Special Forces holds a special place in Kevin Attard’s heart.
The 6-year-old gelding just doesn’t know quit. No matter what happens, the big red horse is in the pitching. The flow of races and the way he runs hasn’t always worked out to his benefit. He has a litany of second-place finishes in major races at Woodbine.
But after missing all of 2020, and having only two starts under his belt this season, Special Forces came from last to first to win the $150,000 Durham Cup Stakes (G3) at Woodbine on Oct. 10. He stopped the clock in 1:42.36 for the 1 1/16-mile race, only .20 seconds off a five-year-old track record set by Freitag.
Immediately after the race, trainer Kevin Attard said he believed that Special Forces was the top handicap horse in Canada. And that at almost 7 to 1, he had been disrespected in this race. That in the hype surrounding Horse of the Year Mighty Heart – a beloved one-eyed folk hero around these parts – and Sir Winston, winner of the 2019 Belmont Stakes and even Tap It To Win, who had been one of the favourites in the 2020 Belmont Stakes (He defeated Special Forces last month in the Seagram Cup), Special Forces hadn’t seemed to enter the conversation.
He is now. Special Forces was meant to be a good one. He was a $220,000 yearling purchase at Keeneland, a son of Candy Ride, and a three-quarter brother to the grey Gift Box, winner of the Santa Anita Handicap. Special Forces had been owned by film king Gary Barber and oilman John Oxley who put him in the hands of Mark Casse.
But three years ago, Attard noticed that Casse had dropped Special Forces in for a $40,000 claiming tag. The second time he ran for that tag, Attard dropped a slip for him. Others had too, so Attard had to win a shake for him. That was on September of 2018.
Attard found the perfect owners: Soli Mehta and partners, who had also owned the brilliant mare Starship Jubilee, who eventually won the Woodbine Mile over males after being claimed by Attard for $16,000. “Soli and I have been together for years,” said Attard. Mehta, 72, used to have horses with Attard’s father, Tino. The younger Attard, now a force in the trainers’ race at Woodbine, had owned horses with Mehta before he even had his training licence.
“He lets me do my thing,” Attard said. “He just asks when the horse is in. We’ve been lucky together.”
Mehta, an accountant by trade, has always been an owner of claimers. But both Starship Jubilee and Special Forces have been claims that turned into graded stakes winners.
Special Forces won his first three starts for his new owners, then started the stakes route. He had a magnificent year in 2019, finishing second in the Durham Cup, the Presquile Mile, and the Dominion Day Stakes, with a third in the Seagram Cup. He finally won his first graded race in the 2019 Autumn Stakes over the classy Mr. Ritz in November.
Special Forces sat seventh of eight in the early going of that race, and won by three-quarters of a length in a time just slightly slower than Sunday’s victory.
But at the end of the year, Special Forces pulled a ligament. And with last year’s contracted racing season due to COVID, Attard elected to give the horse the year off, rather than get him ready for one or two races. The time off has paid off. Special Forces is a healthy horse this year.
A come-from-behind type, Special Forces has always been plagued by short fields and slow early paces. “In these five, six-horse fields, nine out of 10 times, they tend to walk during the early part,” Attard said.
That is what happened in the Seagram Cup last month, when Special Forces finished third, unable to cut into Tap It To Win’s lead. (Mighty Heart had the same problem). The early fractions were slow.
In Special Forces’s first race of the season, an allowance race that Sir Winston won, the pace was even slower.
The Durham Cup on Sunday had only a five-horse field, that brought with it lots of cat-and-mouse action.
Special Forces headed straight to the back of the field from the break while Tap It To Win took the lead, albeit with faster fractions that he used to win the Seagram Cup. Mighty Heart, with a new rider, Patrick Husbands replacing regular rider Daisuke Fukumoto, ended up with much the same result, having to settle back in third, and unable to make up the distance in the stretch.
Special Forces, ridden by Justin Stein this time rather than Kazushi Kimura, went three-side around the final turn, moving to the outside of Mighty Heart while Sir Winston moved inside of him.
The two of them quickly left Mighty Heart behind, but then the bumping started. Halo Again, a 12 to 1 shot that was racing for the first time since last year in the Queen’s Plate, had the lead, but he bore out in the stretch as Special Forces came in slightly, pinching Sir Winston.
Sir Winston bounced off Special Forces, and bounced off Halo Again twice.
Antonio Gallardo aboard Sir Winston and Shawn Bridgmohan on Halo Again claimed foul against Special Forces. There was also a steward’s inquiry regarding the bumping. (The next full moon won’t take place for another 10 days, but there were five inquiries in the first eight races on Sunday.)
However, the results remained unchanged, with Sir Winston finishing second and Halo Again third. Mighty Heart finished fourth. Tap It To Win gave up the fight in the stretch and finished last of five.
Meanwhile, as the horses in the Durham Cup were returning to scale and horses in the next race were being led over to the frontside, one of them ran off and headed into a tunnel, fortunately not interfering with anybody. Marais, trained by Don Pleterski, who has returned to work after a serious head injury several years ago at Fort Erie, was caught, put back into the race, and finished 10th of 11 at 30 to 1. It was unsettling for the small stable. Perhaps the full moon came early?
For Special Forces, Attard said it has been smooth sailing since they brought him back early this year. “This horse was probably one of the better older horses on the grounds here in 2019,” he said. “He showed his true colours today.”
Stein hadn’t ridden the horse before this race, but has worked him a couple of times. “He’s a lot of horse,” he said. “He crushed them today. He kicked real hard and just ran true down the lane.
“He’s a champ,” he said.