I woke up this morning filled with excited anticipation; it was Woodbine Mile day! This is seriously one of the most fun events of my year, and I couldn’t wait to see whether my guy Wise Dan could pull off a repeat performance in this year’s edition.
I also needed to recover a little after a night of betting at Mohawk Racing. It was my first time at a harness track; and although I had an absolute blast, I also bet really, really badly. But, hey, at least it was fun! My colleagues Ed DeRosa, Keith McCalmont and I had an awesome dinner there and then stuck around and played the ponies for a while. Since I had absolutely no idea what was going on, I just picked the ones with names I liked. Yep, I was that girl. But hey! It was fun, and that’s what counts.
Anyway, back to today: I headed over to Woodbine at about 10 a.m., since I was way too excited to wait in the hotel and I couldn’t wait to begin my day. Once I arrived at the track, I decided to wander around and just enjoy a moment of calm before the proverbial horse racing storm.
One sight that I really enjoyed coming across was this beautiful life-sized sculpture of Northern Dancer. He’s arguably the most influential horse in Canadian history, and he’s immortalized at the track by both this statue and by a big stakes race named after him.
I also saw something I hadn’t noticed before: Woodbine has a coat check! That seems so soothingly civilized to me.
After having a nice wander around, it was time for me to boogie back up to the press box to get ready for a big day. While I was on my way to the elevator, fans were streaming in to enjoy the premier day of horse racing in Canada.
Once I was back and settled in the press box, I turned my attention to something very important indeed: lunch! Woodbine had put out a delicious spread for us hacks, and if you’ve read this blog then you know that I really like food and therefore I wasn’t shy about helping myself. Hey, I didn’t want to offend my hosts by not trying what they were kind enough to give us!
After nomming on the yummy lunch, I had places to go: specifically to the second floor, where Wise Dan’s jockey, John Velazquez, was signing autographs for fans.
Johnny V. is such a great person. How nice is it that he did this even though he had a seriously high-pressure race looming in front of him? Well, the fans at Woodbine definitely appreciated his generosity, and the line for autographs stretched the whole way down the Grandstand. John was kind and funny, chatting and joking with each person who stopped by and posing for photos with fans.
I happened to be there when something really cool happened (well, even cooler that what was already happening) – Wise Dan’s owners the Finks just happened to walk by, and it was kind of surreal to see two-thirds of the Dan’s support team right there.
I also want to give a shout out to Woodbine for arranging this. They made sure that there were plenty of free photos of Wise Dan’s Woodbine Mile win available for fans who wanted autographs, and I didn’t see a single person who wasn’t thrilled by the chance to interact with a Hall of Fame jockey who was about to ride the reigning Horse of the Year in the nation’s biggest race. It was a great thing to do for fans, and everyone there seemed to really have enjoyed the experience.
I think Johnny V. would have happily stayed all day to talk with fans, but he had to leave at 2 p.m. since, you know, he had a few horses to ride. At this point, the track was really starting to fill up, with racing fans crowding the seats and standing room to get the best possible view of the day’s action.
With that, the featured races of the day were about to start! First on the program was the Canadian Stakes. This is a 1 1/8-mile grass race for female horses 3 years old and older, and this year’s field was filled to the brim with top fillies and mares from around the globe. There were British, Irish, French, American and Canadian horses vying for a trip to the Breeders’ Cup Filly and Mare Turf.
All of the entrants looked fantastic: all of these gals were on their toes and ready to go.
As the bugler played the call to the post, the field headed out onto the track and it was race time!
When all was said and done, it was Minakshi who earned her trip to the Breeders’ Cup. Jockey Luis Contreras gave a fist pump of excitement as he went over the finish line!
Speaking of Contreras, these are his kids, who came into the winner’s circle after their dad took home the Canadian Stakes. How cute are they? Seriously, all little siblings should dress alike all of the time; there’s really nothing cuter!
Up next was the Ontario Derby; any race called a Derby is restricted to 3-year-old horses, and there were six outstanding contenders in today’s edition. The aptly named His Race to Win took home the top accolades today, and there he looked mighty proud of himself in the winner’s circle!
The next big event was the Northern Dancer; this is a very long race – a mile and a half – which at Woodbine means that the starting gate is right next to the finish line. How cool is it that the grass course here is that long? It reminds me of a European track, which is one of the many reasons they attract so many foreign runners here.
Seven horses were set to take a shot at the $300,000 purse, and this time it was heavy favorite Forte Dei Marmi who got home first.
Jockey Eurico Rosa Da Silva seemed to be thrilled with the win; meanwhile, Forte Dei Marmi totally knew he had it in the bag.
What is it this week with horses sticking their tongues out at me? Seriously, I’m starting to get a complex.
After the Northern Dancer, it was finally time for the main event: the Woodbine Mile! I’ve been lucky enough to meet each of the contenders this week, but I have to be honest: my heart is, always has been and likely always will be with Wise Dan. I mean, I just love this horse; he’s so freaking cool. So as the horses were in the saddling area, I tweeted out how I was feeling:
I call it "Danxiety," and it happens to me before each of his races. #WoMile— Penelope P. Miller (@HeadRacingTwit) September 15, 2013
It’s true: I never doubt Dan, but my gosh do I get nervous. He’s such a special horse, and I know I’m definitely not the only one to have fallen in love with him throughout his career.
As the horses came into the paddock to parade before making their way to the track for the Woodbine Mile, I just gave in and followed Dan around. After all, he is the reigning Horse of the Year and the one that most fans showed up to see today.
Although I seemed to be having heart palpitations from prerace jitters at this point, Dan’s team actually was totally cool. Here are trainer Charlie LoPresti and Velazquez yukking it up like there wasn’t a million-dollar race on the line.
Cool as cucumbers, those guys.
As the horses moved from the paddock to the racetrack before the Mile, the crowd came with them, eager to see the champ defend last year’s win in this race.
Side note: the groom for No. 3, Trade Storm, gets major props from me: he jogged with the horse (and think about it: a Thoroughbred racehorse jogs a bit faster than you and I do – unless you’re Usain Bolt; if you are Usain Bolt, PLEASE hit me up in the comments!) all the way from the entrance of the track to the finish line. That’s a long way. I would have needed a nap and fluids after that.
Finally, finally, it was time for the Woodbine Mile. As the horses surged out of the starting gate, the air around the crowd felt charged; people were here to see Wise Dan put in a performance, and today they got exactly what they came for. As the horses entered the stretch, Wise Dan just pulled away from the field in a run that looked so easy that I was shocked when the news came in that he set a new course record. A win that looks that easy doesn’t usually result in a new record; Dan really is that good.
What really moved me today, though, was the crowd’s response as Dan came back after his win. Everyone stuck around and everyone cheered him as he came home. People were genuinely thrilled to have witnessed this win, and it’s definitely going down as one of my favorite moments of this year.
Of course, there was one dude that yelled at the top of his lungs, “Now run him in the Classic!” Ah, well: even in victory, there’s gotta be at least one critic!
Wise Dan and his team posed for their win photo under the flags at Woodbine; you’ll notice that the center one matches Wise Dan’s silks: that’s an honor for his win in the Mile last year, and so that flag will continue to fly over Woodbine until next year’s race.
After we took our photos, it was time to get Wise Dan back to the barn for a snack and a well-deserved rest. When Velazquez dismounted, he and LoPresti embraced in the winner’s circle. It was a beautiful moment that perfectly summed up the joy, pride and awe that surrounded Wise Dan’s performance today.
With that, Woodbine Mile day came to a close. I truly can’t express how amazing it was to be here, and thank you so much for joining me for such a great moment in horse racing.
I’ll be back in two weeks with my dispatches from Santa Anita Park and Super Saturday; until then, have a great time at the races!