On a soggy day, far more suited to ducks than horses, it was somewhat fitting that an "ugly duckling" stole the show at Fort Erie Race Track.
Nithi, a 3-year-old filly, raced to the front early and never looked back to win the 44th running of the $75,000-added Bison City Stakes, witnessed by a crowd of 1,917 Monday afternoon. She traveled the 1 1/1 6-mile distance under jockey Mickey Walls in 1:45 1/5 to win by 1 1/4 lengths.
"I'm so happy we stuck with her," said owner-breeder Richard Shaw in the winner's circle. "That she would get to this point is just amazing, but it makes all the time and effort worthwhile."
That Nithi ever made it to the races is somewhat amazing in itself. The daughter of Wolf Power out of the Irish mare Apachee Love was born with a crooked leg, a conformation deformity that often renders horses unable to race.
"She doesn't have the conformation of a race horse," Shaw said. "She doesn't stand straight and she's got a big, old nose, so she isn't pretty to look at, but she's beautiful to me right now."
Nithi hasn't been pushed hard to this point in her brief career. She had one start as a 2-year-old and this was her fifth race this year.
While second- and third-place finishers No Foul Play and Montgomery Belle, respectively, were competing in graded stakes races this spring, Nithi was racing in maiden special weights and cheaper condition allowance races at Woodbine.
Monday's win, the third of her career, was worth $49,005 and more than doubled her lifetime earnings to $81,345. The field was reduced to five starters when Wila So Rare was scratched.
"When Nithi was younger, we were advised by some people who are considered experts in the field to not even bother training her because she wouldn't make it to the races, but we obviously ignored that advice," Shaw explained.
"Right now, I could kick myself for not staking her to the (Grade I) Canadian Oaks (where Montgomery Belle finished second in her last start)."
"It doesn't matter how they look, only how they run," trainer Daniel Bell said. "She's a big, awkward horse and she's definitely got a temper. It was worth it to take our time with her and not rush her along." Bell said he was surprised at how easily his charge handled the sloppy going as this was her first time racing on a wet track.
"I didn't know how the footing would affect her, but she handled it very well," Bell said. "She likes to run on the front end, so she didn't get a lot of mud thrown up into her face either."
"We wanted to get out of the gate well and let her set the pace she was comfortable with," Walls said. "She got away real easy (a 24-second opening quarter and the half in 48 seconds), so I thought she would be really strong in the stretch and she was. Once we turned for home, I was pretty sure it was ours."
Nithi led by 2 1/2 lengths after 6 furlongs, before No Foul Play, ridden by Steven Bahen, made a bid along the rail.
The lead narrowed to 1 1/2 lengths as they entered the stretch, but Nithi was able to hold off Foul Play's challenge, along with one from late-running 9-5 favorite Montgomery Belle, who finished another three-quarters of a length back under jockey Constant Montpellier.
Nithi paid $7.10 to win, $3.70 to place and $2.60 to show. No Foul Play returned $3.50 and $2.50 and Montgomery Belle paid $2.80.