Jockey Eurico Rosa da Silva wears a Brazilian flag imprinted on his breeches (alongside the Canadian one.) Woodbine trainer Vito Armata fights the hot autumn sun, wrestling with hoses and towels and pails, decked out in a t-shirt that celebrates the place of his birth, Italy.
See, the Woodbine Mile is already an international event, even before the track asks for world-wide nominations.
But it’s been 10 years since a local horse and local connections thundered first across the finish wire at the Woodbine Mile (formerly worth $1-million, alas now $800,000).
It has been a high-class thoroughbred affair. High-brow names abound in its history. It’s a Breeders Cup Win-and-You’re-In event, so its winners at times, have gone on to create a big dust at that world championship, held in November at Churchill Downs in Louisville, Ky., this year. Horses like World Approval, Tepin, Wise Dan, Court Vision, Ventura.
A decade ago at Woodbine, Rahy’s Attorney bested the best on the one-mile turf contest that attracts horses from south of the border and across the pond. Ridden by Slade Callaghan, trained by Ian Black, and owned by the Ellie Boje Farm and all of its connections, Rahy’s Attorney generated exclamation marks at the windows, paying $27.30 for a $2 win ticket.
On Saturday, nine horses will face the starting gate for the 22nd edition of the race. Only two entries are locals: Mr. Havercamp, undefeated in four starts on the Woodbine turf, and Vanish, claimed three starts ago for $40,000. Never has a claimer won this event.
Only two local jockeys get mounts for this race: leading rider da Silva and Woodbine newcomer Ademar Santos. On Wednesday at the draw for post positions, Santos grinned, cognizant of the fact that both of the local jocks are natives of Brazil. Both are 43 years old.
The Brazil Connection
In fact, years ago, they knew each other. Santos attended a jockey school, at age 18 leaving behind his small village where he rode anything in sight: cows, chickens (?) even. Well, he was small.
Santos would see Da Silva when the latter came to ride in Rio de Janeiro, where Santos gravitated.
“I used to know him,” Santos said. “He come to ride stakes, but we just talk: ‘Hi, how are you.’
“Now we get a little bit closer because he’s here,” Santos said. “We support each other. He help me a lot.”
Since Santos arrived at Woodbine early this season, Da Silva has given him some helpful racing tips, because he has ridden at Canada’s premier track for so long. “He know some spot on the track where it is a little soft,” Santos said. “He always tell me. So I not go when it’s wet. Some tips only he know. I really appreciate that. It’s about the safety. He’s a very class guy.”
For all of his success at Woodbine, Da Silva hasn’t won a Woodbine Mile. He’s ridden in the race eight times, his best finish a second with Tower of Texas behind the brilliant mare, Tepin, in 2016. But hey, he won the Canadian International last fall with 42 to 1 shot Bullard’s Alley by more than 10 lengths, pulling away from an international field like it was easy.
So far this season, Da Silva has won 18 stakes races, the richest one the $500,000 Woodbine Oaks with Dixie Moon. He has won four stakes with last year’s Horse of the Year Pink Lloyd and three with Gamble’s Ghost.
When Santos came to the United States, he rode at Delaware Park, at Suffolk Downs in Massachusetts, at Philadelphia Park and then he made his home at Tampa Bay Downs, where he owns a house and has a family, Rose, his wife, twins Gabriel and Lucas and younger son Rafael. (The boys were all born in Ireland, when Santos rode there.)
He’s come alone to Woodbine, trying to get himself established here, before he brings the family up permanently. It’s not easy breaking into the Woodbine jockey colony. Also, he missed the first six weeks of the season while his papers were being put into order. “It’s not good when you come late, but I had no choice,” he said. And his family misses him as much as he misses them. “But sometimes you have to sacrifice something in your life to get where you want to go,” he said.
So he’s starting. Again. “It’s difficult to get going because it’s a competitive place and there are a lot of good riders,” he said. “If you want to be somebody, you have to challenge. I just have to get lucky and get going.”
He has landed rides at Woodbine with prominent trainers such as Todd Pletcher, Bill Mott and Mark Casse, getting lucky when another rider had two calls. And he filled the empty space. And then fate conspired to land Santos a ride in the Woodbine Mile. Huge.
Joe Mazarese, a partner in the Eight Star group, spotted a big consistent Casse 4-year-old chestnut gelding, Vanish, that had raced only once at three. He liked what he saw, so he claimed the horse for $40,000. He turned him over to Armata, whose biggest career achievement was winning the 2002 Queen’s Plate with T.J.’s Lucky Moon, who scored the second biggest upset in the history of the classic, winning at odds of 82 to 1. Armata had entered only one other horse in the Queen’s Plate in 20 years.
“After we got the horse, we scoped him and he was clean,” Armata said of Vanish. “No problems. Then [Mazarese] said: ‘This is stakes material.’
“At first I thought he was pulling my leg,” Armata said. “Then I said: ‘You know what. You never know.’ And the horse got better and better every race.”
Armata put Da Silva aboard Vanish for his first start. And he won a seven-furlong optional claiming race on the turf, driving to the finish, coming from behind. Da Silva knew how to ride him. He had ridden him to a win in his previous start for Casse.
But Da Silva was engaged to ride Mr. Havercamp in the Play the King Stakes, always a nice prep race for the Woodbine Mile. So Armata had to look for another jockey. He turned to the other Brazilian at the track.
“We put him on a horse,” Armata said. “And we liked the way he rode the horse. And I said: ‘That’s it.” I told the partners, with his horse here, he will be trying. He’s hungry and he needs the money like we do.”
Santos, aboard Vanish for the first time, finished second to Mr. Havercamp, even though his mount was slipping and sliding on the soft turf. “He couldn’t really grab ahold of it,” Santos said. “But I thought he was going to win until [Eurico slipped up inside of horses.]. He still run a good race.”
Armata thinks the distance of the Woodbine will suit Vanish even better.
Just like 16 years ago, when T.J.’s Lucky Moon won the Plate, Armata has raced only one horse previously in the Woodbine Mile. Regal Mister finished 13th – in 2002. Since 2002, Armata’s hair has turned white and he finds it tough to win a race at Woodbine these days. But there’s always hope.
What keeps him going are the good horses, he says. He will also race the good sprinter Ikerrin Road in the Bold Venture Stakes on Woodbine Mile day. Ikerrin Road got sick in the spring and almost died. But he’s back. He won a six-furlong race on Aug. 18.
Armata started out back in Sicily riding a mule with his grandmother to their barn.
Armata’s mother said: “Go with her and keep her company.”
When Armata came to Canada in 1964 at age 14, he weighed only 83 pounds. And wanted to be a jockey.
“I was like this,” Armata said, holding up a finger. “Not now. I wanted to be a jockey but I didn’t know how to go about it. A guy introduced me to the track. That’s how I learned. But I couldn’t do the weight. So I had to choose something else. It was tough. I give these guys credit when they do the weight.”
Like Santos, Armata stands 5-foot-2 in his socks. “Like him,” Armata said, pointing to his jock. “Only chubbier.”
Armata just turned 69 a few weeks ago, and feels 70 creeping up on him already. He has only 12 horses in his stable. He doesn’t want any more. “It’s too much work,” he said. “I’m getting older.”
Yes, Armata is taking a shot. Vanish was 54 to 1 in the Play the King. He’s listed at 20 to 1 in the morning line, the longest shot on the board. Mr. Havercamp defeated Vanish by 2 ½ lengths in the Play the King, and he’s listed at 6 to 1. Long odds have never stopped Armata before. His horse is improving, he said.
As for Santos, he’s still young and his new future is in his hands. He appreciates Da Silva’s help. But “I just hope I beat him in the stake,” he said, laughing.
“He win too many big stakes, so I need one.”