He’s been Canada’s top jockey an unprecedented seven times and rode the country’s last Triple Crown winner.
On Sunday, Patrick Husbands earned another career milestone.
The resident of Brampton, Ont., guided filly Dixie Strike to victory in the $500,000 Prince of Wales Stakes at Fort Erie Racetrack. It marked the second time Husbands had captured the second jewel of the Canadian Triple Crown — his first was in 2003 when he guided Wando to Canada’s last Triple Crown title — but this one had much more meaning for the 39-year-old native of Bridgetown, Barbados.
The 115-year-old Fort Erie Racetrack has hosted the Prince of Wales since 1929 but is scheduled to close Dec. 31. And Husbands admitted he crossed the finish line with a heavy heart knowing, barring a miracle, it was for the last time as the Prince of Wales champion at the facility.
“This is another big stepping stone for me as a rider,” Husbands said. “I always tell everyone this is the best racetrack I’ve ever ridden on in terms of a dirt track.
“It is always a fair track. All the other tracks you go to you always got to keep watching the races to see what speed is holding and if the rail is dead. But when you come to Fort Erie, I just love it here.”
So much so, Husbands said, he often spends his spare time watching Fort Erie races at home on television.
“I always watch racing at Fort Erie,” he said. “Everyone who comes to my house tells me, ‘You don’t have a life? Why do you always watch that.’
“But I just like it, the atmosphere.
Queen’s Plate winner Strait of Dover didn’t run Sunday as his handlers opted against it because the horse has struggled on dirt. Dixie Strike finished third in the Plate behind Strait of Dover and another filly Irish Mission, which was the 9/5 favourite for the Prince of Wales.
Earlier this year, Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty announced he was axing a revenue-sharing agreement with racetracks that gives them a cut of the slot profits. That amounts to $345 million annually and is split between track operators and horse owners and breeders.
McGuinty said the revenue-sharing program will be cancelled by March 2013.
Shortly afterwards, the Ontario Lottery and Gaming Corporation announced it was closing slot machine facilities at Fort Erie, Windsor and Sarnia racetracks. Without the revenue-sharing program, Fort Erie Racetrack’s board announced the track would close Dec. 31.
Winning trainer Mark Casse, though, isn’t deterred.
“I haven’t given up yet,” he said. ”It’s a fight. Maybe I’m stupid.
“If it is, it’s just going to be a shame. It’s rich in tradition, it’s a beautiful little track and I enjoy coming here. I know there’s a lot of people out there that are willing to do their very best, me included, and hopefully this won’t be the last time we see the Prince of Wales at Fort Erie.”
Starting fourth in the nine-horse field, Dixie Strike was eighth at the half-mile mark in the 1 3/16-mile race but surged into second ahead of Ultimate Destiny and behind Colleen’s Sailor in the straightaway. Dixie Strike, the 5/2 second choice, moved past Colleen’s Sailor (the 7/2 third choice) then held off longshot Ultimate Destiny for a one-length win in 1:57.54 on a fast track.
Colleen’s Sailor took third. The remainder of the field in order was: Quaesitor, Dead On, Irish Mission, Menlo Castle, Run in Aruba; and Classic Bryce.
Casse took a rather unconventional approach leading up to the Prince of Wales, opting only to gallop Dixie Strike and not breeze the horse in its pre-race preparation.
“She was so happy that I said, ‘Why should I chance making her unhappy,“’ Casse said. “I always think, honestly, most horses are overtrained.
“You get to the Triple Crown races and they’re gruelling and you see these guys (trainers) just working them and working them and working them. My thoughts are I work horses to get them fit and once they’re fit what’s the difference? I’d rather them be happy and she’s a happy horse.”
Dixie Strike paid $7.90, $4.20 and $2.70 while Ultimate Destiny returned $11 and $5.90. Colleen’s Sailor paid $3.50.
Dixie Strike earned her fifth win in 11 career starts (five wins, second twice, third twice) to boost her career earnings past $895,000. Dixie Strike has excelled on dirt, having registered four wins, two seconds and a third in nine career starts.
Casse said he expects Dixie Strike’s next start to be in the U.S. sometime and not the $500,000 Breeders’ Stakes, the 1 1/2-mile turf event that’s the final Canadian Triple Crown event slated for Aug. 5 at Woodbine Racetrack.
Whoever decides to run in the Breeders’ Stakes can expect to face a rested Strait of Dover. Last month, trainer Dan Vella said he was preparing his horse to run on the grass at Woodbine.
“She turfs, but I actually believe it’s her least preferred surface,” Casse said of his horse. “I’m not sure grass is her thing.
“Dan’s horse is going to be really tough. One of the things that intrigued me about running (Prince of Wales) was giving her the chance to run on dirt and opening up some options and I think she ran well enough. We’re going to look at things but we’ll probably go somewhere south.”