Everything seems improbable this year. The 162nd Queen’s Plate is no different.
Mitchell Kursner found himself clutching petals and stuffing them into his pockets for a later engagement at a cemetery, after the horse he bred, Safe Conduct, won the Queen’s Plate.
He went to the Plate on Sunday, wearing the same shoes he had worn when Neshama, a filly he owned in a partnership, won the Woodbine Oaks in 2016.
He had always loved the racing game, from the times his grandfather, Hy, took him to Woodbine and hung about the track kitchen with the legends of the sport: Lou Cavalaris, Frank Merrill, Yonnie Starr, Richie Pappa. “It was a golden era,” he said.
His grandfather never owned a horse, but these precious moments, like tinted photographs, sparked something in Kursner. He claimed a few horses back in the 1980s, left the sport for a while to tend to his business (industrial commercial construction) and then returned to fractured ownership.
But it had always been his dream to breed his own horses. His family came from the same area in Germany as Gus Schickedanz’s family. “That’s a horseman,” Kursner said. “It’s all right to have a lot of money and go to the sales and spend. But when you cultivate, when you’re a Sean Fitzhenry, when you are a David Anderson, or a Gus Schickedanz, they all have homebred winners. You’re a horseman. You are more than writing a cheque. You’ re putting everything on the line.”
So finally, he walked the talk. Only about five or six years ago, Kursner began to buy broodmares. He found Duchess Dancer, a half-sister to the former Horse of the Year speedball Fatal Bullet and bought her for $90,000 in foal to Carpe Diem. Kursner, a student of pedigree, decided to breed her to Bodemeister, second in a Kentucky Derby, but also known for his blinding speed.
So her second foal was this big, robust colt later named Safe Conduct. Who would have thought that Kursner would have created – so quickly – a horse that could stay the 1 ¼-mile distance of the Plate, with bloodlines like that? And that he did it with a handful of mares, three in Ontario, another two in Kentucky.
So on Sunday, Kursner will take those yellow and purple petals from the winning garland and drop them on the graves of his grandfather and mother, in the same cemetery. Two days after his mother died, Neshama was born. In Hebrew, it means “soul.”
This week, Kursner said he felt as if his grandfather was there, watching this escapade, this fulfillment of a youthful pleasure. It’s been comforting.
Kursner sold Safe Conduct as a weanling, rather than a yearling, because he just had too many horses at the time. And besides, he felt that the market for offspring of Bodemeister was tailing off. He was right. Bodemeister now stands at stud in Turkey. And Kursner feels grateful to have earned $45,000 (US) for the sale.
The man who bought Safe Conduct, Dr. Robert Vukovich, owner of Wellspring Stable in Colts Neck, N.J. and also the founder of a pharmaceutical company that he sold in 2011. Because Kursner always keeps an eye on the foals he brings into the world and then sells, he befriended Vukovich.
Kursner feels no chagrin, and deals in no “what ifs.” There is no wishing he had kept Safe Conduct.
“He [Vukovich] said to me: ‘Sorry I can’t be here, but I’m going all the way to get you the win,’” Kursner said. “He said: ‘This is your horse too.’ What more could you ask?”
So Kursner and his wife, Marla, and daughter, Halee, led the colt into the winner’s circle.
Safe Conduct went off as a lukewarm slight favourite at 3 to 1, over the only filly in the field, Munnyfor Ro, winner of the Woodbine Oaks, and loved by many at $3.75 to 1.
Ever wonder what the real Ro looks like? This is Ro.
The Queen’s Plate was conducted under a double-draw process, in which the entrant’s connections draw the order in which they pick their post positions.
Safe Conduct got the 13th pick among 13 horses, and therefore the post that was left over, the one that nobody wanted: the dreaded post one. By video, trainer Phil Serpe thanked everyone for “not putting me in the position of having to pick a post position.”
Serpe also said the strategy was totally up to top U.S. jockey Irad Ortiz Jr. “He’s the driver. I trust him,” Serpe said. It was a most socially distanced win, except maybe for Kursner.
Only Ortiz was around to discuss the horse with reporters afterward. But he had a mount, a 1 to 2 shot in the following race, the $350,000 Highlander Stakes. (She, the filly Caravel at 1 to 2, finished third, overtaken by a local. More on that later.)
Kursner happily provided the tales. He watched the race nervously.
A 28 to 1 shot, Take A Chance streaked out to a definite lead, setting all the fractions with Safe Conduct in his shadow. Take A Chance held sway until the mile mark when Safe Conduct took over.
“I bided my time,” Ortiz said. “I waited for the right time to roll and when I asked him to go, he kept fighting down the stretch. He kept moving forward. I saw somebody was flying outside…that was very close. I didn’t know if I won the race after the wire. But thank God, I did.”
More improbabilities. Jockey David Moran had been sitting at the rear of the bunched field with Frank Stronach’s 11 to 1 shot Riptide Rock, a chestnut gelding that had started in Sid Attard’s Stable at Woodbine, shipped south to Jerry Hollendorfer at Oaklawn and Monmouth Parks and then returned to Sid this year. He won an allowance race at Woodbine a month ago. Moran had never ridden him before.
With a wall of horses in front of him, no matter what he tried to do, Moran had to swing very very wide to get around them. Down the centre of the track they flew, eating up Safe Conduct’s lead with every stride. They fell short by only a head.
Another longshot, H.C. Holiday, a son of Ami’s Holiday that won the 2014 Breeders Stakes, lagged at the back of the pack with Riptide Rock, but he moved sooner. He closed with a rush, too, but did not match the hot-footed pace of the aptly named Riptide Rock.
H.C. Holiday was a 29 to 2 shot for owner/breeder Ivan Dalos, who has come so close to winning the Queen’s Plate so many times.
Munnyfor Ro finished fourth.
Keep Grinding, owned by 17-year-old Joshua Attard, was in position to win at the head of the stretch, but had to settle for fifth.
Winning the Queen’s Plate as a breeder “means everything,” Kursner said. Winning the classics as a breeder “trumps everything,” he said.
“I would say I’ve been dreaming of this my whole life, but really, I’m a realistic person,” he said. “I never dreamed I would be here. I’ve always fantasized about it, but I never really thought it was a realistic dream.”
And oh yes: Safe Conduct had never run on Tapeta, the synthetic surface at Woodbine. He hadn’t been particularly effective on a sloppy track or soft turf. There were questions: Could they find their way through a big field? Could he run on Tapeta?
His connections had planned to send Safe Conduct to Woodbine last fall to contest the Cup and Saucer and the Coronation Futurity for 2-year-olds, but after the colt broke his maiden at Saratoga, he came down with a virus serious enough that it put him in a hospital. That cut short his season.
He didn’t start again until March 14 at Gulfstream Park, and Kursner was amazed to see that Serpe had entered him in a 1 1/8-mile race off the bat. “Wow, he must really like this horse,” Kursner thought. He finished second, after that long layoff, at that distance.
Now that the colt has shown he can handle Tapeta, Kursner thinks we will see more of Safe Conduct in these parts. “That will be up to the owner and trainer,” Kursner said. “He has fulfilled a dream of mine.”
Safe Conduct ran the distance in 2:02.85 in front of the largest crowd Woodbine has had since lockdown. And so different it was to hear the crowd roar when the field started and when they rounded the turn into the homestretch. That sound had been missing for 1 ½ years.