by Melissa Keith
When the Feb. 15 deadline for 2023 stakes nominations rolled around, Woodbine Mohawk Park happily broke with industry trends.
The Standardbred Canada National Racing Statistics report for the latest quarter (Oct. 1 through Dec. 31, 2022) documented a slight decline in average field size in most provinces, in comparison with the same quarter in 2021.
Yet Canada’s top track had strong numbers for its 18 signature stakes this year, with half holding steady or improving on 2022 nominations. The $1 million Pepsi North America Cup showed a year-over-year increase in 3-year-old pacers nominated, improving from 62 to 86, the most colts and geldings since 2010.
Bill McLinchey, Woodbine’s director of standardbred racing, said he was pleasantly surprised by the response to the 2023 stakes at Woodbine Mohawk Park, particularly for the North America Cup.
“That’s the big one for us,” McLinchey said. “That’s the one that I’m always most interested in, where that landed after Feb. 15… To see that 86 [horses nominated] pop up, that was certainly a very encouraging number.”
Nominations were also up for the $850,000 Metro Pace (213 2-year-old pacers vs. 180 last year); the $540,000 She’s A Great Lady (175 2-year-old pacing fillies vs. 164); the $400,000 Peaceful Way (165 2-year-old filly trotters vs. 135); the $600,000 Canadian Trotting Classic (70 3-year-old trotters this year vs. 57 last year); and the $450,000 Fan Hanover (64 vs. 51 3-year-old pacing fillies).
There were drops in nominations for two events for young horses this season: the $375,000 Elegantimage for 3-year-old trotting fillies (57 nominated in 2023 vs. 67 in 2022) and the $640,000 William Wellwood Memorial for 2-year-old trotters (188 this year vs. 205 last year).
McLinchey said that there was no clear reason for the trends, although “a lot comes down to the scheduling.” Successfully hosting the 2022 Breeders Crown may have also made the Campbellville, ON track a destination attractive to more owners and trainers.
“It certainly wouldn’t hurt, that’s for sure,” McLinchey said. “I think that there’s a certain level of momentum that comes after having the Breeders Crown, whether it be just eyes on your product or horsemen realizing it’s a good spot to race… I hope that participating owners who were here in October did enjoy themselves and felt that it was a spot they wanted to come back and see again in 2023.”
The Canadian Pacing Derby (46 nominations) and Maple Leaf Trot (37 nominations) “were down a little bit, but not by an alarming amount,” McLinchey said. “It was consistent in the ballpark of where it’s been over the last number of years. I think it’s important to look not just at the previous year, but at past years, to make sure that your level is staying consistent. You may have a spike one year and then it may be hard to get that level again.”
Some standout 2022 performers have been nominated for the WMP open stakes, including Alrajah One IT (6, 1:50.3f; $1,512,122), scratched from last year’s Maple Leaf Trot due to injury; Dan Patch Trotter of the Year Bella Bellini (4, 1:49.4m; $2,052,600); Dan Patch 3-Year-Old Trotting Filly of the Year Joviality S (1:50.2m; $1,978,983); and 2021 Canadian Pacing Derby champ/Dan Patch Older Pacing Horse of the Year Allywag Hanover (5, 1:46.0m; $1,671,380).
According to McLinchey, their presence didn’t deter the owners of rivals.
“We didn’t hear much from people, except the locals who took a shot and made that first payment,” he said on Wednesday (March 15), the date for the first payment of sustaining fees for WMP stakes. “I think at this point, they’ll still take the shot. To nominate, that wouldn’t deter them. Maybe as it’s time to make that final sustaining payment, which would be May 15, if someone is really on a roll by that point, I could see it, but I think they are still nominating because nobody knows how those horses are going to come back in their 3-year-old year or the next year.”
While quantity is important, it’s quality that matters most.
“Really what we look at is: Are we getting the top horses?” McLinchey said. “In a race like the North America Cup or the Fan Hanover, are we getting the year-end champions, the 2-year-olds that are now 3? In the end, the high number of nominations is great to see, but you want to make sure you’re getting the right ones… that the top connections of that top horse are choosing your race to race in. For myself as a racing fan, I’m excited to see [O’Brien and Dan Patch 2-Year-Old Pacing Colt of the Year] Stockade Seelster [p, 2, 1:49.3s; $686,268] come back and Confederate [p, 2, 1:49.2m; $443,700]… I do think we have customers who are pulling those lists to see who’s eligible and hopefully marking their calendars to see that horse race at Mohawk.
“If there’s one point I’d like to make, it would be that with all of the increased money in other jurisdictions for sires stakes and open stakes, we were just really happy that our numbers not only held their own but were up. Again, I think it comes down to prestige behind Grand Circuit races and open stakes. It’s refreshing to see that people are still coming to Mohawk.”
Dana Keyes, whom McLinchey said “handles all of our staking and administrative duties” at Woodbine Mohawk Park, has been busy.
“The administrative part has gone well,” McLinchey said. “Now it’s just the racing.”
McLinchey has good news for anyone wanting to catch the next generation of stars before the WMP stakes season begins.
“There is actually something in the works,” he said. “We’re looking to have a horsemen’s brunch for one of the baby races [dates], more details to come, but it will be one of the Saturday mornings in June. Everyone is welcome to come to baby races to watch live or on livestream.”