It was his 898th training victory, but easily the one that meant the most to Canadian-born Don Schnell. His Escape Clause won the G3 La Canada Stakes at Santa Anita Park on Saturday by 5 ½ lengths, then jogged back to meet her owner and trainer in the winner's circle for his first graded stakes presentation.
“It's special, one of the highlights, well, probably the highlight of my racing career,” said Schnell. “I never thought I'd win a graded stakes race there, maybe a claiming race, but never a big one.”
The trainer had dreamed of winning races in Southern California since his earliest days at the racetrack, following an uncle who trained horses to the stable area after growing up on a small farm. After several years “learning the ropes,” Schnell went out on his own; through 45 years in the game, he once earned a leading trainer title at the now-defunct Stampede Park in Calgary but these days prefers to focus on a smaller stable.
Escape Clause is easily the star of that stable. A Manitoba-bred daughter of Going Commando (Unbridled's Song), the 5-year-old mare has won 19 of her 28 starts, earning $423,500 for the man who picked her out for a bargain $3,800 as a yearling.
“Well, I've bought a lot of slow ones, too,” Schnell laughed. “You have to look ahead to what they're going to look like, how they're going to mature… She was just built like a horse that was gonna grow up and hopefully be something.”
In the past eight months, especially, Escape Clause has shown herself to be that “something.” Beginning in June, the filly kicked off a nine-race win streak from Assiniboia Downs in Winnipeg, Manitoba all the way to Del Mar in Southern California. She won at distances from six furlongs to 1 1/8 miles on the main track, winning eight races by a combined 45 ¾ lengths, then took the one-mile Kathryn Crosby Stakes at Del Mar on the turf via DQ.
Perhaps beyond her best distance when third in the G3 Red Carpet over 11 furlongs on the turf, Escape Clause suffered the consequences of a difficult trip in the 1 1/8-mile (turf) G3 Robert J. Frankel to finish a late-charging fourth.
Back in the starting gate just two weeks later, Escape Clause dominated the G3 La Canada to complete 1 1/16 miles on the fast dirt course in 1:41.89.
“When I said 'Go,' man…she took off with me,” said jockey Tyler Baze, aboard Escape Clause for the first time in the La Canada. “When she got the lead, she kind of pulled up a little bit…Down the stretch, she was just galloping…I was hollering 'Come on mama, keep running!' She's amazing.”
Schnell would have to agree with that sentiment. He saw something special in her early on, and even in her first race when she was beaten into fifth, Schnell believed Escape Clause was “much the best” of that group.
“She got into trouble and kept on trying,” he said. “But she's gotten so much stronger and better in the last six months. Some of it was maturity, physically, but another reason is that she's learned how to relax so well… I wish I could take the credit for that, but she figured it out on her own. If you watch the (La Canada), Tyler's reins are just flapping loose down the backside.”
For as well as she relaxes in her races, Escape Clause is a bit of a diva in the shed row.
“She's a real sweetheart in the barn, but she can be a little quirky,” Schnell said. “She is a handful to train… it also seems I'm the only one who can get a bridle on her. I have to loosen it all the way to put it on, then if she behaves, she gets a mint.
“Well, she usually gets the mint no matter what.”
With her flexibility in course and distance, there are any number of options for Escape Clause's next start. The Grade 1 Matriarch is on the table, Schnell said, but he's trying not to look too far ahead. Since he doesn't have any interests in the breeding part of the game, Escape Clause won't stay in his care when she retires, so Schnell is focused on enjoying the time he has left with his big mare.
“Her senses are just heightened, so much more so than any other horse I've had,” he said. “She can hear and see better, and she just acts different from other horses. She stops and looks and absorbs the things around her… It's like they said about Abel Tasman at the sale, though (Escape Clause isn't) on that level, of course: She just carries herself differently.”
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