Out of the rain came the sun. And his name was Silent Poet.
He was dismissed by punters in the $395,500 Highlander Stakes, run in the shadow of the Queen’s Plate. The Highlander was the next race. The aftermath. The anti-climax race. People were starting to fold up the lawn chairs.
Except that Silent Poet would have none of that. With a swish of his black tail, he put all the words in the right order for his trainer, Nick Gonzalez, still saddened by the death of his wife, (assistant) trainer, helpmate, Martha, last Oct. 4 from cancer. They had been married for 40 years.
Gonzalez, winner of two Queens Plates (Big Red Mike, Midnight Aria), usually fields a stable of 50 to 60 horses. This year he has only six on the Woodbine backstretch. He had started horses in only 17 races, and hadn’t won one.
Twice he raced Poet this season, but the 6-year-old gelding had finished fifth as the 6 to 5 favourite in a 7-furlong allowance race, then faded to fifth in the Connaught Cup, a race he had won the previous year. Were his best days behind him? Was his brilliance fading, like his time had passed?
Last October, Silent Poet let the banners fly when he won the Grade 2 Nearctic Stakes at six furlongs. And hasn’t won since. But here, in the Highlander, he was running in a Grade 1, against a filly, Caravel, seeking her way to the Breeders’ Cup Sprint. Owned by celebrity chef Bobby Flay, the 4-year-old roan filly had won seven of nine life starts, her last win a Grade 3 at Saratoga. She was to be ridden by North America’s top rider Irad Ortiz.
She went off at odds of 1 to 2. Silent Poet at 9 to 1.
And Silent Poet, a speedbolt out of the gate, had drawn post eight, outside of the entire field. What were the odds for the Stronach Stable gelding, born in Ontario, being able to overcome that?
Silent Poet stunned everybody by not setting the pace and also by whisking past Caravel in the stretch to win by a half-length over a fast-closing Admiralty Pier, another local. Caravel finished third. He finished the six-furlong trip on the grass in 1:07.98, a little more than a second off the track record. Still, cracking fast.
Not only that, Silent Poet got the highest winner’s Beyer speed figure of any horse in any of the 13 races on Plate day: 98.
Gonzalez, watching all of this unfold, was overcome with emotion. He had been thinking of his late wife all day.
Silent Poet had been her favourite. Battling cancer for two years, she was concerned that she wouldn’t live long enough to see Poet reach his potential. He had won the Nearctic a couple of weeks after she died. That day, as Poet crossed the wire, announcer Robert Geller cried: “This one’s for you, Martha.” Dry eyes in the house? None.
And now Poet had won a Grade 1.
Gonzalez, had to take a walk on the turf course; he wanted to hide the tears. When Silent Poet came back to him, he cradled the horse’s head in his arms, and pulled an ear.
“He went over there in good order and I knew he was going to run his race,” Gonzalez said the next day. “[Jockey Justin Stein] always has confidence in him. Just when he was coming down the stretch, I knew he was going to win, I just got kind of emotional for myself. I had to walk away from everybody to regain my composure. It was a little emotional for me. But a happy sad.”
Since Martha’s death, it has been difficult for Gonzalez. As he says: “We just keep on, keeping on.”
But he has no illusions about what he has lost. “When you look at the Racing Form and it says: “Nick Gonzalez, trainer,’ it’s very misleading,” he said. “Because it’s Martha Gonzalez, too. I laugh when I look and I see my numbers on Equibase and accomplishments and all that, and it’s a lot more than Nick Gonzalez, that’s for sure. It’s Martha, Martha, Martha.”
He doesn’t have the number of horses that he used to have and he wants it that way. “I got so spoiled and so used to the stuff that she did,” he said. “Now when I’ve got to do that little bit of extra stuff, I go: ‘Oh man.’ It’s like I took it for granted my whole life.”
Now Gonzalez says he wants small numbers because “I want to keep it nice and quiet, so I can just get up in the morning and do my thing because I still love going to the track. I just don’t want to have a lot to do.”
He went to Florida over the winter and had only three or four horses, although Silent Poet, who had wintered at the Stronachs’ Ocala farm, joined him for the last month and a half that he was there. But he only wanted a few horses, just enough to give him a reason to be there, and “get up in the morning and do my thing.”
He’s rented a lovely place there for the past seven years, and kept it up. Also, he can’t remember the last time he spent a winter in Ontario. There’s that, too. And he has friends in Florida.
And you’d think that post eight would be a sign of bad luck for a horse that likes to set the pace? Not so much, this time.
“The first couple of races were one of those things: he breaks dynamite from the gate all the time and shows that speed,” Gonzalez said. “But Justin was getting aggravated because he’d break good and be sitting on the rail and the guys outside of him would be whipping and shouting and chirping and he couldn’t get him to relax.”
“But this time, he controlled,” Gonzalez said. “He had everything his own way.”
He drew two inside posts for this first two races this year. But when the overnight sheets came out, showing he had drawn the outside post, Stein stopped by Gonzalez’s barn and said: “Nick, I think we’re going to be getting a nice trip today.”
During the race, he settled in second place on the flank of the pacesetter and then took over. This time, he did not fade late in the stretch.
“It was a great day,” Gonzalez said. “Poet is a deserving horse. If you were around the barn in the morning, like we are, he’s just one of those cool horses that makes you want to get up at 4 o’clock in the morning and come to work and do it. It’s just so good.”
Now, Gonzalez will be under pressure to enter Poet in the $1-million Woodbine Mile on Sept. 19. “I was looking ahead,” he said. “I really shouldn’t because I take things race by race.” Although Silent Poet owns the Woodbine track record for seven furlongs on the turf, (1:19.22, set Aug. 24, 2019), a mile may be a bit of a stretch for him.
Gonzalez said the only time Silent Poet was defeated by 10 lengths or more was in two million-dollar races. He finished 12th in the Queen’s Plate in 2018, but the 1 ¼ miles was too far for him. He raced in the Woodbine Million in 2019 and finished ninth, beaten by 10 lengths.
He will walk Silent Poet for a couple of days, and then start training him again. And he will discuss the Mile with Frank and Frieda Stronach.
For now, Gonzalez is savouring the win. The morning after the race, a steady stream of well-wishers came by the barn high-fiving them all. “You know how racetracks are,” he said. “It’s the stuff we do.”