There's another super horse at Assiniboia Downs, and in the third race on Monday's Victoria Day program Pleasant Closing caused the handlers of incumbent titleholder, Balooga Bull, to stand up and take serious notice.
The three-year-old Kentucky colt, ridden by Tyrone Nelson, went head to head with the undefeated Balooga Bull over five furlongs, only to lose by less than a head.
The race featured a red-hot 23.4 opening quarter, finishing in 58.00 as both horses battled head to head down the stretch with Balooga Bull hitting the wire first to keep his win streak alive at five.
For Pleasant Closing, who has done all of his racing at Oaklawn Park in Hot Springs, Ark., and Remington Park in Oklahoma City, his 2012 record now sits at six trips for one win, one second and one third, suggesting he has run in some solid company south of the border.
Monday's showdown served to ignite speculation on how things will evolve with stakes season just around the corner. There is a rematch scheduled for June 8 in the $30,000, six furlongs Golden Boy Stakes, followed by the $30,000 1 1/16 miles Harry Jeffrey Stakes on July 14, and the ultimate race -- the $75,000 mile-and-one-eighth Manitoba Lotteries Derby on Aug. 6.
Trainer and owner Murray Duncan, who claimed Pleasant Closing for $30,000 in March at Oaklawn, only entered the five-furlong race to give him a chance to stretch his legs. "I didn't know if he'd run that short or not, because I claimed him as a route horse (mile or more), but I needed to run him. I knew he could run short, but not against good horses. He had to run somewhere, he needed a race."
While he wasn't convinced his horse would win, Duncan says things did get a little exciting as the two horses battled to the wire. "I figured he would be laying second," said the 71-year-old trainer, "but down the stretch I thought we had a chance. Neither one gave up. We just got all the wrong nods."
To put Pleasant Closing's performance into perspective, a look at Balooga Bull's record is required. Last year, as a two-year-old, he completely dominated all four of his races, including the Graduation Stakes, Osiris Stakes and the Winnipeg Futurity.
As a result, the Ardell Sayler-trained and Paul Brandt-owned horse was feted this month at the Canadian Thoroughbred Horse Society and Horsemen's Benevolent and Protective Association awards for 2011, by being named the top two-year-old gelding, champion sprinter and horse of the year.
Duncan was convinced that Pleasant Closing was the horse he wanted after seeing him run at Oaklawn. "He ran against decent horses down there. He ran in a $300,000 mile stake race in Remington Park and didn't run a bad race (finished seventh), but he ran in good company. He was a horse that looked like he could run the (mile-plus) distance, and that was what I was interested in."
While still a sprint, Duncan says the Harry Jeffery Stakes will still be a good tune-up on the way to the Derby in August. "The extra furlong will help him I think. It won't hurt him, for sure."
Jockey Paul Nolan was happy with the way Balooga Bull reacted to Monday's challenge. "When that horse came up to him, he fought. With a horse that usually wins so easily, you always wonder if when they do get tested, what they are going to do. But he bore down. That horse came right up to his nose, and he stuck his head way back out there and said, 'you want it, you come by me for it.' "
Monday's victory was one of seven on the weekend for Nolan, vaulting him into first place in the jockey standings with 13 wins. Robert Reeves Jr. is second with eight while Rohan Singh, Nelson and Tim Moccasin are tied for third with six apiece.
"We've always commanded all the other races, and he has always won them his own way," said Sayler of his bay gelding. "The horse came to us and took two good runs at us, and Balooga Bull just kept going, which was good to see, just to test him. When a horse gets hooked like that and they battle on that way, it shows heart and determination.
"We went a lot faster and harder than we wanted to go, I've been here 20 years and I can't remember any horse ever running five-eighths in 58 flat."