FORT ERIE, Ont. — Back in 1983, when the Happy Handicapper first saw the light of print, he received a phone call from Anne Gonzalez of Niagara Falls, N.Y., the mother of a young horse trainer at the Fort Erie Race Track.
She told him, in essence, "watch my son, Nick. He's going to be a good one."
Nice call, Mrs. G.
Nick Gonzalez, now 58, says his mother "is still my biggest fan."
Since that phone call, he's gone on to become a major player at Fort Erie — where he was the champion trainer in 2005 and 2009 and is this year's leading trainer — and has gradually become a force to be reckoned with in the big leagues at Woodbine in Toronto.
Gonzalez, who — with his wife Martha, son Nick Jr., 21, and a staff of about 30 — runs a 70-horse stable split between Fort Erie and Woodbine, is on the verge of taking a huge step up in class.
Last Sunday, his 3-year-old gelding named Big Red Mike scored a surprising win in Woodbine's $151,000 Plate Trial Stakes, a major stepping stone to the $1 million Queen's Plate.
As a result, Big Red Mike probably will be one of the favorites in Canada's most famous race, to be run July 4 in the presence of Queen Elizabeth herself.
The Gonzalez stable has already produced an 18-race winner (Parnitha in 1983-84), a Canadian champion (2-year-old Wholelotofbourbon in 2004) and was headed for the Plate last year before My Bad got injured in his final workout. But this will be its first entrant in the oldest, continuously run stakes race in North America.
"We were in awe [Sunday]. We didn't know what to do," said Martha.
"We've won stakes. We've won other stakes at Woodbine, but [Sunday] was different," said Nick. "Last year we were kind of getting close. ... We got caught up in that Plate stuff. But we set ourselves up for a big letdown when he got hurt.
When Big Red Mike — a tall chestnut with a white blaze named for a grandson of owner/breeder Dom Romeo of Toronto — came to the Gonzalez barn at Fort Erie last year he was anything but a Queen's Plate candidate.
"He came to us last summer as a colt and that didn't last too long. He was such a bad boy we got him altered [castrated]," Nick said. "He started behaving a little better after that but he's always been a handful."
"The first three times we breezed him, he never made time," Martha recalled.
"He was so big and dumb and gangly," added Nick. "We didn't get him to the races until mid- November."
"Mike" made his first competitive appearance Nov. 21 at Woodbine, where he finished second in a 6½-furlong maiden race. Two weeks later, he won at 7 furlongs on the last day of the season.
The horse wintered at the Gonzalez farm in Ocala, Fla., and trained at the Palm Meadows, Fla., facility under Brian Lynch before coming back north to Woodbine. He finished second, then third, in allowance races under jockey Emma-Jayne Wilson, who had ridden him in all four starts.
But with Wilson, the first female to ride a Queen's Plate winner (Mike Fox in 2007), already committed to another horse, Gonzalez recruited Plate winner (Eye of the Leopard, 2009) Eurico Rosa Da Silva to ride "Mike" in the Plate Trial and in two fast workouts (6 furlongs in 1:11 1/5 and 5 furlongs in 1:01 1/5 ) leading up to the horse's first stakes attempt.
The race got off to a bad start when "Mike" briefly unseated Da Silva, who held on to the reins, in the post parade.
"He [Da Silva] hung onto him and said "If he's going, I'm going with him,' " Martha said.
When the 1-mile, eight-horse race started, Big Red Mike — to the surprise of some onlookers — went straight to the top.
"We had been training him for the last two weeks to come from behind, rating him in behind horses when we were breezing him," Nick said. "But we looked at the [Daily] Racing Form and came to the conclusion [that] there was no pace in the race and that [the front] was where we had to be."
Big Red Mike set an easy pace (49 3/5 seconds for the first half mile, 1:13 2/5 for 6 furlongs) and led until the top of the stretch. Then Mobilizer, ridden by Jono Jones, ran up on his inside and stuck his head in front.
But "Mike" dug in, retook the lead and pulled away to win by a half-length. He paid $19.90 to win as the 8.95-1 sixth choice in the betting.
"I kind of thought the way Jono sent that horse on through that he was just going to widen away from us," Nick said. "He [Big Red Mike] was ready for a fight. ... I knew he wasn't going to go down. ... He got pretty easy [fractions]. Going in 13 and change for him, that's just galloping along."
Can Big Red Mike step up and beat Canada's finest 3-year-olds at 1¼ miles?
"I had my doubts about [carrying] 126 pounds and a mile and an eighth, and then he showed me," Nick said.
"I can train him [to go farther]," added Martha. "He's an easy horse to train. He's not hard on himself."
While the horse may be ready, Nick and Martha have some shopping to do.
The Plate is traditionally a dress-up occasion and although Nick usually is seen wearing a T-shirt and a New York Yankees cap, he's going to have to find a top hat and a cutaway coat.
Until the big day, "We're just going to try to maintain our composure with the horse and everybody at the barn," Nick said. "We're just going to try to make the next three weeks go nice and smooth."