Don Schnell, trainer and co-owner of 5-year-old Manitoba-bred Escape Clause, spends every waking moment with the hard-knocking mare, who will make her 32nd career start at her 10th different track on Saturday when she bursts from the gate in the Grade 1, $700,000 Ogden Phipps at Belmont Park.
Assiniboia, Century Downs, Canterbury, Zia Park, Northlands Park, Del Mar, Santa Anita, Sunland, Oaklawn Park – she's been everywhere, and won at most. Last out, she battled Ogden Phipps rival Midnight Bisou the length of the Oaklawn stretch in the Grade 1 Apple Blossom, losing by a nose to the multiple Grade 1 winner.
Escape Clause has come a long way from winning $30,000 Sales Stakes races at Assiniboia Downs in her native Winnipeg. She's captured the City of Edmonton Distaff at Northlands in Edmonton, Alberta; the CTHS Sales Stakes at Century Downs, in Calgary, Alberta; the Grade 3 La Canada at Del Mar in California; and the Harry Henson in New Mexico, to list just a few of her 20 career wins.
Schnell said his big mare thrives on traveling and racing.
“Last fall, I went from Winnipeg to Calgary and we won a couple stakes there. Then, we went and based in Phoenix and shipped over to Del Mar and Santa Anita a couple times,” said Schnell. “From there, we went to Sunland Park and won a hundred grander there and then we went the long tour to Oaklawn Park and ran in the Apple Blossom and ran well there. Then we went back to Phoenix and eventually to Canterbury and now we're here. I should get her on a frequent flier program.”
Schnell made the 1,400-mile journey from Canterbury to New York with Escape Clause by horse trailer. It's his first time at Belmont Park since 1987 when Alysheba, trained by Jack Van Berg, was denied a Triple Crown, finishing fourth to Bet Twice.
“It was 32 years ago that I was here with Alysheba and Jack Van Berg,” recalled Schnell. “I wasn't really with the horse, but Jack and I go way back. I spent winters with Jack in California. At that time, we stayed in a hotel here where it was really, really dangerous. Van Berg picked the hotel, but it was in a bad area.”
The memory stuck with Schnell, who has made different living arrangements for his return to the Empire State.
“You won't believe this one, I'm staying in my horse trailer,” laughed Schnell. “It's not as bad as it sounds. The living quarters are self-contained, it's actually pretty nice. Did you ever see that movie 50-1?”
The neighborhood has blossomed since Schnell's last visit.
“Belmont is one of the most beautiful tracks there is, nice barn area, lots of grass,” said Schnell. “We've been training on the main track to get her accustomed to it. I think she'll like it because it's a bigger track, with a bigger turn and with her big stride I think that's an advantage for her. This morning, we went for a mile and a half gallop and she was very sharp. Yesterday, she went a mile and a quarter. She's adjusted well.”
Escape Clause has improved significantly since her maiden score on August 20, 2016 at Assiniboia, which earned a 40 Beyer Speed Figure to the lofty 101 Beyer garnered from her Apple Blossom effort. Schnell said he took his time with the mare before giving her a chance to compete in California in graded races in November.
“We're from Canada and that's where we race,” explained Schnell. “I won't ship her to anybody. She's a different horse to handle and like a lot of good horses, she's just a little quirky. She knows me and I know her and we get along real good – if I was to leave her with somebody, that could change.”
In 2017, the hearty mare won the R.C. Anderson and Jack Hardy at Assiniboia just four days apart. Last year, Escape Clause won 9 of 13 starts, nearly double the tally of scores recorded by Midnight Bisou.
“She's a throwback to the old generation of horses that are tough and sound and could run every week if you wanted to,” said Schnell. “One time, I ran her in two stakes in four days and she won both of them. Last summer, I ran her three times in three weeks and she won all three of them. She's different.”
Schnell said that the frequency of her starts boiled down to both the mare's ability to handle the pressure as well as the dollars on offer. On Saturday, the winner's share of the Ogden Phipps purse is $375,000.
“Where we run, we have to run more often because they're small purses. On Saturday, I think we'd get $30,000 to run last. That's more than she got all summer to win some of those races – not that we're going to run last,” laughed Schnell.
To win on Saturday, Escape Clause will look to turn the tables on her Apple Blossom rival in a talented five-horse field likely to be led to the turn by the speedy Come Dancing. Schnell said Escape Clause should appreciate pace to chase.
“Her best game is to lay off second or third and have a target in front of her, “said Schnell. “She loves to look at them and size them up.”
A Sovereign Award winner in Canada as 2018 Champion Older Mare, Escape Clause has picked up a lot of silverware during her memorable journey with Schnell – not that they've had time to enjoy the spoils.
“I didn't go to the Sovereign Awards. I didn't go home to Winnipeg for all the awards she won there and she was also Mare of the Year and Horse of the Year in Alberta and I didn't get to go there either,” said Schnell.
The veteran conditioner will instead be satisfied to sacrifice the silverware for a chance to lead Escape Clause into the winner's circle as a Grade 1 winner on Saturday. And, if it does happen, don't expect the kindly conditioner to say much.
“I was always told – when you win, say little. When you lose, say less,” said Schnell.
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