TORONTO, October 13 - The conclusion of Friday’s card marked the 99th day of racing at Woodbine, and with two months left in the season, the race for Canadian Horse of the Year is beginning to heat up.
Here’s a look at five horses that are beginning to separate themselves from their peers including two contenders that will race on Sunday's action-packed Pattison Canadian International card. Three horses are currently undefeated in 2017, one is a Grade 1 winner, and the final horse on the list completed a rare sweep of Canada’s biggest races for three-year-olds.
Pink Lloyd got his Woodbine campaign off to a winning start in the Jacques Cartier Stakes on opening day back on April 15, and hasn’t missed a beat since. The five-year-old son of Old Forester has reeled off six consecutive stakes wins in 2017 and remains undefeated on the year for trainer Robert Tiller and owner Entourage Stable.
Following his win in the Jacques Cartier, Pink Lloyd won his next two stakes races by a combined 8 1/2-lengths in the New Providence Stakes and Achievement Stakes against restricted company. He recorded triple-digit Beyer Speed Figures in each of his first three stakes victories of the year, which included a 103 in the Jacques Cartier, a 102 in the New Providence, and a 106 in the Achievement.
From there, Pink Lloyd would record his first career graded stakes victory in the Grade 3 Vigil Stakes over seven furlongs on Tapeta on July 16, and has also since won the Shepperton Stakes and Kenora Stakes.
Tiller said he always felt Pink Lloyd had talent.
“I’ve always felt he was capable of winning many stakes,” he said. “Six in a row? I don’t know. We’re going for seven, hopefully. He’s always showed the talent and I think he’s a terrific sprinter. One of his big assets is he has that natural speed. He doesn’t have to be in front.”
Pink Lloyd will likely make two more starts to close out his 2017 campaign. He is not among the probable starters for Sunday’s Grade 2, $250,000 Nearctic Stakes on turf, which means he’ll likely face Ontario-sired competition in the $125,000 Overskate Stakes over seven furlongs on October 29. If all goes according to plan following that start, he could close out his campaign in the Grade 2 Kennedy Road Stakes over six-furlongs on Tapeta on November 25, a race he finished second in last season.
Like Pink Lloyd, Melmich has also maintained a perfect record so far this season. Owned by Stephen Chesney and Cory Hoffman, and trained by Kevin Attard, Melmich has won all five of his starts this year, three of which have come in graded stakes races.
He started his season off with a victory in allowance company in his first start off of the winter layoff on May 31, and then promptly recorded back-to-back graded stakes wins in the Grade 3 Dominion Day Stakes and the Grade 3 Seagram Cup Stakes. He also won the Elgin Stakes for the third year in a row.
His most recent start was his best one of the year thus far. Although he faced just four rivals in the Grade 3 Durham Cup Stakes on September 30, Melmich made it look easy, as he swept by the field at the top of the stretch and went on to win by 7 1/2-lengths. Attard believes Melmich is firmly in the running for Canadian Horse of the Year after that performance.
“He’s won three graded races,” he said. “I think there’s a lot to be said about that. I think he should have a good chance at it.”
Attard said Melmich would likely run back in the Grade 2, $175,000 Autumn Stakes over 1 1/16-miles on Tapeta on November 12, and if all goes well in that start, Melmich would finish his campaign with a run in the Grade 3, $125,000 Valedictory Stakes on closing day on December 10.
Ami’s Mesa is the third horse in the Canadian Horse of the Year picture who remains undefeated so far this season, and like Melmich, she’s also recorded three graded stakes victories.
Ami’s Mesa is unbeaten in four starts this season, which includes a pair of graded stakes wins on Tapeta at Woodbine in the Grade 3 Ontario Matron Stakes over 1 1/16-miles and the Grade 3 Seaway Stakes over seven furlongs. In her most recent start on September 18, Ami’s Mesa travelled to Presque Isle Downs where she set a new track record in winning the Grade 2 Presque Isle Masters Stakes over 6 1/2-furlongs on Tapeta.
“I think she’s really just come into her own finally,” trainer Josie Carroll said. “She’s been so dominant sprinting so that seems to be the thing to do right now. I was really happy with the way she went long. It definitely doesn’t rule it out at a later day.”
What’s next for Ami’s Mesa? A trip to Del Mar for the Breeders’ Cup Filly & Mare Sprint on dirt may not be out of the question, as she should make the body of the field off of her 14 qualification points earned as a result of her graded stakes wins this season. She also recently worked on the dirt training track at Woodbine, covering five furlongs in 59.60 seconds on October 5.
But if Carroll and owner-breeder Ivan Dalos decide to stay at home, Ami’s Mesa will likely run in the Grade 2, $175,000 Bessarabian Stakes over seven furlongs on November 26.
It took until his six-year-old season to record his first stakes win, but Johnny Bear looks to be turning into a top turf horse following his victory in the Grade 1 Northern Dancer Turf Stakes on September 16 for trainer Ashlee Brnjas and owners Bear Stables and Colebrook Farms.
Johnny Bear has recorded five wins from nine starts in 2017, with two of those victories coming over the winter at Tampa Bay Downs. Upon returning to Woodbine in April, Johnny Bear managed just one win in four starts against allowance company, but since stepping up to stakes company in August, Johnny Bear has won back-to-back starts over 1 1/2-miles on the turf.
Johnny Bear recorded his first stakes win in the Halton Stakes on Canadian Millions Sales Stakes Day on August 30, and quickly followed that up with his first Grade 1 win in the Northern Dancer.
The son of English Channel could make it three in a row at the distance, proving he’s a Woodbine horse-for-course, in Sunday’s Grade 1, $800,000 Pattison Canadian International Stakes.
“It’s an honour to be in this race,” Brnjas said. “It’s kind of cool to be the local guy. He slimmed up and fitted up. He turned into an English Channel. Every time he ran as a younger horse, it was a disappointment, but I said leave him alone and let him mature into what he’s going to be.”
As for plans following the Canadian International, Brnjas said there are a number of options available for Johnny Bear, but the connections will discuss the best course of action depending on how he comes out of Sunday’s race.
“We were invited by a few international racetracks, Japan and Dubai,” she said. “They threw Breeders’ Cup out there. I think after this race, we sit down and make a strategic plan of action. I honestly think the horse has campaigned all year. If he goes out there and runs a good race, or if he runs a bad race, I think he deserves his time. If we were going to lightly race him this winter, he’s eligible for those cheaper starters at Gulfstream.”
While not yet eligible for Canadian Horse of the Year since she’s only made two starts in Canada in 2017, Holy Helena will make her third start of the year north of the border in Saturday’s Grade 3, $125,000 Ontario Derby. She’ll face the boys once again in the Ontario Derby, but she had no problem against them the first time she faced males back in the Queen’s Plate in July.
After breaking her maiden in her second career start on the dirt at Belmont Park in May, Holy Helena shipped up to Woodbine for trainer Jimmy Jerkens and owner-breeder Stronach Stable, and went on to win the Woodbine Oaks by a length over Mythical Mission. Holy Helena then became the seventh filly to complete the Woodbine Oaks-Queen’s Plate double, and the first since Lexie Lou in 2014, with a 3 1/2-length victory over Tiz a Slam in the first jewel of the Canadian Triple Crown.
The connections opted to skip the Prince of Wales Stakes on dirt at Fort Erie to run in the Grade 1 Alabama Stakes at Saratoga in her most recent start on August 19. She went off as the 4-1 favourite in the Alabama, but she tired down the stretch and finished eighth.
“It was disappointing, of course,” Jerkens said. “She might have been a little closer to the pace than we thought she should have been, but she got beat a long ways. She was going kind of quick between horses and I thought it was not like her style. She kind of backed out of there.”
A return to the Tapeta at Woodbine in the Ontario Derby could suit Holy Helena, but following this start, the only option for her at Woodbine could be the Grade 3, $125,000 Maple Leaf Stakes against older fillies and mares on November 4. Otherwise, she’ll likely return to Jerkens’ string in New York to plot her next move.
With two months remaining in the season, this is one race that might come down to the wire. While just one of these horses is likely to take home the coveted Canadian Horse of the Year title at the end of season, all five should be congratulated on their achievements thus far in 2017.