Riders cause a storm

ROB LONGLEY, SUN MEDIA

, Last Updated: 11:01 AM ET

Once word was out that Woodbine trainer Catherine Day Phillips was importing jockey Mike Smith from California to ride her Queen's Plate candidate, the phone started to ring.

"Jockeys, agents all sorts of people ... everybody is offering to pick him up," Day Phillips said yesterday. "I'm not telling anyone (when Smith arrives). Otherwise, he might end up in Fort Erie or Ajax."

Day Phillips was joking, to a point.

But the issue of big-name American riders coming in to ride in the Plate has been a hot one for more than half a century. Of the 13 horses in tomorrow's opening jewel of the Canadian Triple Crown, three will be ridden by U.S.-based jockeys of varied accomplishment.

None are more famous than Smith, one of the best big-money riders still in the game, given his accomplishments at the Breeders' Cup and his 2005 Kentucky Derby win aboard Giacomo.

The hall of famer, who has dated Woodbine regular Chantal Sutherland, won the 1997 Plate with Awesome Again, finished second in his only other mount and, tomorrow, will ride Mr. Foricos Two U for Day Phillips.

As you might expect, the news doesn't always sit well with the local riders who are denied not only a chance to race for a nice slice of the $1-million purse but to shine in the country's most important race.

"They are somewhat offended when it happens," said Robbie King, manager of the Jockeys' Benefit Association of Canada.

"If you've ever ridden in Canada, you get two questions from people you meet: 'Have you ever won the Queen's Plate, and have you ever ridden in the Derby?'

"We have a great riding colony here. The difference is, they don't get as much exposure as the riders do in the States."

For as long as planes have landed at Pearson, jockeys have been imported for the storied race.

Sometimes it has the feel of vanity, a chance for a big-shot owner to have the vicarious thrill of having a guy who might have won a Derby or two on his horse's back.

Other times, it's practical. If you can procure a world-class rider who might be able to coax another length or two from the mount, why not, even if you have to pay his freight to get here?

E.P. Taylor, the late baron of Canadian racing, did just that in 1953 when he brought in Eddie Arcaro to ride Canadiana to a Plate victory at Woodbine Park, later known as Greenwood.

Taylor also used an import for Northern Dancer in 1964 but no one would dare question that given Bill Hartack had won the Derby for him earlier in the year.

In a seven-year stretch in the 1990s, four big-name U.S. riders rode in and took the big money with Plate wins.

Pat Day began a three-year run for American riders when he captured the 1991 edition with Canadian Triple Crown winner Dance Smartly. Craig Perret followed up with back-to-back victories -- Alydeed in 1992 and Peteski in '93 -- and four years later, Smith got the job done with Awesome Again.

To be fair, Day Phillips wasn't looking to undercut the local workforce, which is why most of the grief she has been getting is good-natured.

In fact, she has done the opposite in the past, taking Jono Jones in 2004.

"I think loyalty is important, but I think in this case the door was open," Day Phillips said. "When you have access to someone like Mike ... the owners thought it was just amazing to have a hall of famer on their horse."

ROB.LONGLEY@SUNMEDIA.CA


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