Friday, June 30, 2017

Handicapper's Corner: Queen's Plate Stakes

Will a Filly Capture the Queen's Plate?

By: Nick Costa, Trackside With Trackman

Horse racing fans and Canada’s best 3-year-olds are gearing up for the 158th running of the Queen's Plate, the country's oldest and most prestigious race for thoroughbreds, and North America’s longest continuously run race, taking place Sunday at Toronto's Woodbine Racetrack.

Founded in 1860, this 1 1/4-mile-long race contested on the Polytrack, is only open to three-year-old’s who were foaled in Canada, and this year's edition attracted a field of thirteen, including fillies Holy Helena and Inflexibility, the first and third place finishers respectively from the Woodbine Oaks. The former was installed as the morning line favorite following the post draw. Also in the field, is Queen's Plate winter book favorite, Tiz A Slam, fourth last out in the Plate Trial, and trained by 8-time Plate winning trainer Roger Attfield.

Besides Attfield, the race features three additional trainers who have combined for 5 Plate wins, as well as six jockeys totaling 8 wins, with Eurico Rosa da Silva and Patrick Husbands having two each.

The Queen’s Plate is the first race in the Canadian Triple Crown series. The second and final races are the Prince of Wales Stakes in Fort Erie, Ontario, and the Breeders’ Stakes back at Woodbine in Toronto. 

Two years ago, when American Pharoah won the American Triple Crown, it ended a 37-year drought in the United States. For Canada, the wait hasn't been as severe, but its still been a notable period-of-time since 2003 when Wando last accomplished the feat.

Who will take home the prize this year? Let's have a look at each contestant from the rail out for this $1 million 10-furlong test.

PP - HORSE - Jockey/Trainer - ML Odds

1-CHANNEL MAKER - Hernandez/Mott - 4-1--Graduated in style when breaking his maiden in the Vandal Stakes last summer in just his second start, winning with front-running effort after shrugging off early challenges. After his first start in 2017, an eighth-place finish at Gulfstream, he was transferred into his current barn. Under Mott, this son of English Channel suffered a couple of troubled trips at Keeneland, but still ran quite well. Proven talent on turf finished second in his first ever start on Tapeta last out in the Marine Stakes after looming a major threat to the outside. He drew to within a head of the leader at the stretch call and the two horses separated themselves from the rest of the field. However, down the lane, the leader and eventual winner turned that narrow advantage into a two-length margin at the wire. Serious contender.

2-GUY CABALLERO - Ortiz/Phillips - 10-1--This gelding by Quality Road has a knack for closing well in the stretch. Such was the case in his seasonal debut against a strong allowance field where he got motoring late to secure second place. Off that seven- furlong sprint, he was stretched out in distance for the Plate Trial, and this lightly raced runner who was a 20-1 longshot in a field of six rallied from last place against fractions that did not compliment his closing style to get up to win in the final strides by a half-length. As a 2-year old, he showed ability with a third-place finish in the Display Stakes that closed out his juvenile campaign. Comes in fresh and on the improve, and gets an extra furlong of real estate.

3-HOLY HELENA - Contreras/Jerkens - 3-1--After her winning performance in the Woodbine Oaks, Ghostzapper filly is well deserving of this appearance. Her final time for the 9-furlongs was more than a full second faster than the winner of the Plate Trial a couple of races before on the card. She made her debut in New York in April and was runner-up that day, but broke her maiden impressively in a determined effort second time out. Off that score, she was highly touted when shipping up for the Oaks, so much so, that she was made the ML favorite for that race. However, the betting crowd thought otherwise and foolishly let her slip away at 6-1 odds, and then watched her rally confidently from mid-pack behind a strong pace for a going away 1-length win. Generally, fillies who win big in the Oaks are extremely tough in the Plate, and this gal is surging upward quickly.

4-SPIRIT of CALEDON - Lermyte/Parente - 50-1--Although it came in start number six, breaking maiden ranks is the high-water mark thus far for this horse. Last time out, against non-winner allowance company, he raced mid-pack before launching a bid around the far turn and into the lane, but his late run came up short and he finished third. Connections had to pay a $25,000 supplemental fee to run this Mike Fox gelding in Canada's premier race. Don't see this one being any sort of factor.

5-INFLEXIBILTY - Castellano/Brown - 10-1--From the same connections as recent G1 Preakness Stakes winner Cloud Computing, this gal invaded from New York for the Woodbine Oaks and was anointed the 5-2 betting favorite. She was positioned up close early and had a good stalking trip, but the daughter of Scat Daddy, who was making her debut over the polytrack surface, was caught behind the tiring leaders and was shuffled back to mid-pack by the three-quarter marker before getting herself off the rail and untracked. Once clear, she rallied between horses through the stretch for a third-place finish, but six lengths behind the runner-up horse. The Oaks was just her third lifetime start following a pair of grass efforts at Gulfstream and Belmont which resulted in a second-place showing and a win, respectively. The barn is highly capable wherever it goes, and they have an improving and dangerous racehorse with this filly.

6-KING AND HIS COURT - Boulanger/Casse - 5-1--Sovereign Award champion 2-year-old from last year is the most experienced runner in the field with thirteen career starts, including four victories and nine in-the-money placings. Other than his two races away from his home base of Woodbine, which came during the winter/spring in a pair of G3 Stakes on the U.S. Triple Crown trail, resulting in consecutive lackluster off-the-board finishes, this son of Court Vision has been ultra-consistent and enters here off a rail skimming runner-up finish in the Plate Trial. LOVES Woodbine, winning the Coronation Futurity and Display Stakes as a juvenile, in addition to his dominant win in the Wando two starts back. If he displays his strong late kick, which seemed to be absent last race, he's certainly a huge threat to win.

7-STATE OF HONOR - Husbands/Casse - 8-1--Made all the pace to the halfway point in the Kentucky Derby, but simply couldn't keep the momentum going in the grueling 1 1/4-mile G1 event. Last time out in the Plate Trial, he again took control of the early lead and held it into the stretch before succumbing late. Colt has kept a busy campaign racing once a month since January, and has been graded stakes placed multiple times, including runner-up in the G1 Florida Derby behind the eventual Kentucky Derby winner. Despite those accolades, the son of To Honor and Serve remains just a maiden winner through a dozen starts, but that lone win came over this surface last October.

8-MALIBU SECRET - Garcia/Pierce - 20-1--Well regarded and improving Malibu Moon colt, owned by Sam-Son farm, winners of this Canadian classic five times, enters the Queen's Plate with just three races on his resume. The dark bay colt debuted with a runner-up finish in the Vandal Stakes on the turf in his lone juvenile race here last summer. Suffered a minor shin injury following that start and went to the sidelines for eight and a half months. Upon his return in maiden allowance company, he rallied swiftly from eighth-place to first to earn his graduation. Last time out in the Marine Stakes, which marked his stakes and two-turn debut, he had a bit of stretch trouble when finishing third, but his overall performance was encouraging enough to earn a start in here. Has more speed than he's shown and carries plenty of potential. Runs third time off the layoff, often a horse's best, so he cannot be dismissed.

9-MEGAGRAY - Campbell/Keogh - 30-1--Langfuhr colt is lightly raced with just four starts. Broke his maiden second time out last year and then following an eight-month layoff, he returned with a good third-place finish in his seasonal debut in the Wando Stakes behind a pair of top Plate contenders after attending the early pace. Three weeks late in the Marine Stakes, he was in the mix behind horses as they rounded the far turn, but could only chase down the stretch as the top two finishers pulled away, and he ended up a distant fourth. Will need a career best effort to get it done.

10-VAUGHN - Callaghan/Mattine - 50-1--A late addition to the lineup, this colt by City Zip has just two starts on his resume. It was an inauspicious beginning to the races for this colt as he practically walked out of the gate in his debut. He trailed the field, but stayed on the inside all the way into the stretch and passed tiring horses for a seventh- place finish. Two weeks later, going 8.5 furlongs over a turf course listed as yielding, the result was a much-improved effort. He broke alertly, stalked the leader from just off the pace, made a strong bid approaching the end of the turn to get within a half-length of the front, then ran evenly through the lane in a third-place finish. Unlikely to succeed in this spot as only one maiden has ever won the Queen's Plate (Scatter the Gold in 2000).

11-AURORA WAY - Leparoux/Simon - 6-1--A few minor issues and a fear of the starting gate prevented this Giant's Causeway colt from racing as a juvenile. However, when those problems that hindered him were finally overcome, he appeared for his racing debut the day before the Plate Trial, and what an impressive showing it was. He raced in mid-pack behind slow fractions before commencing his bid approaching the far turn. He swept four-wide and upon took a short lead at the top of the lane, he then opened up on his rivals to win comfortably by four lengths at the wire. The Plate has always been the target for this runner, and despite his late start to the races and the lack of experience against more seasoned rivals, his connections are hoping the talent this colt possesses can be the equalizer.

12-TIZ A SLAM - Rosa da Silva/Attfield - 10-1--Son of Tiznow was one of the better juveniles locally last season winning three of four starts, including a confident score in the Cup and Saucer Stakes over the Woodbine lawn. This year as a sophomore, he's on a three-race losing skid. Finished fifth in a close effort in his opener down at Tampa, then returned home to be a game second as the heavy favorite in the Wando Stakes. In the Plate Trial, he stayed within striking distance, but then lost ground around the final turn and appeared to be hampered with no racing room. Once the field straighten away, he then managed to finish up nicely along the inside to be beaten less than 2-lengths. It was a bit of a strange trip, but nonetheless it still served as a useful prep. Talented runner would give Attfield a record ninth Queen's Plate win should he take this Canadian Classic. Is a major player and looms perhaps the one to beat.

13-WATCH ME STRUT - Moran/Phillips - 30-1--In his initial try around two-turns last month, he was racing ninth and last with a quarter-mile remaining before kicking into overdrive, circling widest on the far turn and zipping past his eight rivals to score a one-and-a-half length victory in non-winner allowance company. That was the gelding's third win from five starts. He notched two wins and a third-place effort last year from his three juvenile starts before being put away. The son of Strut the Stage lost all chance when he stumbled and bumped into a rival at the start in his 2017 opener back in early May. Look for him to be trying to make an impact late.

This is always an interesting and difficult race to handicap as it is run at a mile and a quarter like the Kentucky Derby. And once again, we're dealing with the same uncharted territory of horses having never before competed at the distance. One just doesn't know with any certainty that a horse can get the 10-furlong distance until it is proven. Success in the preliminary races at middle distances (1 1/16 and 1 1/8) is not enough to predict how a 3-yr old will perform at a mile and a quarter. The additional distance of ground that needs to be covered is what separates the contenders from the pretenders. The race is won or lost in the last furlong.

What to do? I'm not an expert on thoroughbred pedigrees, but I find that spending a little bit of time perusing them can let you know which horses have the inherent genetic ability and plenty of stamina in their blood to get the distance, and which ones could be challenged by the grueling mile and a quarter. 

In addition, when handicapping the Plate, two-year old experience, which is critical for KY Derby candidates, has only mild importance here, simply because the Plate is contested later in the year than the Derby. What is more important to consider is that a horse has experience at a two-turn distance. 

Winning these races isn't necessary, but running well in the most recent preps is usually a requirement.

Pedigree, plus performance gets the prize. 

Based on pedigree, the horses listed below (alphabetically) grade out best for me in terms of being bred to handle the 10-furlongs and I believe one of them will be the likely winner.

Channel Maker
Malibu Secret
Tiz A Slam

I will let the odds at post time dictate as to which horse(s) I will back to win.
Good luck, and as always, enjoy the race!

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