It’s funny how it works: trainer Gail Cox finds herself floating full-circle into the $1-million Ricoh Woodbine Mile, tackling the race for the first time in her career, for an outfit that brought her to horses in the first place: Sam-Son Farm.
Cox has guided a 4-year-old Sam-Son homebred, El Tormenta to this epic grass race, where he is accorded 20 to 1 odds for having won only one stakes race in his life: the Connaught Cup at Woodbine June 1. But he’s run in three races since, and always found frustrating road trouble to the wire.
He won the Connaught Cup by barging through a narrow opening in the stretch, refusing to take no for an answer.
El Tormenta (meaning “The Storm” in Spanish) is Sam-Son Farm’s 18th entry in the Woodbine Mile over the past 23 years. And the farm has won it twice, with Quiet Resolve in 1999 and Soaring Free in 2004. Quiet Resolve was the longest-priced winner, far higher odds than El Tormenta, and paid $$91.10 for a $2 win ticket. Good thing horses can’t read the tote board.
El Tormenta’s rider, Eurico Rosa da Silva is new to this horse, but he’s ridden the Woodbine Mile nine times before the race on Saturday, finishing second twice.
And so Cox finally found her way through the Woodbine Mile gates. “Every stakes race that you run in is pretty important,” Cox said. This one just carries a little more stress.
The favourite is Got Stormy, a 4-year-old filly that upended the colts to win the Fourstardave Stakes at Saratoga on Aug. 10, prompting her trainer, Mark Casse, to talk about her in the same breath as Tepin, another filly that won this race in 2016, the second shortest-price winner in the history of the event.
Cox knows the competition is not just tough, but extremely tough. El Tormenta is talented enough that she’s looking forward to the test.
It’s been a long route to this day. In the beginning, Cox, then known as Gail Casselman worked for Sam-Son Farms when it focused on show-jumping horses. The farm’s Canadian Club was the mount of Jim Day, who rode him to help the Canadian show-jumping team win gold at the 1968 Mexico Olympics.
Cox remembers the days when she was a part of a team of juniors from Sam-Son would compete against their peers on the road. She remembers riding a borrowed horse. When she was 16, she showed alongside Malcolm Pierce, later to become a thoroughbred trainer for Sam-Son, and Jeff Begg, whose family also drifted toward the thoroughbred racing game, even winning a Queen’s Plate with Victor Cooley in 1996. They are all still friends.
Cox was part of the Sam-Sam equestrian crew when the farm paid a lot of money to buy a proven jumper called Sympatico, intimidating at 17.1 hands and a ferociously successful puissance jumper, that once held the world record at 7-feet-4. For a couple of years, he became the mount of Sam-Son’s trainer Jim Day during this era of the power jumper. There was no doubt Sympatico, a thoroughbred son of The Hammer, was powerful.
“He was big and beautiful,” Cox said. “He was just an outstanding jumper, but he was bad in the stall.” Sam-Son got him a goat to befriend him. But Sympatico killed the goat.
Eventually, both Sam-Son and Jim Day gravitated to the racetrack, although Cox stayed with the show horses and showed hunters and jumpers. She didn’t want to go to the track, although she broke the thoroughbred babies for them.
And then the bug caught. She worked for Canadian Horse Racing Hall of Fame trainer Jim Bentley, who trained Queen’s Plate winners Kennedy Road and Fiddle Dancer Boy, and 1971 Canadian Horse of the Year Laurie’s Dancer. Bentley, too, had a past with steeplechase horses back in Ireland before he came to North America. She helped break young horses there, too, but stayed only part of a year. Finally, the track had become exciting.
She became an exercise rider for the Dan Vella Stable, and three or four of the people from the stable bought a horse together, with the feeling that if Cox got a trainer’s licence, the barn could get more stalls. “At that time, it was really hard to get stalls at Woodbine,” she said.
She remembers buying a yearling filly at a Keeneland sale for $14,000 by Corporate Report. Called Incorporated, she ran five times, with three thirds, no wins. But, injured, she became a broodmare and her offspring won a yearling sales stake. Cox finally won her first race as a trainer in the fall of 2006.
Over the years, Cox has found it fortunate that she went to work at Payson Park in Florida during the winters. She also worked for Christophe Clement, known as the trainer of Gio Ponti and the 2014 Belmont Stakes winner Tonalist. “You are exposed to all of the American trainers there,” she said. “I think it really boosted my knowledge, just watching what they do.”
Eventually, Cox began to take her own horses there for the winter.
Up to this point, her stable star has been Something Extra, a son of Indian Charlie that Cox purchased for $85,000 at the Keeneland September yearling sale, in partnership with John Menary.
Something Extra (called Charlie around the barn) had blinding speed and with it he won the Connaught Cup twice, and the Highlander Stakes, too. In Kentucky, he won the Shakertown and in New York, he was second in the Jaipur. The horse eventually took Cox to the $1-million Breeders’ Cup Turf Sprint.
“He was quiet and nice to deal with,” Cox said. “He was like the barn mascot.”
Cox traveled all over with him. “He ran hard every time,” she said. “He was very fast. At that time, I rode him and he could work in 59 and you’d just think you were galloping. He did it that easily.”
When Something Extra retired at age eight in 2016 with earnings of $1,015,394, Cox hoped to turn him into a stable pony, if for no other reason than she just loved having him around at the barn. But he would have none of it. He now lives out his retirement at a LongRun facility. “John Menary and I own him together and we will take care of him for the rest of his life,” she said.
Now, there’s El Tormenta. Cox got him as a 2-year-old, one of the first horses she began to train for Sam-Son. Always a looker, he was nevertheless injured at two. He returned to her as a 3-year-old, much more developed and mature.
As a 3-year-old, he liked to bust away from the gate and burn aggressively to the lead. “He acted like he didn’t want to go that far,” she said. Over the winter, he became a gelding.
And a much more relaxed horse. His racing style appears to have changed this year. In his first start at four at Keeneland in an allowance race over yielding turf – probably not his favourite – El Tormenta broke slowly from an outside post and closed strongly to be defeated by only three lengths. Since then, he has adopted a stalking style, although it also means he can find traffic trouble.
In the Play the King Stakes, a prep for the Woodbine Mile, El Tormenta finished a troubled fourth. “He got stuck,” Cox said. “He didn’t get out early and waited, hoping for a hole. It just never happened. He made a huge run. To be honest, a lot of horses wouldn’t make a run like that after the trouble he was in.”
Thirteen years after Cox took out her trainer’s licence, she’s found herself in one of Woodbine’s elite $1-million races. She never envisioned it, although it has always been her wish.