by NICOLLE NEULIST
An often-sarcastic friend with whom I made the trip to the Prince of Wales Stakes at Fort Erie kept calling the Ontario track “the Saratoga of Canada.”
Considering the track’s size and proximity to Buffalo, I was expecting something more urban, more industrial, but after having visited Saratoga Race Course the previous day I saw that she wasn’t kidding, and her comparison shined through in vivid shades of green.
Fort Erie was a horse racing oasis. Save for a screen and a tote board just large enough to be useful, a forest filled the infield. Deep, verdant trees and shrubs lined inside the rail, contrasting the kelly grass. A pond peeked from behind. Birds soared over the grandstand to land in the grass beyond the turf course or take a dip in the water. Even more woods lined the outside, around the turns and the backstretch. Though the rails, the meticulously maintained ovals, and the grandstand gave it away as a racetrack, I’ve seen few cozier or greener enclaves for a horse to run than Fort Erie.
The paddock continued that motif. Green leaves lined the walking ring fence, the shrubs spotted with yellow and magenta and lilac blossoms. Behind the paddock sprawled a yard where families picnicked, children played, and people relaxed and got a little sun between the races. I didn’t even see the TV screens that played the races until well after the races were over, when I took one last walk through the park behind the paddock. From the perspective of the walking ring, I had mistaken the posts with TV screens on top as birdhouses.
For those who love to do physical handicapping, it would be difficult to find a better place to focus on the horses in the walking ring than Fort Erie. I’ve never seen a paddock with fewer distractions. There is no TV screen over the paddock, not even a tote board. Anyone who wants to check the odds can take a short stroll back into the grandstand or to one of the screens in the park. But, in the paddock, the horses are royalty.
I’ve always been a fan of Curlin babies. We have so few of them on my home circuit in Chicago that being able to cheer one on when I hit the road is always a pleasant surprise. Six-year-old gelding Fireball Merlin had won on the polytrack at Woodbine, and had won a pair of clockwise turf dashes last year there. He came to Fort Erie to try for his first win in a turf sprint going the more traditional North American direction. Despite a race-day rider change and a five-horse field that did his off-the-pace style no favors, the public still figured his class would prevail and sent him off at odds-on in the day’s fifth race, an allowance. The field effectively became even shorter when longshot Warbred reared at the start, but Fireball Merlin gave me the highlight of my day when he rallied, wore down game leader Phil In the Blank, and prevailed.
Over my years of going to the track, I’ve seen wraps in almost every colour, from basic black to fluorescent green. But, never had I seen such fun and well-coordinated ones as I saw on About a Girl, entered in the sixth race. Her owners’ silks took inspiration from the Canadian flag, and so did her hind wraps. Her ankles were wrapped in a white bandage, secured with two strips of red tape. Between the strips of tape, her grooms had affixed maple leaf stickers. She carried those Canadian emblems all the way to the winners’ circle, after taking that race gate to wire.
The day’s feature was the eighth race: the Prince of Wales Stakes, 1 3/16 miles on dirt for Canadian-bred three-year-olds. Owners and trainers filled the paddock, dressed in their best, attending to the final preparations of their horses. Six of the seven contenders strutted around the walking ring, as a nervous Spirit of Caledon stayed back near the sheltered saddling stalls until the last possible moment. So much of the pre-race attention hinged on a pair of horses. Tiz a Slam had been second in the Queen’s Plate; State of Honor was better proven on dirt than any of his foes, including a second-place finish in the Florida Derby (G1).
As it turned out, the winner of the Prince of Wales had run at Woodbine on Queen’s Plate Day — but not in the Plate. Going blinkers on for the first time, Cool Catomine won a maiden special weight during that day’s undercard. Trainer John Ross decided to take a shot in the Prince of Wales for his first try against winners, and his first try on dirt. Cool Catomine rewarded that ambition with a Classic victory. He stalked the pace set by State of Honor, bided his time while Tiz a Slam made an early move, responded when Luis Contreras got him going into the stretch, and put him away in the final three sixteenths.
Even after the feature, the fireworks weren’t over. I made it onto the racetrack roof in just enough time to see them pulling the starting gate off the turf. Kinkora Heat, the favourite in the finale, had gotten loose and was running clockwise toward the clubhouse turn. The gate was out of the way in time — just in case — though, a well-placed outrider apprehended him through the turn, and brought him unscathed back to his groom. By then, the starters were locked in a head-and-head duel with sunset. Fortunately, the starters got the gate back out, and won that race in a photo. The last rays of the Fort Erie sun shined on Knight Dipper, and he held easily clear to win the day’s final race.