2018 Canadian International Preview

Thundering Blue walks off the Woodbine turf course after going for his Thursday morning gallop.  (Photo: Nicolle Neulist)

Thundering Blue walks off the Woodbine turf course after going for his Thursday morning gallop. (Photo: Nicolle Neulist)

The Canadian International began in 1938 as a 1 1/16 mile race on the dirt at Long Branch, called the Long Branch Championship.  Its name changed to the Canadian Championship the next year, and has carried some variation of that “Canadian” moniker ever since.  Over the years it has been run at distances as short as its inaugural trip, and as long as a mile and five eighths.  The race has been carded for the turf every year since 1958, and has been run at its current one and one half mile distance since 1987.  This year’s edition offers a $800,000 purse.

Its first winner, Canadian Horse Racing Hall of Fame inductee Bunty Lawless (1938), became a prominent sire and still has a turf mile stakes run in his honour at Woodbine.  This year the Bunty Lawless Stakes was run on the Monday of Canadian International week; Kingsport came back to take it by a neck over Thor’s Rocket.

Quite possibly the most famous winner of the Canadian International is a bit better known for his work on the dirt: Secretariat (1973) concluded his racing career by winning it, showing his brilliance in the homeland of trainer Lucien Laurin and his regular rider Ron Turcotte.  In addition to being named the Horse of the Year and the Champion Three Year Old that year, he was also named the champion grass horse of 1973.  Seven more horses have gone on to win the turf Eclipse since: Dahlia (1974), Snow Knight (1975), Youth (1976), Mac Diarmida (1978), All Along (1983), Singspiel (1996), and Chief Bearhart (1997).

The Canadian International has no lack of Chicago connections.  One horse has won both the Canadian International and the Arlington Million: Sulamani (2004) had won Arlington’s flagship race the previous year.  In 2007, Arlington-based Cloudy’s Knight, under the care of local mainstay Frank Kirby, won the race.  This year, no horses stabled in Chicago will take on the challenge.  However, BANDUA, third in the Secretariat Stakes (G1), will show down against older horses in the race.

Selections in the Canadian International are made for turf only.

Race 9: Pattison Canadian International (G1), three-year-olds and up, one and one half miles on the turf, post time 5:41pm EDT

The condition of the ground is always a major concern in a turf race; this year’s Canadian International, it matters strongly since several of the contenders have such strong preferences for or against particular kinds of going.  Less rain fell Wednesday night than expected.  That wasn’t great news for KHAN, who emerged at the top level in Germany last-out in the Preis Von Europa (G1) with a win over ground as sodden as the footing over which Bullards Alley sprung the upset in last year’s Canadian International.  However, it was positive news for both SPRING QUALITY, who despised the soft going at Belmont two weeks ago, as well as for JOHNNY BEAR who ran short of his best over soft turf in last year’s edition of this race.

THUNDERING BLUE has risen in meteoric fashion this year.  The morning line favourite in the Canadian International, and almost certain to hold as the wagering choice, has risen from being a useful handicap-level horse at age four to a proper Group-quality horse at age five.  The grey son of Exchange Rate had never even tried Group company until a tilt at the Sky Bet York Stakes (G2) on July 28; he found his closing rally, and won by a neck.  He followed that up by picking up the pieces for third in one of the best Group 1 races in the world, the Juddmonte International; though he was no match for Roaring Lion or Poet’s Word, he mowed down some world-class horses to snipe that last spot on the podium: Saxon Warrior, Benbatl, Without Parole, Latrobe, and Thunder Snow.  Unlike some in this field, THUNDERING BLUE is not so ground-dependent; he has run well over ground on the firmer side, and ground on the softer side.  And, THUNDERING BLUE has shown he could ship; the visit to Sweden was a drop in class, but he won the Stockholm Cup International (G3) as comfortably as he should have, and appears to have come to Woodbine well.  He got a relative inside draw, a plus.  The biggest question over THUNDERING BLUE is whether he will make up all the ground.  He is a one-run closer, and the pace in the Canadian International won’t necessarily be torrid.  But, he will be coming, and it would be no surprise to see his class get him there.

Still, without a torrid pace likely, it makes sense to look elsewhere if there’s an appealing choice other than THUNDERING BLUE.  And, though FUNTASTIC disappointed in the Sword Dancer at Saratoga, I’m not ready to give up on the son of More than Ready quite yet.  The two starts before that were strong.   Two starts ago took the United Nations (G1) from gate to wire.  The start before that, he wired an allowance at Saratoga, holding comfortably clear over MARKITOFF.  The seventh-place finish in the Sword Dancer was a concern.  But, this wouldn’t be a surprising spot for FUNTASTIC to rediscover his better form.  The biggest question is the pace; FUNTASTIC will certainly be forward, but will he set the pace?  On one hand, form earlier in FUNTASTIC’s career suggests he can come from off the pace.  On the other hand, his recent form (and his classier form) shows him on the lead.  Even so?  FUNTASTIC drew inside of the other speed horse in the race, TIZ A SLAM.  If jockey John Velazquez sends him and defends the inside, FUNTASTIC may enjoy a good trip on the best part of the track.  Though he won’t be 8/1 like his morning line says — death, taxes, and the Chad Brown Effect, especially when FUNTASTIC is the “A” entrant from the barn, over less-experienced FOCUS GROUP — 4/1 or 5/1 would be no surprise, and would be perfectly appealing.

Unlike FUNTASTIC, a horse who will go off 8/1 — if not longer — is JOHNNY BEAR.  JOHNNY BEAR has won the last two editions of the Northern Dancer, showing his affinity for both the Woodbine turf course and a mile and a half.  Though he finished well adrift when he stepped up to the Canadian International last year, he should get better ground for this race.  Even with the modicum of rain in the forecast for this week, JOHNNY BEAR should be well suited, as he has a pair of solid runs over good turf this year.  In addition to liking the course and distance, JOHNNY BEAR can also run the right race shape.  Though he came from well off the pace early in the Northern Dancer, other recent efforts have had him closer to the pace, and jockey Luis Contreras knows him well enough to take full advantage of JOHNNY BEAR’s tactical versatility.


#4 FUNTASTIC (8/1)


#9 JOHNNY BEAR (8/1)

Longshot:  Among the boxcar longshots in the field, it depends heavily on the ground.  If the course remains on the better side, the more likely scenario given the weather forecast as of Thursday, #1 MARKITOFF (20/1) appeals.  The rail draw puts him on a good part of the track.  He has tactical speed.  A piece underneath is more likely than taking home the whole thing, given that he hasn’t gotten his picture taken since clearing his one-other-than in January.  But, he has been nibbling underneath against better horses going long on the grass, and his fourth-place finish just a length behind JOHNNY BEAR in the Northern Dancer shows he can race well at Woodbine.  The rider change also appeals; Irad Ortiz, Jr. takes the call, and he knows how to show up on a big day.  But, MARKITOFF is unproven over ground softer than firm.  Should the skies open up and soak the course, though, take a long look at #3 KHAN (10/1).  KHAN’s running style should suit this race well, as he can sit in range off the speed.  He is hoping for more rain to fall — he took a bounding step forward last time out, a race in which he stalked and pounced over a bog.  At his best, this in-form son of Santiago can run in the frame.  But, to find his best, he probably needs ground with give.


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