With stakes action quiet for a week at Arlington -- it picks back up on July 7 for Ride to the Million Day -- Picks and Ponderings will be turning our eyes north of the border for one of Woodbine's flagship days.
The Queen's Plate is the first jewel of the Canadian Triple Crown, and with a purse of $1,000,000 it is the richest race on the track's calendar. The race drew accordingly: a field of sixteen will line up in the starting gate, including Kentucky Oaks (G1) runner-up Wonder Gadot and Arlington Classic (G3) fourth-place finisher Alternative Route.
We also dive into the day's Grade 1 race: the Highlander Stakes, a six-furlong turf sprint that drew a competitive field of ten. In addition to the biggest share of a $250,000 purse, the winner of the Highlander Stakes also captures a Win and You're In berth to the Breeders' Cup Turf Sprint (G1) at Churchill Downs on Saturday, November 3.
Woodbine Racetrack - Saturday, June 30
Race 9: Highlander Stakes (G1), three-year-olds and up, six furlongs on the turf, post time 4:51pm EDT
The Highlander Stakes began in 1954 as the Highlander Handicap. It was run on dirt through 2003, then moved to the grass the next year. Some of its greatest winners have included Canadian Horses of the Year Play the King (1987), now a stakes namesake at Woodbine, and Soaring Free (2004, 2005), who won its first two runnings on grass.
The race was first graded in 1999 and oscillated between a Grade 2 and a Grade 3 during that time -- but, on the strength of recent runnings, including last year's won by Green Mask, the Highlander was promoted to a Grade 1. It's a welcome move. Before the promotion of the Highlander, the Breeders' Cup Turf Sprint was the only Grade 1 going short on the grass all year long in either the United States or Canada. It's a welcome step forward for a division with a dearth of graded stakes and of Grade 1 stakes.
The favourite is likely to be IMPRIMIS: he is undefeated in four starts, he proved at Pimlico that he could take his form away from Gulfstream, and he is the "now" horse in the turf sprint division. But, IMPRIMIS has not faced company of the quality he will meet today, and he has not raced past five furlongs. With those questions looming it will take a scratch or two to make short-priced IMPRIMIS appeal. As it stands, this space will stand against.
First, we'll look to LADY ALEXANDRA. When Graham Motion puts a horse in a spot that looks a bit ambitious, you had better give that horse a second look. And, a third. And, in this case, you had better go to the windows because she looks a solid contender. Even though this is LADY ALEXANDRA's first attempt in graded stakes company, her decisive score in the License Fee Stakes in April suggests she has form that can compete with her foes in this spot. She has also found a home going six furlongs; she won an allowance at the distance last year, her first start against older, and then the License Fee was also six furlongs. LADY ALEXANDRA has tactical speed, she keeps Jose Ortiz in the irons from her last-out win, and she hails from a barn that knows when to take a shot in a Grade 1. There's a lot to like.
BELVOIR BAY ships from California. Though she is best known as a downhill maven -- she's a perfect three-for-three this year, all of which have come on Santa Anita's hillside course -- BELVOIR BAY is no one-trick pony. She has cut back to five furlongs for a more traditional turf sprint at Del Mar, she has stretched out to a mile with some success, and she has a six-furlong win on the grass at Goodwood early in her career. On pace, she should be relatively forward, but she has tactical speed and plenty of ability to dig in. The humans inspire confidence, too -- Peter Miller is a shrewd shipper, and she has strong form with Tyler Baze riding. BELVOIR BAY beat the boys in the San Simeon (G2) earlier this year, and it would be no shock to see her conquer males again here.
Now seven, LONG ON VALUE has raced a range of distances over the grass. His best form in recent years has come over the dash distances, including a last-out romp in the Mighty Beau Stakes at Churchill Downs. That was his first race back from a winter layoff -- a spell that included a trip through the sales ring and a move to the Brad Cox barn -- and the race was a promising beginning. Though it is a question that LONG ON VALUE has missed the board in both tries at six furlongs on grass, it's a positive sign that in his only race at Woodbine, LONG ON VALUE finished third behind World Approval and Lancaster Bomber in last year's Woodbine Mile (G1). On pace, there are several in this field who have speed -- LONG ON VALUE tends to settle at the back and kick on strongly late, and he should have the sharpest rally among the closers.
#5 LADY ALEXANDRA (6/1)
#8 BELVOIR BAY (3/1)
#6 LONG ON VALUE (7/2)
Longshot: #3 CORINTHIA KNIGHT (10/1) has a checkered form on turf, with just one placing in five starts. But, assessing his form, it looks like his problem might not be the turf itself, but rather the distance. He has some close calls on the turf, including a fourth-place finish -- beaten less than two lengths -- in last year's Juvenile Turf Sprint on Breeders' Cup Friday. But, he has strong form going six furlongs on the all-weather. Particularly with a firm turf course like he should get this week, CORINTHIA KNIGHT can make better account of himself at this distance than in the turf dashes he has been trying. He has proven he can be competitive on a trip to the States, and now that he gets his preferred distance, CORINTHIA KNIGHT has an outside chance to prove he belongs.
Race 10: Queen's Plate, three-year-olds foaled in Canada, one and one quarter miles on the Tapeta, post time 5:36pm EDT
The Queen's Plate is a tradition even older than the Kentucky Derby. First run in 1860 -- with a plate granted by Queen Victoria after petition by the Toronto Turf Club -- the race will be run for the 159th time this year. The first Queen's Plate looked a bit different from the current one; the 1860 Queen's Plate, won by Don Juan, was run in three one-mile heats. As racing changed over the years, so did the Queen's Plate; it is now run at a mile and a quarter on the Tapeta.
The winners' list features some of the best Thoroughbreds ever born in Canada. One horse has won both the Kentucky Derby and the Queen's Plate: influential sire Northern Dancer swept the pair in 1964. Dance Smartly (1991) swept the Canadian Triple Crown, went on to win the Breeders' Cup Distaff (G1) that year, and finished third behind Kostroma in the 1992 Beverly D. (G1) at Arlington. A half-sister to prominent sire Smart Strike, Dance Smartly also found great success in the breeding shed. She produced two Queen's Plate winners, Scatter the Gold (2000) and Dancethruthedawn (2001). Dance Smartly even shows up in a Queen's Plate pedigree this year: SAY THE WORD is out of Danceforthecause, a Giant's Causeway daughter of the great mare.
Two horses appear to be almost a 1/1A in here in terms of preference: DIXIE MOON and TELEKINESIS. Both have strong form not only against Canadian-breds but against open company, both have proven themselves on the polytrack, and both reliably run faster than even the best races of most of their foes. Neither has tried a mile and a quarter yet, but both have pedigrees that suggest they will stretch out.
Between the two, DIXIE MOON gets the slight nod because she has a bit more racing experience. The daughter of Curlin has four wins in eight career starts, including a head victory over WONDER GADOT in the Woodbine Oaks. She has early speed, but does not need the lead. She has some big-field experience, as she won a twelve-horse Cup and Saucer last year (against males) and also held her own in a fourteen-horse Breeders' cup Juvenile Fillies Turf (G1). That makes her a bit more seasoned than Ghostzapper son TELEKINESIS, who has just four starts under his girth and has never raced in a field bigger than ten. TELEKINESIS has raced well in all four of his starts, most recently winning the Plate trial in game frontrunning fashion. He also has class, with a close second behind My Boy Jack in the Lexington Stakes (G3) at Keeneland, at a distance (a mile and a sixteenth) that brings out the best in My Boy Jack.
A bit of the Highlander Stakes analysis brought up the idea that if Graham Motion sends a horse somewhere that looks ambitious, give the horse a look. Motion sends a pair to the Plate, both for Canadian breeding and racing powerhouse Sam-Son Farm: STRIKE ME DOWN and SAY THE WORD. STRIKE ME DOWN broke his maiden by a neck over the Woodbine Tapeta, and finished second to DIXIE MOON in the Cup and Saucer last year over Woodbine's turf. The son of Tapit isn't impossible, but his longer-priced stablemate SAY THE WORD appeals just a bit more.
SAY THE WORD took a while to put it together, but finally graduated two back at Keeneland -- going a mile and three sixteenths. He came back to finish third in an allowance at Woodbine going a mile and a sixteenth -- an effort good enough to suggest he can handle the poly, but also a suggestion that the son of More Than Ready wants a bit more ground. The underside of the pedigree also suggests more ground can suit, as dam Danceforthecause is out of a Queen's Plate winner and half to two more. Rider Rafael Hernandez, who rode SAY THE WORD in that allowance, takes the call. Hernandez is a 26% rider at Woodbine, and already has a Queen's Plate to his credit with Shaman Ghost in 2015. Though SAY THE WORD will probably be the "B" entrant from his barn on the tote board, the connections and the distance make him attractive.
WONDER GADOT deserves a brief mention. The Queen's Plate, in a sense, seems like just about every other race she has been in this year. She's talented enough, she's pace-versatile enough -- but she just keeps finishing second or third. Once again, there's no compelling reason WONDER GADOT will break the cycle here. Take a pass on her at a short price on top in the Plate, though make sure she figures prominently in the undersides of your exotics.
#7 DIXIE MOON (4/1)
#10 TELEKINESIS (5/2)
#9 SAY THE WORD (20/1)
Longshot: #8 ALTERNATIVE ROUTE (20/1) has to take a step forward from a fourth-place finish in the Arlington Classic (G3) last out. However, he has several reasons to do so. That was his first start in about two months, so the Al Stall trainee should be a bit fitter second off the lay. Stall excels with runners second-off. ALTERNATIVE ROUTE won his only synthetic-track start, the Rushaway Stakes at Turfway. He keeps his regular rider, Mitchell Murrill; though Murrill is based at Arlington and not Woodbine, he has gotten to know the horse and been able to do well with him at multiple tracks. And, though ALTERNATIVE ROUTE has not raced past a mile and a sixteenth in five races so far, there is some pedigree precedent for him to stretch out to a mile and a quarter over the Tapeta: his full sister Enstone finished a close second in last year's Wonder Where Stakes over the same course and distance.
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