FORT ERIE – His first-ever race at the Fort didn’t work out so well for Hall-of-Famer John Velazquez.
Two years ago he rode Battery for Todd Pletcher to a fifth-place finish, and he admitted to having “no horse” while walking back to the Fort Erie jocks room. He returns on Tuesday evening to ride the favorite, Wonder Gadot (7-5), in Fort Erie Race Track’s signature race.
This time he certainly has the horse for the $400,000 Prince of Wales Stakes.
The Queen’s Plate winner will look to become the first horse since Triple Crown-winning Wando in 2003 to capture the first two legs of the Canadian Triple Crown. It was the filly’s first win after finishing second in the Grade 1 Kentucky Oaks, the most prestigious race for fillies in the United States, and then second to Dixie Moon in the Woodbine Oaks.
“She showed up on the day that we needed her,” said Velazquez on the Saratoga jockey path on opening day. “She’s always knocking on the door in the big races. She got beat by a very good horse in the Kentucky Oaks. Now she goes to the Plate and she ran the race we expected of her,” said Velazquez.
The Prince of Wales Stakes, restricted to 3-year-olds bred in Canada, will be held for the 83rd time during a twilight card at the border oval.
With the biggest purse for a horse race near Buffalo proper, a field of six includes the top three finishers in the Queen’s Plate, who will attempt to secure the middle leg of the Triple Crown.
The 1 3/16-mile race will run at approximately 7:30 p.m., the eighth on a nine-race card. First post on Tuesday at Fort Erie to kick off the twilight card is at 4:10 p.m.
The win in the Plate was Velazquez’ first in a Canadian Triple Crown race during his Hall-of-Fame career. He has two Kentucky Derby wins on his resume with Animal Kingdom (2011) and Always Dreaming (2017), so this is a rare visit to this part of the country.
The jockey affectionately known as “Johnny V” is not worried about his inexperience at the track, pointing right at Wonder Gadot as the reason.
“No matter where you go, you have to have a nice horse,” said Velazquez. “You watch the races early in the day and see how the track is playing. The very good horses respond, no matter where you go, and that’s a good thing,” said Velazquez.
Trainer Mark Casse will be seeking his fourth Prince of Wales title with the filly. He is using the race as a prep for the Grade 1 Alabama at Saratoga and likely wouldn’t attempt the final leg of the Canadian crown at Woodbine in August.
The last two fillies that ran in the Alabama, Inglorious in 2011 and Holy Helena last year, failed miserably, but neither used the Wales as a prep race. That tactic may prove the difference, and it sounds like Kentucky Oaks winner Monomoy Girl, the current leader in the 3-year-old filly division, likely will skip it for the $1 million Cotillion at Parx near Philadelphia.
Velazquez deferred to Casse on using this race as a prep for the Alabama, but you know he would love to ride her at Saratoga.
“I’m not sure, hopefully that would be the case, he’s the trainer and he knows her really well. I’m just the pilot and glad that I’m part of the team,” said Velazquez.
Wonder Gadot would become the eighth filly to win the Prince of Wales in its 83-year history and the first since Dixie Moon in 2012. Two fillies captured the Canadian Triple Crown, most notably Dance Smartly in 1991.
The most interesting newcomer in the race is Home Base (8-1), a Street Sense colt who shipped in from Kentucky for trainer Michael Tomlinson. He is the only horse in the race with a work over the border oval, breezing four furlongs in 48 and one on Friday. It's a move that proved successful for Justin Nixon and Coltimus Prime in 2014.
If you draw a line through his Matt Winn start, where he bobbled at the start and was never a factor in the race, his numbers make sense that he could contend in a restricted race such as this.
Cooler Mike (4-1) impressed in the Plate, finishing third for trainer Nick Noswenko, and should have no issues with the distance, based on his effort at Woodbine. It will be the first try on dirt for the son of Giant Gizmo. He had a blowout work last week on Woodbine’s dirt training track and could move forward at the Fort.
Jockey Jesse Campbell, who has never won the middle jewel, will be in to ride Cooler Mike.
The runner-up in the Plate, Aheadbyacentury (5-2), is the second choice on the morning line and will also run on a surface other than Tapeta for the first time in the Wales. The connections won last year’s plate with upset winner Cool Catomine.
Trainer John Ross will seek his second straight middle jewel, and jockey Luis Contreras will attempt to become the first jockey in history to win three straight Prince of Wales. It would be his fourth career win in the race.
It will be a tall order to defeat the classy filly with a U.S. Hall of Famer in the irons for Canada’s top trainer. We’ll use the dirt-based horse Home Base to split the Plate winner from the two that finished behind her at Woodbine.
Post Time Outlook: 1 – Wonder Gadot; 2 – Home Base; 3 – Cooler Mike; and 4 – Aheadbyacentury.
Gene Kershner, a Buffalo-based turf writer, is a member of the National Turf Writers and Broadcasters Association, and tweets @EquiSpace.