That Sunday, July 14 would be Strait of Dover’s last day on Earth became apparent to Catherine Martin over a spurned grape.
It was an attempt to cheer up the 2012 Queen’s Plate champion, who was recovering from surgery and seemed to be on the mend. The veterinary assistant offered the horse a handful of the purple grapes that were his favourite food.
Strait of Dover ate just one.
“He kind of spit it out and I said, ‘C’mon Dover’ and I pressed a grape up to his lips again and he finally ate it,” Martin said. “He would only eat one grape and I knew at that point he probably wasn’t going to make it.”
Strait of Dover had come to epitomize the underdog in the year or so he enjoyed in the limelight, a spunky B.C. homebred, which never saw another horse finish in front of him in five career starts at Woodbine.
After two forgettable races on the dirt at Hastings Racecourse in Vancouver in the summer of 2011 as a 2-year-old, Strait of Dover’s owners shipped him east to be managed by veteran trainer Dan Vella and run on the all-weather Polytrack surface at Woodbine.
“We’re from the west, we’re nobody out here,” said Wally Leong, 78, who along with his wife, Terry, operate Canyon Farms in Kelowna, B.C., where Strait of Dover was foaled. “I know the sun rises and shines in Toronto and Woodbine is where it’s at.”
Vella was less than impressed when first presented with his new project.
“He was average size, average build, just almost kind of a plain brown wrapper to look at,” he said. “He was physical but he didn’t take your breath away.”
But then things turned promising. Strait of Dover loved Woodbine’s track and it loved him back
On the previous Thursday, Strait of Dover began his day as he had every day for the past several months since sustaining a mild injury. He had breakfast and a walk. He was playful, happy, and once returned to his stall at the farm in Welland, Ont., devoured a second breakfast, attacking his haynet with vigour.
Trainer Tracy Hnatko heard Strait of Dover scream, which wasn’t that unusual. He occasionally cried out when the neighbour’s horses began nickering.
“But he did it several times, so I walked down to check on him,” she said. “I just looked at his eyes and knew that he was in distress. Thinking he had acute gas, which horses get from time to time, I gave him some dispensables to help his stomach and the pain. I then put him on the walking machine as I always do with colicky horses. He did not want to walk.”
Hnatko removed Strait of Dover from the walking machine and led him by hand instead, but she stopped after 10 minutes.
“After years of experience you just sense when something isn’t right,” she said.
She called James Crawford, the local veterinarian. The hour it took him to arrive passed slowly. Dover was in obvious, terrible pain. There was nothing to do but wait.
Strait of Dover often wore a quizzical gaze and his cocky personality won over his handlers along the backstretch. He had an unusually large head, so they called him “Potato.”
Vella’s initial impression of the horse changed early, after he first ran Strait of Dover alongside a veteran horse in one of his first workouts after arriving at Woodbine.
“Dover just looked at the other horse straight in the eye as if saying, ‘Let’s do it,’” he said. “That first day I saw him breeze I came back to the barn and said, ‘Boys, we’ve got a good one.’ You could just see it.”
Strait of Dover lived up to Vella’s hunch, finishing first in his debut at Woodbine with jockey Justin Stein aboard, but was disqualified and placed third for interference.
Over his next four races, including three in 2012, Strait of Dover was unstoppable, culminating in a wire-to-wire victory that year at the Queen’s Plate, Canada’s premiere thoroughbred racing event for 3-year-old Canadian horses.
A B.C.-bred horse had never won the million-dollar event, the first leg of the Canadian Triple Crown.