles),” Buntain said. “If he hadn’t performed well in the Plate Trial, I would have abandoned that road.”
Alderson said Krachenwagen galloped out past everybody after the race, so strong was he at the end.
And to top that off, during the Plate draw to determine the order in which horse’s connections get to choose their post positions, it was as if the Red Sea parted and the Krachenwagen sailed through. Buntain got first pick of any of the 14 posts he wanted. Libby got to choose, and confidently picked post three. It was magical.
Buntain has been watching Queen’s Plates since he was a kid. “If you are a fan of horse racing in Canada, the Queen’s Plate is kind of like the Stanley Cup,” he said. “It’s the championship of the 3-year-olds.” Buntain figures the first Plate that he laid eyes on was probably in 1985 when the giant filly La Lorgnette won for Windfields Farm.
And Alderson? He’s been so immersed in horse racing from the day he was born, that he doesn’t’ have a clue what he would do if he was not doing what he was doing right now. In his world, there was no Plan B, only Plan A: to ride.
He grew up on a farm near Fort Erie, Ont. His father, Anthony, was a rider until an accident wreaked havoc with his back, requiring a couple of surgeries. “It plays tricks on him sometimes,” Alderson said. He’s now a trainer at Fort Erie, with a couple of horses.
His cousin, Bryce Alderson also rides, but he’s just made a comeback after thinking for 2 ½ years he would never ride again. In December of 2016, he fractured his skull while riding at Tampa Bay in Florida. The accident affected his balance for a time. This year, he’s back. “It’s quite a miracle,” Alderson said. “He wanted to come back and do something that he loves to do so I’m really happy for him.”
Alderson’s mother, Kristn, works in the race office at Fort Erie, and a brother grooms for several trainers at the border track. He has a younger sister that just graduated from high school.
And then, there’s his wife, Nikki, who all along wanted to be a jockey. Her father, Ed Walton, is a quarter horse jockey at Ajax Downs. Nikki was steeped in the racing game, just like her husband. She had to put her riding career on hold when she had two children, daughter Jaelyn, now six, and little Chase, only a year old. Now she’s living her dream. (There seems to be a theme here.)
Alderson has had his riding licence since he was 18, after having galloped horses for two or three years. He rode a couple of times at Fort Erie, but then won his first race at Woodbine on Aug. 17, 2011 with Prada Girl. “It was exciting,” Alderson said. “She broke good and she had me in a good position the whole way, just off the pacesetters. And then into the stretch, she had taken the lead.”
From that moment, Alderson’s mind was awhirl. He won by a little less than half a length. “I can’t believe I have done this,” he thought to himself.
His fellow jocks threw a bucket of ice over him and “the works,” Alderson said. “It’s a mixed bag [of enjoyment and dread.].”
It hasn’t been easy for Alderson to break into the ranks at Woodbine, with a handful of jockeys getting the best mounts and riding the winners. He’s had to deal with the leftovers and the longshots. There’s nothing to do but work through it with persistence, he said, with his agent, the stylish Peter Gaskin, jaunty with a hat just so.
To this point, Alderson has won a total of five stakes races, three of them at Woodbine. The most memorable was his first, the Shady Well Stakes for trainer Barb Minshall with the filly Hopping Not Hoping. That race went like a dream, too. They sat in perfect position behind the pacesetters, and once Alderson found room, Hopping rallied. “I was like: ‘Wow. I can’t believe that I just won a stakes race,’” he said.
He also won the Lady Angela with Fairy Hill for Norm McKnight last year and also took the Ontario Lassie with Ellan Vannin, the filly that got him to the big time: the Woodbine Oaks.
“That was a big moment in my career, to ride in the Woodbine Oaks,” Alderson said. “Just to have the opportunity in a big race like that. I was just thankful.”
He also made it to the Woodbine Oaks a second time with Fairy Hill. And he won two Molson Cups at Fort Erie with Deesse Nike and Court Adjourned.
But one of his most rewarding matchups has been with Buntain. “Me and Angus have been some team together over the last few years,” Alderson said. Alderson got the mount on Ratface Macdougall and horse and rider clicked at the first go. He won at least four races with the fan favourite. “He was very easy,” Alderson said. “He was very fast. And you’d just kind of drop your hands with him and let him go. And enjoy.”
Ratface Macdougall left Buntain’s barn and had a difficult season in 2018. But about three weeks ago, he won again – easily – at Fort Erie, with Alderson in the saddle for trainer Daryl Ezra.
Ratface’s half-brother is extremely exciting, Alderson said. “I worked him a couple of times and I thought to myself: ‘I think this horse is going to be somewhat nice.’ You never know until they get to the races. I rode him the first time last year. He won quite convincingly.” Alderson has been Krachenwagen’s only rider.
Alderson has noticed that Krachenwagen has matured a lot this year. He’s put on 250 pounds. “He loves his training,” Alderson said. “He loves training in the morning. He does everything a good horse should do.”
Although he’s from the same dam, Plantana, Krachenwagen is a much different horse from Ratface Macdougall. “Ratface was much more slender,” Buntain said. “Krachenwagen is much more rugged, a strong horse. Krachenwagen’s mind is much more reasonable. Ratface is a very high-strung horse. Wagen is a little bit more cool. And just a little more mentally mature than Ratface ever was.”
So Buntain will go to the Plate for the first time as an owner-trainer. And riding in the Plate will be a first for Alderson as well. Alderson admits he feels a few jitters, but intends to maintain an even keel. “It’s taken me 10 years to have the chance to ride on a big stage like this,” he said. He remembers Emile Ramsammy winning the Plate with Victor Cooley in 1996 (he had just turned four), although Wando’s win in 2003 remains his favourite (he was 10).
Still, he’s had the benefit of riding in two Oaks. “I know the feeling of what it takes,” he said.
Alderson’s family will come out for the Plate in droves, Buntain’s too. It will be a day to remember for folk who get a rare taste of big theatre.