It's not just about speed. You have to be able to take a punch.
Winning a race like Monday's $75,000 Manitoba Derby at Assiniboia Downs takes class, stamina and guts. Speed occasionally carries the gruelling distance of 1 1/8 miles, but not often, and especially not when the horses are as closely matched as they are in the 66th running of Manitoba's most-prestigious race.
I spent Thursday morning visiting the Derby horses and their trainers, just to get a feel for what they were likely to produce in Monday's race.
Trainer Shelley Brown had her hands full when we arrived at the barn to see morning-line favourite Master Lightning, but the always polite 2012 leading trainer still allowed us to take photos of her new charge with groom Geraldo Moran. Master Lightning is the most difficult read in this year's Derby.
On the one hand, he's been running very competitively against the best three-year-olds in North America. Some of the horses he's been running alongside of can gallop faster than our best local horses can run at full speed. The last time we saw something like that here was in 1978, when Overskate widened on the Manitoba Derby field while bent in half and set a track record in the process. On the other hand, Master Lightning was dropped into a claiming race for $75,000 on July 9 and finished ninth, beaten by 14 lengths.
Brown has worked her magic on numerous horses during her short career, but she generally has had more than three weeks to do it. There's no question Master Lightning thinks he's special, and he's certainly a looker who is proven at the derby distance, but which version of him will show up on derby day remains to be seen. That fact alone makes this year's Manitoba Derby a competitive race that will probably be won by the horse who is ready to lay it down in the final eighth of mile.
Think of it as the 12th round.
Street Prancer, second choice on the morning-line odds at 5/2, had not arrived here as of Thursday. His Beyer speed figures have steadily improved for Eclipse Award-winning trainer Steve Asmussen and he's been testing some decent horses in Indiana, but like Master Lightning and most others in here, he still has to prove he can win a fight with a good horse.
His female side says he'll go the distance, but that final round could be telling for him.
As it could be for Northern Contract, the local Golden Boy Stakes winner who finished third in the Harry Jeffrey Stakes going 1 1/16-miles in his final Derby prep.
Northern Contract is conditioned by Don Schnell, who won the Alberta Derby in 1990 with Majestic Horizon and who currently campaigns top filly Aware, who has won five in a row and two stakes. Schnell knows what it takes to win both class and distance races. Northern Contract set too fast a pace in the Harry Jeffrey and had nothing left for the drive. Will a better pace scenario get him through 1 1/8-miles with some fight left in him?
Derby long shot Storm Chance is quick but he's moving way up in class. On paper, it appears his only option is to try and steal the race on the front end, but trainer Marvin Buffalo thinks his horse might have learned something in his last start while finishing a good second going a mile.
Storm Chance is just starting to figure the racing game out and is now able to relax when beside other horses. His sire Stormello was as game as they come. Those genes need to come through, now.
Wilko Rum (6-1) and On Andy's Advice (15-1) are both trained by master horseman Wally Pugh, who got into the thoroughbred game recently after decades of raising cattle and preparing roping and steer-wrestling horses to compete and win in both the Canadian Finals Rodeo and National Final Rodeos, both elite events.
Pugh has already proven he can do amazing work with horses at the highest levels, and he must now transfer his skills to horse racing. Both of his charges are by Breeders' Cup Juvenile-G1 winner Wilko.
Wilko Rum is the more seasoned of the two, having run in Puerto Rico six times, finishing third in the Angel Cordero Stakes-G2, before venturing to Pimlico, Mountaineer Park and Charles Town, where he won an allowance race going 1 1/16-miles. On Andy's Advice also won south of the border and recently won a mile allowance race at Northlands Park. Wilko Run is out of a Pleasant Tap mare, which should mean stamina. We'll give him the edge among these two.
Which brings us to Jet Again, the emerging Manitoba-bred monster who could be the real deal. Jet Again looks and acts like a serious horse. He moved up in both class and distance for his last start in the Harry Jeffrey Stakes and proved he could take a punch and give it right back, missing by only three-quarters of a length to Edison in that race, a much more seasoned competitor who is now headed to the $200,000 Canadian Derby.
Locally owned by Barry Arnason, Cam Ziprick and Charles Fouillard, and bred by Ziprick and Arnason, Jet Again has been perfectly conditioned and managed by trainer Jim Meyaard. The chestnut gelding by Going Commando is training like a bearcat and appears to have the pedigree to get the distance.
The Belmont Press Park press box said I would stop Cigar if I picked him in the 1995 Breeders' Cup Classic-G1. He romped.
Jet Again. 12th round. Knockout.