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Nancy O among the fillies aiming for Breeders’ Cup

Trainer Carolyn Costigan embraces Nancy O at Woodbine Racetrack in Toronto, Ontario Thursday Sept. 13, 2012.

Tim Fraser/Tim Fraser

Leaving Nancy O was a song in Robert Costigan's heart when it came time to choosing a name for the first foal of Arravale.

It had to be a special name for the foal, a smallish filly and daughter of a mare who had won horse-of-the-year honours in Canada in 2006.

Being Irish, Costigan knew all about Scottish-born folk singer Eric Bogle, who once penned a tune about having to leave his mother, Nancy O, when he emigrated to Australia in 1960. The last time he saw her, he was leaving in a train. She was allowed to say her goodbyes only if she did not cry, but as the train pulled out, Nancy O shed a tear.

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"My suitcase is lifted and stowed on the train," the song goes. "A thousand regrets whirl around my brain. The ache in my heart is a black sea of pain. I'm leaving my Nancy O."

His mother (maiden name Nancy O'Connor) died when Costigan's daughter, Carolyn, was 12.

Carolyn Costigan is now a trainer at Woodbine racetrack in Toronto, and tops in her barn these days is Nancy O., a strong-minded little thing who is trying to win her way to the Breeders' Cup at Santa Anita in California in November.

A webcam sits high on a post outside the filly's stall, and every day, Carolyn's grandfather, Bob Costigan Sr., keeps tabs on a horse that keeps his memories alive from his perch in Tipperary, Ireland. Nancy O., the filly, was born in Ireland, too.

All in all, there are three chances at Woodbine this weekend for horses to win a shot at the lucrative Breeders' Cup money: the $250,000 Natalma Stakes for two-year-old fillies, the $250,000 Summer Stakes for two-year-old colts – both on Saturday – and the $1-million Woodbine Mile on Sunday.

All three races have produced Breeders' Cup winners, with Court Vision winning an edition of the Woodbine Mile a couple of years ago. The Natalma Stakes produced the last two Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies Turf winners with More Than Real finishing second in the 2010 Natalma, and Stephanie's Kitten third in the 2011 Natalma. Pluck won the 2010 Summer Stakes and went on to win the male version of the Juvenile Turf.

The easiest path to the Breeders' Cup is to win one of the three races. Because all three have been designated as win-and-you're-in races by Breeders' Cup authorities, the winner gets his entry fees paid and $10,000 to make the trip.

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Nancy O will race in the Natalma on Saturday, but she's in against a full field of 11 other fillies. "If she runs in the top three, she deserves consideration for the Breeders' Cup," Costigan said.

Nancy O didn't get to the Natalma the normal way. She's raced only two times, and the plan was to race in an event considered a prep race for the Natalma. But the race didn't draw enough entries, so Nancy O ran against the colts in the Summer prep. She finished a close second.

"I would have no qualms racing her against the boys," Costigan said boldly. "I'd be more than willing to take them on." There are only eight entries in the Summer Stakes.

Nancy O has yet to show everything she can do. She finished far back in the field in her first start, leaving Costigan disappointed, until rider David Moran told her that he was even more impressed with her. She had encountered trouble in the race, and he decided not to push her, but to teach her how to pass horses in the stretch. She did so willingly. She was still inexperienced and a tad slow leaving the gate in the Summer prep.

Nancy O was nearly the only foal of Arravale, who almost died on the operating table while trying to give birth to her second foal, by Epsom Derby winner New Approach. A vet in the Irish stable noticed that Arravale was in trouble but could not save the foal. Arravale underwent a cesarean section to remove the dead foal.

Now, with some tender loving care and some time off, Arravale is now in foal to top U.S. handicap horse Quality Road. In this business, there is no time for tears.

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