By Chris Lomon / @ChrisLomon
Photos by John Watkins / Mr. Will Wong
Can an Ontario-bred win a major Grade 1 race? On September 14 at Woodbine, the horse racing world found out the answer.
The tote board said it likely wouldn’t happen. A series of troubled trips suggested the same fate. Taking on some top turf talent certainly didn’t make the task any easier.
John Watkins photo
But on a Saturday in Toronto, El Tormenta, Sam-Son Farm’s hard-luck four-year-old homebred, beat all the odds, including the 44-1 number on the tote board, and took all the spoils, to the tune of $600,000 for his connections, in the Grade 1 $1 million Ricoh Woodbine Mile.
Call it a win – the $91.40 payoff was the largest in the 22-year history of the Woodbine Mile – for the home team.
After a few frustrating races where the son of Stormy Atlantic found himself stuck behind a wall of horses in the stretch run, the dark bay, courtesy of a brilliant ride from Eurico Rosa da Silva, discovered a seam along the rail, and then outdueled turf titan Got Stormy for a half-length score.
It was the third Mile crown for Sam-Son. Soaring Free took the 2004 running, five years after Quiet Resolve’s stunning upset.
Rick Balaz, who handles farm President duties for Sam-Son, having taken the reins of the role after his wife, Tammy Samuel, passed away in 2008, wasn’t on-hand to witness the win.
But it didn’t dampen his enthusiasm in the least.
“We’ve been travelling a lot and weren’t able to be there, but we watched it on TV – and it was just as exciting,” said Balaz. “I was nice and calm until they turned for home. Then there was a lot of yelling going on. It was great.
“It’s just such an incredible feeling. It’s almost hard to believe when you’re in that kind of company,” he continued. “There were some pretty darn good horses in there. You know that you’re 44-1 and you think, ‘Well, we’ll see. Hopefully he gets a good trip and runs a good race.’ You’re not really expecting to win the thing.”
It was a sentiment shared by Dave Whitford, Sam-Son’s longtime Ontario broodmare and stallion manager.
Mr. Will Wong photo
“After his last few starts, no, I didn’t think he would get there,” started Whitford. “The filly (Got Stormy) did get to the lead. She got the jump on us and I thought she was gone. But Eurico was very patient, and didn’t panic when she went. Looking at the replay, he saw her go, and still sat a little bit. He had the opening, and he timed it perfectly. If He got to the front too soon, it might have bitten him in the rear end. For all of his experience and all of his talents, it was just a magical ride.”
An exuberant da Silva, the six-time Sovereign Award-winning jockey who’ll hang up his tack at the end the Toronto oval meet, brought El Tormenta back in front of the crowd to a raucous reception from those who packed the grandstand.
Whitford, and the rest of the Sam-Son team were moved by the heartfelt reaction to the victory.
“That was magic…pure magic. I think the crowd loves Eurico as much as he loves the crowd. I’m sure some people had a few dollars on the horse because it was Eurico and Sam-Son, and Gail (trainer, Cox). It was the underdogs, but not really. You have a jockey who has been the best in the colony for more than a few years, and an outfit like Sam-Son, and a trainer like Gail – we could definitely feel the love that day.”
For Sam-Son, whose magnificent band of Thoroughbreds have competed – and starred – at Woodbine and on the world stage since 1972, it represented one of the outfit’s most memorable triumphs.
John Watkins photo
“At those odds, you probably have to think it’s right up there in wins we’ve had, in the top five, for sure,” offered Whitford. “You know he’s had some unlucky trips, but we knew he was better than those odds. Was it a surprise? Yes. But it was a beautiful surprise. The first thing I said to Eurico was, ‘I thought the filly got the jump on you.’ He just smiled and said, ‘No…my guy, once I engaged him, he took off.’ They both had all the right answers.”
And the iconic Sam-Son silks seemed to somehow stand out even more than usual.
“I don’t think that there was ever any doubt that an Ontario-bred could do it,” said Whitford. “I know it’s been a while since one (an Ontario-bred) has done it (win a Grade 1), but there are still some very, very strong breeders in the province, and they are breeding to some very good stallions. Can somebody do it breeding to an Ontario sire? It’s going to be a little tougher, but anything is possible in this game, and that’s what keeps us all coming back.”
Nearly 50 years after Takaring became Sam-Son’s first stakes winner, and 45 years after 1975 Ernie Samuel purchased his first two yearlings No Class, and Loudrangle at the Woodbine Sales, one of North America’s most prominent and prosperous breeding and owner operations remains a staple in Thoroughbred racing.
Champion like Dance Smartly, Sky Classic, Chief Bearhart, Dancethruthedawn, Quiet Resolve, Up With the Birds, and many others have all made their mark at racetracks across Canada, and the United States, winning some of the biggest races in the sport.
Sam-Son has received 11 Sovereign Awards as Canada’s top owner, nine as breeder.
Soon enough, they’ll see their colours flying from a flagpole inside the Woodbine infield in recognition of their Mile win. The red and gold flag will stand not far from the Canadian flag that waves year-round at the Toronto oval.
It will be yet another reminder of Whitford and Balaz both see as the ultimate team victory.
“Michael and Lisa (Balaz’s son and daughter) were both there for the big win,” noted Whitford. “We were all breathless and speechless. We didn’t get off the backstretch until around 8-8:30 that night. It was just a magical time for all of us. It was lovely to have Michael and Lisa there.
Mr. Will Wong photo
“And Tom Zwiesler (who manages Sam-Son’s 160-acre training centre in Ocala, Florida) has done a tremendous job with El Tormenta. He gets all the horses back at the end of the year, gives them a break, and then legs them back up. He has a great team down there, a consistent and talented group of riders and grooms that have been with him for a number of years. They all love this guy. The horses get freshened up, and then they hit Woodbine with a bang.”
“It was nice to have had the kids there (on Mile day),” added Balaz. “It’s a generational thing with us. They are carrying the torch. There are other kids in the family that didn’t happen to be there that day, but they are all just as excited and into it. For my kids, it’s always been a passion for them. Days like that – I’m so glad Mike got to walk the horse in – you’ll always remember them.”
There could be more memories to come.
El Tormenta will load into the gate in the $2 million Breeders’ Cup Mile on November 3 at Santa Anita, part of the biggest event on the world’s Thoroughbred racing calendar.
Ontario versus the world, part two.
“We’ve always been a very patriotic family,” said Balaz. “We’re proud to be Canadian. We have a lot of friends all over the world and when they think of Canada – I’m not sure how to really put it – they always think of us a good people and a great country. We’re proud to be a part of that. We have a lot of friends in Florida, and I think they were just as excited as us when we won it. I’m sure they’ll all be watching us at the Breeders’ Cup. That’s going to be a challenge, but we’re going to go there, and hopefully get a good trip. Who knows? Maybe he can do it again.”
John Watkins photo
And maybe others will be inspired by Sam-Son’s success on their home turf and beyond.
With Ontario Racing’s lucrative Thoroughbred Improvement Program, one that offers incentives for the breeding and ownership of Thoroughbred racehorses in the province, the opportunity to experience success is out there for those considering ownership.
Balaz and Whitford would be thrilled to have El Tormenta’s Mile moment act as inspiration for prospective owners.
“I hope it does because we all know that we need more people to get into racing,” offered Whitford. “If this is just the fuel for that fire, that would be great.”
“The competition is a lot stiffer – you’re talking about an international race,” said Balaz. “For us, with a homebred, we’re consistent, and we keep trying with the homebreds. That just the way we are. Sometimes you can have a bit of a dry spell, so this makes you feel good to know that you’ve still got the right program going. Hopefully some people pick up on that. That would be great.”
Ricoh Woodbine Mile Race Replay: El Tormenta storms to victory