Tears to triumph for Sam-Son family

ROB LONGLEY, SUN MEDIA

, Last Updated: 9:48 AM ET

Mark Samuel has had long days at the race track, but in happier, less wistful times, the hours would fly by.

This wasn't just race day nerves, either, even though one of the men now in charge of the powerful Sam-Son Farm racing operation anxiously was awaiting the coming out of the stable's latest star, Eye of the Leopard.

No, yesterday's 150th Queen's Plate was more about remembering the past of the great Canadian racing family and setting a course for the future. So, for Samuel and his children, nieces, nephews and the rest of a 17-strong party, post time couldn't come quick enough.

By nightfall, it was clearly worth the wait as Eye of the Leopard kept the family legacy alive in a resounding victory, one complete with a thrilling finish that had the Woodbine crowd roaring as it hadn't in years.

That it came less than 18 months after the family lost two of its most vocal supporters, the heartbeat and the soul of the passionate family's love affair with the sport of kings, made it even more special.

"When you suffer that kind of a loss, it forces you to take stock," Samuel said after Eye of the Leopard and jockey Eurico Rosa Da Silva caught Mike Smith and Mr. Foricus Two U in the closing strides of the 11/4-mile classic.

"You need some time to grieve and you need some time to contemplate. One thing we knew was we had no intention of getting out of racing or breeding. We needed a year of status quo to take stock and then regroup and move forward. I think we have done that."

The Sam-Son family was never shy about wearing its heart on its sleeve, taking a cue from its patriarch Ernie Samuel, who died in 2000. His daughter, Tammy, and wife Liza were determined to carry on that tradition and did so with the same ardour.

That world came tumbling down when both women died early in 2008, prompting many to wonder about Sam-Son's future.

"In many ways, this horse is a legacy of the past and branching to the future," Samuel said. "There are a lot of things tied to this horse."

The list, indeed, is lengthy.

Start with a fifth Plate win for Sam-Son and third this decade.

Then there was the fact that trainer Mark Frostad won for the fourth time and arguably none more impressive than this masterpiece, given that the horse he described as a "big, goofy kid" won the country's most important race in just his fourth career start.

But more than that was the final imprint of both Tammy and Liza who, in their final year, had a profound impact on this latest, impressive champion. It was Tammy, with her father's keen eye to pedigree, that suggested the Sam-Son mare Eye of the Sphynx be bred to world-class American sire A.P. Indy.

Ernie Samuel's steadfast belief was that the fastest way to acquire a champion was to breed the best to the best. Eye of the Sphynx, being a winner of Canada's most important filly race, the Woodbine Oaks, was a daughter of a former Sam-Son horse, Smart Strike, and thus the perfect match.

And Liza chipped in with her specialty, finding names for the colts and fillies not long after they hit the ground at the Milton farm that has been the birthplace to so many champions. You want to talk lump in your throat? Eye of the Leopard was the last foal Liza named.

'COMMITTED'

"(Tammy's) thoughts were like Ernie's and the family going forward: They are committed to top breeding," Frostad said. "It was one of the last horses that Tammy was involved in deciding the mating and it was typical of the way the way she thinks."

While it's hard to imagine that we've yet seen the best of this colt, the win didn't come easily yesterday. Even though Da Silva gave him a perfect ride, he had some work to do at the top of the stretch.

With Mr. Foricos Two U running strong, Da Silva furiously went to the whip, finally getting up in the last strides to win by a neck in 2:03.84.

"I think I rode the horse as much as Eurico did," said Tammy Samuel's husband, Rick Balaz. "Once I knew we were going to win this thing, I think we all kind of fell apart."


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