On paper, Sunday's $500,000 Prince of Wales Stakes is a coin-flip between Niigon and A Bit O'Gold.
"It looks like an exciting duet," said Jerry Davis, the Fort Erie Race Track's morning line maker, who lists Queen's Plate winner Niigon as the even-money favorite and A Bit O'Gold, the Plate runner-up, at 7-5.
Niigon (nee-gone) certainly was the best on Plate day, when he opened a two-length lead in the stretch and held on to win by three-quarters.
But, as Fort Erie horseplayers have come to realize over the years, the winner of the 1 1/4 -mile Plate doesn't get a free pass in the shorter (by 110 yards) Prince of Wales. Since Fort Erie's biggest race was moved to the dirt in 1988, the Plate winner has been upset in eight of 15 tries.
Of course, A Bit O'Gold -- the beaten favorite in the Plate -- looms as the logical spoiler, even if he's only going to pay about $4.80. Trainer Catherine Day Phillips thinks her gelding had several excuses.
"He really didn't have an ideal trip," she said, referring to the way her chestnut gelding got squeezed going into the first turn.
She said jockey Jono Jones "had to move way earlier than he wanted to. He had to move at the five-eighths pole because he could see he was further back than he wanted to be. He had to move a lot earlier than he wanted to and he had a long, sustaining drive that started at the five-eighths pole. In other races, he's been in position where he didn't have to start that kind of drive and was able to pounce a little more. I think he was frustrated about the way the race unfolded.
"The way the race unfolded, it really wasn't his style and I think despite the way things were looking into the first turn, he still ran so hard and he still was getting to the winner," Day Phillips said.
"At the end, he was still making up ground on him. He ran a huge, huge race on heart, pure heart. Hopefully at Fort Erie he will get a trip that's a little more suitable and that goes his way a little more. . . . Right to the last jump he gave it everything he had. It was heartbreaking to see him run that hard and get beat," she said.
The Happy Handicapper tends to agree with her assessment, but he also thinks both Niigon and A Bit O'Gold might "bounce" from their strenuous Plate efforts. Their stretch drive into the wind was extremely slow (the last quarter went in 26.85 seconds) and tiring and jockey Robert Landry had to whip Niigon more than 20 times to get him to the wire as A Bit O'Gold slowly trimmed the margin.
The problem for those looking for a long shot is that even if you think the top two might regress from their Plate efforts, does any other horse figure to improve enough to beat them? Just in Case Jimmy or His Smoothness, who finished almost nine lengths behind the runner-up? Or Copper Trail, who came in six lengths behind them? Probably not.
No, thinks the H.H. This is one of those situations where you look for an upsetter in a "fresh horse," an animal who skipped the Plate and hid in the bushes until the Prince of Wales.
There are only two "new shooters" in the Prince of Wales. Picadilly Bay and One to Celebrate.
Picadilly Bay skipped the Plate because he was sick with what trainer John Ross called "a slight bit of mucus in his lungs."
Ross said the problem has since been "cleaned up and he's had two works. . . . The horse scoped clean and everything looked good and we're ready to go forward with him."
That's nice, but Picadilly Bay, who has not raced since June 13, looks to the H.H. like a horse in need of a "tightener" before he's ready for a top effort.
That leaves One to Celebrate, a big chestnut colt with four white feet who skipped the Plate because trainer Reade Baker didn't think he was ready yet.
But Baker changed his mind after One to Celebrate blew away eight opponents in a 1 1/1 6-mile allowance race at Woodbine on July 1. He led most of the way and drew off to win by 5 1/4 lengths in an explosive finish.
"That race was more impressive than it looks on paper," Baker said. "He went head-to-head with a horse for five-eighths of a mile and then just drew away."
But One to Celebrate, 12-1 on the morning line, does have a weight and distance problem. He has never raced farther than 1 1/1 6 miles and he has never toted Sunday's weight of 126 pounds. And Baker admits his charge "needs to pick up 15 Beyer points to be in the game." According to the Daily Racing Form, One to Celebrate ran a 78 Beyer, compared to Niigon's 97.
But, Baker said, "that's not unheard of. . . . heavy favorites have been known to lose at Fort Erie before."
Baker knows about that first hand, from both sides of the finish line. On July 4, his Touchnow upset 15-100 favorite Eye of the Sphynx in the $250,000 Labatt Bison City Stakes. Last Sunday his Summersville went down the drain at 3-5 odds in a $24,000 allowance race.
This looks like a tough race to make money on, but the H.H. plans to box the two favorites in an exacta with One to Celebrate (a 2-3-4 ticket) and hope something weird happens. It wouldn't be the first time.