Trainer Mark Casse put an exclamation point on a remarkable Woodbine weekend by sending out Art of Almost and Skygaze to a 1-2 finish in the $150,300 Ontario Matron Stakes (G3) on Oct. 10.
The Ontario Matron, a 1 1/16 mile Tapeta race for fillies and mares, attracted a field of six and followed Sunday’s featured Cup and Saucer Stakes, which also produced a Casse exacta. Woodbine’s run-a-way leading trainer saddled nine winners over the weekend, including three stakes.
“I wanted to get an outside run,” said jockey Emma-Jayne Wilson after guiding Art of Almost to her 1 ¼ length victory. “She can be a little quirky out of the one-hole and I was looking to position myself where I was in range, but could also work my way to the outside so that I could just get her going around the turn.”
Art of Almost raced in fifth and sixth place early while Crystal Glacier, a third Casse runner in the lineup, and Juxtapose disputed the front end through fractions of :25.25, :49.90, and 1:14.22.
Skygaze, the 3-5 favourite under Patrick Husbands, had started from the outside post and was wide around the first turn before settling into a stalking position within striking distance of the leaders.
Art of Almost, meanwhile, had been biding her time until Wilson swung her to the outside and popped the question turning for home. The mare answered with a turn of foot which carried her past her rivals to her going-away victory in final time of 1:43.99.
“I mean, as we straightened away, you can see I moved up to them at the top of the stretch and she wasn’t even quite ready in full flight yet,” said Wilson. “So, I was pretty confident when we measured up to Patrick there and, when I really reached for it and asked her, she gave me every she had.”
Skygaze, unable to match her stablemate’s closing burst, held second place by a half-length over a game Juxtapose with Crystal Glacier a neck back in fourth.
The longest price of the three Casse runners, Art of Almost returned $19.80 and topped a $50.20 exacta over Skygaze. Juxtapose, at 13-1, rounded out a trifecta worth $132.10 with the superfecta bottomed by 4-1 second choice Crystal Glacier coming back at $384.65 for $1.
A 5-year-old Kentucky-bred who races for Len Green’s D J Stable LLC, Art of Almost was winning her first stakes race in her 25th career outing. In her start prior to the Ontario Matron she had finished fourth, five lengths behind Skygaze and 4 ¾ lengths behind Crystal Glacier over the same course and distance.
Art of Almost was the second career Ontario Matron winner for Casse, who had captured the 2013 edition with Sisterly Love.
Mission Accomplished: Special Forces Wins Grade 3 Durham Cup
Two years ago, Special Forces missed winning the Grade 3 Durham Cup Stakes (G3) by the slimmest of margins. On Oct. 10 at Woodbine, he came out on top in the $155,100 event.
Trained by Kevin Attard, Special Forces, a six-year-old son of Candy Ride (ARG), didn’t have one start to his name in 2020.
This year, he’s making up for lost time.
Sent off at 6-1 in a field that featured Mighty Heart, Canada’s reigning Horse of the Year, 2019 Belmont Stakes champ Sir Winston, and graded stakes winner Tap It to Win, Special Forces didn’t receive nearly as much fanfare as his rivals ahead of the 1 1/16-mile Tapeta race for 3-year-olds and upwards.
And although he wasn’t a presence early, the chestnut gelding was a force when it counted most.
It was Tap It to Win, fresh off a victory in the Grade 3 Seagram Cup, who led the way into the first turn and through an opening quarter in :24.17. Halo Again, back in action after more than a year away from the races, was a close second, while Mighty Heart and Sir Winston sat third and fourth, respectively, Special Forces, with Justin Stein in the irons for the first time, was fifth and trailing.
Tap It to Win continued to set the pace through a half timed :47.96, as the cat-and-mouse game between the five rivals began to take shape.
Around the turn, it was anybody’s race, with the tightly bunched trio of Special Forces, on the outside, Sir Winston in the middle, and Halo Again, to the inside, began to separate themselves from the other pair.
At the wire, Special Forces emerged a half-length winner, with Sir Winston taking second, two lengths ahead of Halo Again.
A stewards’ inquiry into the top three finishers resulted in no changes.
“I worked him a couple times and he’s a lot of horse,” said Stein. “I was just the lucky jock to get on him. Kevin and his team have done an amazing job with him. He crushed today. He’s a champ.”
Attard was thrilled to see his veteran campaigner make his first trip to the winner’s circle since Nov. 3, 2019, when Special Forces took the Grade 2 Autumn Stakes at Woodbine.
“We had to be very patient with him. Obviously, the COVID season kind of hampered his chances of getting back last year, but we elected to kind of back off and give him the rest of the year off.
“He was disrespected today, but this horse was probably one of the better older horses on the grounds here in 2019 and kind of got disrespected today… but showed his true colors.”
Bred by Machmer Hall, Carrie Brogden and Craig Brogden, Special Forces is now 6-6-2 from 20 starts for owners Soli Mehta and Partner. He paid $15.60 for the win.