By ROB LONGLEY -- Toronto Sun
A decade ago, the Canadian Triple Crown and its once fat bonus was beginning to look like easy money.
The Bank of Montreal sure felt that way. When Peteski nailed the Queen's Plate, Prince of Wales and Breeders' Stakes trifecta, he was the fourth winner in five years.
The ever-conservative starched shirts at the bank already had said enough was enough, yanking the $1-million reward from the table the previous year.
In the interim, only one three-year-old -- Scatter the Gold in 2000 -- has gone on to the Breeders' Stakes with a shot. In today's 113th running of the Breeders' at Woodbine, it will be Wando's chance to end the mini-drought and add shine to a series that could use some.
Since Peteski's triumph in 1993, the Canadian Triple Crown has accumulated some tarnish.
While the U.S. version -- now on a 25-year winless run -- continues to prosper, the Canadian Crown has struggled. It was in such disrepair that back-to-back Queen's Plate winners during the late 1990s snubbed it.
In 1997, Frank Stronach's colt Awesome Again went to California after the Plate and never returned to Canada. He did, however, go on to make great strides for Canadian breeding by winning the 1998 Breeders' Cup Classic.
The following year, Archers Bay won the Plate and Prince of Wales but passed on the third jewel. Owner Eugene Melnyk struggled with his decision but, with the Breeders' then worth just $250,000 and no bonus for a Crown sweep, he decided the pastures were much greener in the U.S.
Furthermore, with declining TV ratings and the lack of a national broadcaster to carry and promote all three races, interest seems to be regional at best.
"I doubt if (people outside of Ontario) truly care, unfortunately," Hugh Mitchell, Woodbine's senior vice-president of racing, said. "I don't say that flippantly. Without national TV broadcast exposure, that's the challenge we face."
Enter Wando, who has been the most exciting prospect since Peteski. His connections -- owner/breeder Gus Schickedanz, jockey Patrick Husbands and trainer Mike Keogh -- have been gung-ho about racing at home and not shy to tell anyone about it.
There is a $500,000 bonus once again to help finance that enthusiasm. With a dynamic, dominant horse, Team Wando has done a world of good for the series specifically and Canadian racing in general.
Recognizing it's an apples-and-oranges task, not unlike stacking the Super Bowl against the Grey Cup, what follows is a comparison of North America's two Triple Crowns.
The U.S. Triple Crown is composed of the Kentucky Derby (1 1/4 miles), Preakness Stakes (1 3/16 miles) and Belmont Stakes (1 1/2 miles). All are raced on dirt and at the same distances as the Canadian version.
It was last claimed in 1978 by Affirmed, who became the 11th winner. The most gruelling aspect of the U.S. Crown is that the three races are contested in a tight five-week span. Given the limitations of modern breeding, it has made some wonder if the series ever will be won again. When Funny Cide was third in this year's Belmont, he became the fifth horse since 1997 to win the first two legs only to fall just short.
In Canada, there isn't as much of a rush. For one thing, the Plate is raced in late June, almost two months later than the Derby, allowing the still developing three-year-olds to mature. It's also conducted over a seven-week span.
"The spacing is much better here than in the American Crown," Wando's trainer, Mike Keogh, said. "Here, at least you get time to recover. After the Plate, I was able to turn Wando out (on the farm) for a week."
The big variable here is that the final leg is raced on the grass which "adds to the true versatility of your horse," said trainer Roger Attfield, who has trained three Canadian Triple Crown winners.
The U.S. version is much more taxing and tends to wear down those brave enough to race in all three. Witness the performance of this year's Derby and Preakness champion Funny Cide, who raced like a tired horse when he finished third in last week's Haskell Invitational.
Because of easy wins in the Queen's Plate and Prince of Wales Stakes, many believe Wando has yet to show his best.
In reality, the prize Wando is chasing should be called the Ontario Triple Crown. The Plate and Breeders' are at Woodbine and the POW at Fort Erie, after all.
Occasionally a B.C. horse will enter one of the races -- as last-place finisher Illusive Force did in this year's Plate.
Essentially though, the series is a Woodbine championship with barely marginal fan and media interest outside of southern Ontario.
"It's a reflection of the total industry," Mitchell said. "Whether from a breeding or racetrack standpoint, in Canada the place to race if you compete is in Ontario."
Because the races are restricted to Canadian-breds, major U.S. breeders dismiss the winners in terms of stud value. If Wando were to beat U.S. colts in a Grade 1 stake south of the border, he instantly would be worth millions.
The U.S. version is raced in three states and, more importantly, draws participants from several more with California, Florida and Louisiana joining New York, Kentucky and Maryland as big-league racing states.
A well-thought-out series of prep races held at tracks across the U.S. builds interest all spring.
Woodbine does its best to create little advance attention for the public by racing one of its major preps on Kentucky Derby day and another on Belmont Stakes day.
WHO IS WATCHING?
Each race in the U.S. Triple Crown is a big-time event. The Derby draws a live crowd of 150,000-plus, the Preakness close to 100,000. The Belmont had more than 90,000 this year despite a day-long downpour.
With a Crown on the line, the Belmont had 25 million TV viewers and all three races had 90-minute telecasts on NBC.
The Canadian races generally draw well -- an estimated 15,000 at the Plate this year and an estimated 7,000 at Fort Erie, big crowds for both facilities.
Where our races get hammered is on the tube. This year's Plate drew just 141,000 viewers, a stunning fall from a race that just four years ago attracted 350,000.
Woodbine officials desperately shopped the event to CBC to bring the race back but were unsuccessful. The Prince of Wales Stakes was shown on The Score, a network that reaches just 5.3 million homes in Canada. It was done with little fanfare and production.
Today's race, like the Plate, will be telecast nationally on Sportsnet.
SHOW ME THE MONEY
If Wando wins today, Schickedanz will collect the $300,000 first prize from the $500,000 purse plus a $500,000 bonus. His total haul for the series would be $1.7 million.
Though there isn't the $1-million bonus of the Dance Smartly, With Approval, Izvestia days, it's good money. And it has helped keep dominant horses such as Wando around.
"Something had to be done to lessen the temptation to leave," WEG president David Willmot said when the bonus was announced in 1999. "This is a good incentive. It was too bad that horses wouldn't stick around for the entire series but, given the circumstances, it was understandable."
The numbers are pocket change compared with the U.S., of course. If Funny Cide would have won the Belmont, he would have earned a $5-million US bonus for a total of $6.8 million.
Woodbine has pulled out all the stops for the Breeders' with a clever series of radio advertisements, a Wando T-shirt giveaway today and aggressive marketing.
It's a deserving effort that could well lead to an electric afternoon at Woodbine this afternoon.
The U.S. Triple Crown has the benefit of a strong corporate sponsor in Visa which helps link the three races to sustain interest throughout not just at the end.
Canada's Crown hits a peak of attention at the Plate then goes into hibernation until the Breeders' and only then if there is potential for a sweep.