Finally, Coltimus Prime showed 'em.
Off at odds of 5 to 1, the handsome Milwaukee Brew colt won the $500,000 Prince of Wales with the greatest of ease, running away from the field of 10 to win by 3 1/2 lengths, showing his dark heels to the lot of them.
Nobody could catch him. Nobody could even challenge him in Canada's second jewel of the Triple Crown. He'd been ninth in the Queen's Plate.
Lynx finished second while the 8-5 favorite, Ami's Holiday, finished third, charging in the stretch after what looked like a bumpy start for a handful of horses. Jockey Luis Contreras said three or four horses that had been outside of him were trying like mad to get to the rail. A scramble ensued. “I let my horse run,” Contreras said.
“After that, I had a perfect trip,” he said. “My horse was running well at the end. He just ran out of room.”
He finished three-quarters of a length behind the import, Lynx in second. Jockey Frankie Peddington, riding for the first time at the humble Fort, said he was sitting in a good spot, but the “winner was sitting easy.” Pennington thought he might have him around the final turn, but Coltimus Prime lived up to his name and sped off. (Coltimus Prime is named after the leader of the Autobots from the Transformer Series. Sounds powerful and formidable.)
The win was a win, but it was more than that. Trainer Justin Nixon, a native of Windsor, Ontario, having grown up in the Standardbred world, had decided to become a Thoroughbred trainer many years ago when he saw that the purses for the Thoroughbreds exceeded that of their sulky brethren by three or four times. And he learned his trade at Fort Erie.
A few years ago, a couple of Toronto guys (Jayson Horner and Mike Weingarten, who call themselves Cabernet Racing) called up Nixon and gave them “a little Fort Erie horse.” He won a race or two with this modest steed, and then two years ago, they sent him Crysta's Court, a filly that won the Victorian Queen Stakes at Woodbine in 2012.
Crysta's Court is a half-sister to Coltimus Prime. Coltimus Prime found his way to Nixon's barn, too. It wasn't long before Nixon decided Coltimus Prime was American Triple Crown material and sent him south. “You only have one chance to try the Derby Trail,” he said.
On the “unique” dirt surface of Tampa Bay Downs, Coltimus Prime ran a clunker – his only other start on dirt – and Nixon threw that race out. Then he finished fifth, beaten 10 lengths by Dance With Fate in the Toyota Blue Grass Stakes. It was a good effort, but not good enough to pursue the Kentucky Derby. Nixon switched gears and headed for the Queen's Plate.
The Queen's Plate also didn't show what Coltimus Prime could do. And when the colt finally showed 'em, running the 1 3/16th miles in 1:54.58, Nixon found himself screaming his lungs out in the quaint stands at Fort Erie, his home.
“I've raced a lot of horses here,” Nixon said. “This was awful special. It sure means a lot. It's a dream come true. I've watched a lot of good horses run here – Dance Smartly – and I've seen a lot of good horses get beat here.”
Indeed, Fort Erie is the graveyard of champions, just like Saratoga. Top steeds have often come a cropper in the Prince of Wales. It's almost expected. And now Coltimus Prime has done the same. “I learned the game here,” Nixon said “I first started my career here. It's something special to win the biggest race here.”
It was indeed a big day for little Fort Erie. The mayor of the town stood in the winner's circle, grinning from ear to ear. Practically dormant on any other days, the cars filed in and filled the parking lot to the back row. They streamed their way to the Tiki bar, ignoring the threat of rain, with gloomy skies and autumnal temperatures. They sidled up to the Pig Out Caterers truck for pork burgers. Prince of Wales day has a different feeling than Queen's Plate day, but it's more romantic than ritzy. Heck, Francis Ford Coppola filmed the racing scenes of The Black Stallion movie here because it so evoked the 1940s scene.
It is a day that jockey Eurico Rosa da Silva will never forget. He'd never won the Prince of Wales. It had escaped him, although last year, he was by far leader in stakes wins at the Toronto oval and he's sticking to that pace this year.
Brazilian-born, Da Silva has ridden for 10 years in Canada. He's won the Queen's Plate twice and he's won the Breeders Stakes. He's been second and third in the Prince of Wales.
When he crossed the finish line, Da Silva was more enthusiastic than usual. He waved his arm wildly in jubilation, pointing to the horse. His words tumbled out.
“It is so great,” he said, after putting the horse straight to the lead (Nixon told him to do what he wanted. If the pace had been soft, Da Silva planned to go to the lead. If somebody wanted to chase for the lead, Da Silva planned to sit back. Nobody pressed for the lead.) “I am so grateful to win this race,” Da Silva bubbled. “It's a very very important race for me. I got my Triple Crown. I am so happy. It's like a dream. I still pinch myself.”
Da Silva had never ridden Coltimus Prime before Nixon asked him to gallop him on Monday. Da Silva fell in love, he said. “He's a lovely horse,” said the jockey. “He has a beautiful stride. When I saw that he worked here in 59, I think it was a great move that Justin did in bringing the horse here early.
“Today, he knew everything he was doing. He just showed me the way. That's it.”
Da Silva said that when the horse went to the gate, he was sharp, but very focused. He had no worries about how to handle him. “He's a quiet horse,” he said. “He's very easy to ride. He went all the way today. He was so happy, galloping.
“When I turned home, I not even wait. This is a long stretch, but I have so much horse it won't be a problem and he can kick home. when I turned for home, I just make him run and he just stronger and stronger. There was no challenge. He ran great.”
The distance was no problem, Da Silva said. He could run 1 1/2 miles easily. How about the third jewel, the Breeders' Stakes on turf Aug. 17? Nixon isn't keen on switching a horse to turf after they've won on the dirt. He'll let the dust settle and figure out the next move. The horse could head south to run on dirt in the United States. It seems he likes the stuff.
“He's just a good dude,” Nixon said. Beside him stood his son, Griffyn, 13 (and a half) and a racetrack habitué since he was in diapers.
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