Why not? Take a chance. Flip a coin. Roll the dice. Listen to your innerds.
That’s as good a reason as any to enter a horse in the 162nd Queen’s Plate, to be held at Woodbine, in a year unlike any other year.
Thirteen entered the $1-million classic on Wednesday. (We’ll see if this is a lucky number when the race is run on Sunday.) Of this lot, two are maidens, although it’s not unheard of for a maiden to win a Plate: Strike the Gold did it 21 years ago, but he came to the event bred in the purple, being a son of Sam Son superstar Dance Smartly.
Five horses haven’t won this year, a year shortened and compacted by COVID, so okay, give them a break.
The field of 13 has won a total of 18 races in their lives. The richest in the race is the filly Munnyfor Ro, winner of the Woodbine Oaks three weeks ago – she lucky not to be claimed at one point for $35,000. She has won a total of $388,500, and is the most seasoned of the bunch with nine starts. (Another, Derzkii, third in the Plate Trial, has run nine times, but is listed at 30 to 1 in the morning line.) Munnyfor Ro, trained by Kevin Attard – who has three other entrants in the race – is a 9 to 2 choice in the race and will race from post six.
The second leading purse winner is Avoman, winner of a four-horse Plate Trial, and listed at 8 to 1 from his 11th post. He’s won $176,058.
Six horses – almost half the field – have won less than $100,000. Everybody in this COVID world is playing catch-up and living on dreams and hope.
It’s a wide-open race, as everybody can see. Woodbine was hoping for Weyburn, who had won the Withers Stakes in New York and danced with the best in the Jim Dandy and Belmont Stakes. He has other plans. Originally nominated to the race: 125. Only 45 made the final sustaining payment to stay in on June 30. Of those who didn’t, some paid a $25,000 supplementary fee.
One of them was Take A Chance, winner of one of his three career starts (and $79,063.) A group of friends from St. Thomas, Ont., began to chat about all things Queen’s Plate, and realized there was no stand-out, no Northern Dancer, no Kennedy Road, no Izvestia, no Wando in this COVID-laced tilt.
So that’s when breeder David Anderson, lawyer Don Ferguson and Bill Carr decided to get together and buy a 3-year-old they already knew well: a Munnings colt called Take A Chance. Really. They took a chance, at the Fasig-Tipton horse sale in April, made one last bid and got him for $150,000. And, since he hadn’t been on the Queen’s Plate trail, ever, they had to pay that sizeable supplementary fee to get him in.
Carr, in the freight business in St. Thomas, had never owned a horse before. And now he’s in the Queen’s Plate.
Anderson and Ferguson had been all too familiar with the colt by Munnings because Don’s father, Rod Ferguson had bred him, and Anderson had raised him at his farm.
However, when the colt was only a couple of days old, his mother, a Medaglio d’Oro mare called Gold Medalist, suffered a serious case of colic. Unable to take care of her foal, the group found a Clydesdale mare to accept him. “Best nurse mare in Elgin County,” Anderson said.
Anderson, as agent, sold the colt for $60,000 at the 2019 Fasig-Tipton Kentucky fall yearling sale. Chad Brown ended up training him. Somewhere along the line, somebody named him Take A Chance.
And so the St. Thomas group honoured his new name, and bought him, primarily to take a shot at the Queen’s Plate.
Anderson has won a Queen’s Plate as a breeder, when Wonder Gadot won in 2018, and two of his creations, Inflexibility and All On Red finished third in 2017 and 2018. But he hasn’t done it as an owner. Trainer Catherine Day-Phillips has twice finished second, with the excellent A Bit O’ Gold in 2004 and the longshot Mr. Foricos Two U in 2009 – in her first two attempts at the race. Take A Chance will be her 10th shot at the classic.
Jockey Keveh Nicholls is riding his second Queen’s Plate, but the career of the Barbados-born rider has blossomed this season.
During the last several years, the breeding business has not blossomed, what with the loss of the Slots At Racetrack agreement several years ago, and then COVID shutdowns. Anderson has stood, facing the hurricane. “When we lost the slots, we lost a lot of top breeders in the province,” he said. “It has actually given the little guy a real chance. It’s nice to see so many different faces.”
Instead of cutting back, Anderson has ramped up his efforts. “I’ve still got the pedal down,” he said. He has tried to upgrade his broodmare band, as much as financially possible. Because buying a good proven broodmare can run into the seven figures, Anderson focuses on young mares. “I’ve been very lucky,” he said.
He’s so passionate about this sport that the topic of conversation around the Christmas dinner table often drifts to…..what are the Plate prospects?
“It’s in your blood,” he explained. “You’ve got to be passionate. Some people have a cocaine addiction. I have a horse addiction. This is what breeders dream of, to have a starter in the Queen’s Plate.”
Day-Phillips thinks the horse couldn’t be better named. And he’s been a champ, at least in behaviour, so far. “He’s just been very laid back and mature from the beginning,” she said. “He likes to sleep a lot. He’s a neat horse. He’s a good-feeling horse, but not in a bad way. He’ll shake his head and throw out a leg, but never anything offensive.”
There’s just something about this guy that warrants admiration, she said. “There’s an inner strength to him,” she said. “He’s just great to be around.” She remembers seeing him as a foal.
Although he has raced three times, he didn’t break his maiden until his most recent start, when he won at 1 1/16 miles on July 11.
Nicholls has never ridden Take A Chance in any of the colt’s starts, but Day-Phillips has been giving the 35-year-old rider opportunities this year.
Nicholls, born in Bridgetown, Barbados, followed his half-brother, Quincy Welch, to Alberta and rode there for about seven years.
Welch tried out Woodbine for a couple of years in 2011 and 2012, and he came with lots of accolades: Northlands Park champion jockey in 1999, 2000, 2002, 2003, 2004 and 2008, with wins in the Alberta Derby and the Canadian Derby. And later, he won the Avelino Gomez Award for contributions to the sport in 2015.
Nicholls came to Woodbine too, but as an exercise rider, because he began to find it hard to keep his weight down – he’s tall for a jockey at 5-foot-6. He landed a job with for Roger Attfield, who is tied for the most Plate wins (eight) with Harold Giddings Jr.. That meant Nicholls handled such classy stock as Shakamat, Are You Kidding Me, and Danish Dynaformer in the mornings.
But he decided to ride again after he completed his paperwork for permanent residence in Canada. “As soon as I got that, I thought: ‘You know what? I’ll give it a shot,’” he said.
In other words, he decided to take a chance. And he figured out a better way to control his weight. He jogs a lot, perhaps three miles, on the trails near his home, and on inclement days, on a treadmill. And he eats more sensibly. “That helps me with my weight really really good,” he said.
It wasn’t easy to break into the jockey’s ranks. Trainers looked at him as an exercise rider, although he had been a jockey in his past. “They hadn’t seen me in action before,” he said. “They all sat back and watched first before they gave me the opportunity.”
But he was ready for better times this year. And he found them. “Hard work does pay off and I worked really hard in the spring, while we were waiting for the races to start. We didn’t know when the races were going to be run,” he said. “I just kept pushing and pushing, and kept training and keeping my weight down, so when they gave us the go to go, I was ready for it.”
He started winning on longshots. “Everything just fell into place,” he said.
It all started on Father’s Day. His own father had been the wind beneath his wings. His father died in early 2021, and when Father’s Day rolled around, Nicholls was left in tears. The whole day.
“I miss my dad,” he said. “I can’t call him to say happy Father’s Day.”
Nicholls’ father was a racehorse owner and a trainer at one point back home in Barbados. “He was a big part of my career,” Nicholls said. “He was very supportive. He always used to tell me: ‘Kev, you have a gift. You can really horseback. You are a really good rider.’ He always gave me that push, that drive. Honestly I miss him so much. It’s unbelievable. I think about him every day, all the time.”
But it was as if his father had been watching and guiding his son that day. On Father’s Day this year, his luck turned around. He won two races on the Woodbine card. Then later, he won another double, and another. Three or four times he did it.
“Then the trainers start to see that, and they put you on better horses,” he said.
He rode Truebelieve, trained by Cole Bennett, to finish ninth in the Queen’s Plate last year. At the time, his father was still alive. “He was so thrilled to see me ride in the Queen’s Plate,” Nicholls said. “He was so happy I got the opportunity to ride in my first Queen’s Plate ever. It’s a big deal. It’s like the biggest race in my career. So I was really happy.”
He worked Take A Chance last Saturday, and he really thinks he has a chance to win the thing this time. “It’s wide-open right now,” he said. “Anybody can win it.”
“It would be a dream come true to win this race,” he said. “I think me and the horse together and Catherine, we can do this.”
If this little group did it, it would be a blessing for all of them. The past two years have “been so odd,” Day-Phillips said. “I think we are all navigating a new normal. And we all are just trying to find our way forward. I wouldn’t say back, because I don’t think we will go back. It’s trying to see what racing is going to look like for us in the future. It’s different.
“We’re really lucky to be part of it and lucky that we got this horse given to us.…He found his way back to us.”