Mighty Heart has become a bit of a locomotive in the Canadian racing world, the little man’s folk hero, the little engine that could.
On Saturday, he will attempt to become the 13th Canadian Triple Crown winner, a good omen, considering that he broke from post 13 in the Queen’s Plate last month, and was listed at odds of 13 to 1.
The one-eyed wonder is the even-money favourite in the morning line to win the $400,000 Breeders Stakes, the final jewel in the Crown at Woodbine over 1 ½ miles on the grass. His easy and emphatic wins in the Queen’s Plate (by more than seven lengths) and in the Prince of Wales Stakes (coming from behind this time and without a ruffle, distancing himself from the field) didn’t scare off the competition. He will face 11 others.
Like trainer Josie Carroll says: “It is a big unknown,” taking into account the fact that Mighty Heart has run two big races in the past 1 ½ months, and that the turf may very well be soft, a footing rather rare in these parts, since Woodbine horses rarely get to run on it. And who knows if Mighty Heart will relish soft turf?
Running on Tapeta in the Plate and dirt in the Prince of Wales, Mighty Heart shouldn’t be fazed by the turf footing of the Breeders, since his sire, Dramedy, won the Elkhorn Stakes at 1 ½ miles on the turf, and Carroll says Mighty Heart “skipped over the turf” in training.
Carroll says she’s been too busy to feel the nerves of this momentous occasion, the first chance for a Triple Crown sweep in 17 years, since Wando won it in 2003. Wando’s trainer Mike Keogh said the biggest challenge is to keep a horse fresh throughout the Canadian Triple Crown.
Mighty Heart drew the No. 8 post position, while his greatest rivals in this event are stablemate Belichick, second in the Plate, breaking now from post nine, beside him, and rated at 7 to 2 in the morning line. The other is the earnest Clayton, the only other horse to contest all three legs. He ended up with post 3 and is listed at 6 to 1 with Rafael Hernandez in the irons. Hernandez has won three of the past four Breeders Stakes.
Ironically Belichick is the horse that could throw a wrench into Mighty Heart’s Triple Crown. Carroll says he’s a very talented horse, surprised that it’s taken this long to show it. She’s been impressed with him from the start. But with a Triple Crown on the line for her other entry, she admits she has mixed emotions.
The owners of two entrants were undaunted enough by Mighty Heart to make supplementary payments to the Breeders, including: English Conqueror who broke his maiden only last month for trainer Darwin Banach; and Told It All, winner of three of his past four starts, including the Elgin Stakes.
As for owner/breeder Larry Cordes, he’s been besieged by telephone calls and media requests for the past two months. “The excitement is almost unbelievable,” he said. He’s heard from people who say they drove two hours to plant a $20 bet on the little underdog. The excitement of others warms his heart. “It shows people anything is possible,” he said.
Yes, there have been 12 Triple Crown winners in Canada, even though there are many who like to say there are seven in the “modern era” – perhaps reluctant to acknowledge five horses added to the list in 2014 by Woodbine and the Canadian Horse Racing Hall of Fame.
The Triple Crown wasn’t formally established until 1959, but five others won all three of these races – and should not be forgotten.
Queensway was a light chestnut filly that did it all in two weeks back in 1932, setting a track record for the Plate that year. Despite suffering a few minor cuts in a skirmish at the starting gate, she finished “hardly puffing,” winning by three lengths.
Archworth, in 1939, won the Plate by 10 lengths as the favourite in front of King George VI in 1939, before sweeping the two other races that now make up the Triple Crown.
Seventy-five years ago, Uttermost presaged Mighty Heart, by sweeping his Triple Crown. Like Mighty Heart, he won his Plate from post 13, and was a peanut of a horse. Owner Harry Hatch had called him the “sorriest looking 2-year-old in our barn” before he swept all of the major 2-year-old races and defied his size at 3. And he broke the track record in the Plate. That year, 40,000 people watched him do it.
Ace Marine captured the final running of the Queen’s Plate before the majestic Woodbine was built in wire to wire fashion and then went on to win the Prince of Wales, Breeders Stakes, the Seagram Cup and the Durham Cup enroute to being Horse of the Year in 1955.
It was always unfortunate that Canadian Champ in 1956 had not been originally included as a Triple Crown winner, pre-dating the establishment of the series by only three years, because the ebony-coated colt always lived up to his name. He won the Triple Crown, while running in the Ohio Derby also and was considered unbeatable on home ground. In his book, “You Bet Your Life,” jockey Dave Stevenson said of Canadian Champ: “He was so tough, he would run on broken beer bottles if asked.”
Canadian Champ sired another Triple Crown winner, Canebora, in 1963 and also the 1966 Queen’s Plate winner Titled Hero.
Yes, they are all worthy of being included in the Triple Crown count.