TORONTO — Mark Casse will have three real shots at earning a second career Queen's Plate win.
Casse, Canada's top trainer the last seven years and 10 times overall, will send Plate Trial winner Telekinesis, Woodbine Oaks runner-up Wonder Gadot and Neepawa to the starting gate June 30 at Woodbine Racetrack. Casse was originally pointing Flameaway, who was 13th in the 2018 Kentucky Derby, to the Plate but the Ontario-bred three-year-old will run in the Grade 3, US$500,000 Ohio Derby as the 5-2 early favourite Saturday at Thistledown.
"Flameaway spent his early career on Tapeta (the surface of Woodbine's main track) and he just acted like a horse on it," said Casse, who won the 2014 Plate with filly Lexie Lou. "In other words he didn't train extremely well, so we had some concerns with him handling it and had to make a decision.
"If we went to the Queen's Plate, it would throw us out of the dirt picture in the U.S. What this does now is set you up for the Haskell or Travers, which are Grade 1 races, and from a stallion's perspective it could increase your horse's value."
That's not to say Flameaway won't run in the Canadian Triple Crown.
"I'd say there's a good possibility Flameaway may show up for the Prince of Wales (second jewel on July 24 on dirt at Fort Erie Racetrack)," Casse said.
Five years ago, Casse opted against running Uncaptured — Canada's 2012 horse of the year as a two-year-old — in the Plate because he had trouble running on Polytrack — Woodbine's surface at the time. Casse entered Uncaptured into the Prince of Wales and the horse responded with his first victory as a three-year-old.
Even with Flameaway's absence, Casse's trio will be a formidable one in the 1 1/4-mile, $1-million Plate. In February, Telekinesis was installed as the 4-1 favourite ahead of Flameaway (5-1), Wonder Gadot (6-1) and Neepawa (8-1) in the Winterbook, a hypothetical listing of early odds for the 109 three-year-olds — 95 colts and geldings, 14 fillies — nominated to the Canadian Triple Crown.
"I feel like we have three real legitimate shots," Casse said. "I've run many horses in the Queen's Plate and a lot of times it's been because it was there, it's a big race and it's a lot of money and you're trying to catch lightening in a bottle.
"That's not the case this time. I think we're running three horses with serious, legitimate chances."
Telekinesis went wire-to-wire to win the $125,000 Plate Trial in his Woodbine debut June 9. On the same card, Dixie Moon, the 3-1 second choice, nipped 1-5 favourite Wonder Gadot by a head in the $500,000 Woodbine Oaks, the opening event of the Canadian Triple Tiara for fillies.
Both races covered 1 1/8 miles and Dixie Moon — the 10-1 Winterbook fifth choice — posted a slightly faster time in the Oaks (1:50.38) than Telekinesis did in the Plate Trial (1:50.4).
"I thought (Telekinesis') race was good but not great," Casse said. "The first time you run on Tapeta, a lot of times there's a learning curve there and maybe a conditioning curve.
"I think most of the time you'll see an improvement in their next start and I'd expect him to improve. Given the way he ran, I think 1 1/4 miles should not be a problem."
Wonder Gadot, Canada's champion two-year-old filly last year, came into the Woodbine Oaks after a solid second-place finish by a half-length to Monomoy Girl in the $1-million Kentucky Oaks on May 4. It was the best effort by a Canadian-bred horse in the race since Gal in A Ruckus won in 1995.
Wonder Gadot, with jockey Patrick Husbands aboard, rallied from last to contend for the lead but Dixie Moon and jockey Eurico Rosa Da Silva kept the favourite at bay for the upset win. In both Oaks races, Wonder Gadot rallied from well back to contend for the win but couldn't finish — so Casse is pondering whether to run her with blinkers in the Plate.
"In the last two, 2 1/2 months, she has lost $1 million in purses by a total of maybe three feet," Casse said. "She kind of comes up and then tends to idle a little bit so we're trying to figure out some way to maybe get her to be a little more keen to run by horses.
"We also know that a 1 1/4 miles is in her wheelhouse where that's not the case with others."
John Velazquez, who rode Wonder Gadot in the Kentucky Oaks, returns for the Plate while Husbands will be aboard Telekinesis. French jockey Florent Geroux, a multiple Breeders' Cup winner who earned Casse his first Cup title in 2015, will ride Neepawa.
Dan Ralph, The Canadian Press