One had to wonder what the punters were drinking when they let Ian Black’s Fifty Proof go to post at odds of nearly 30-1 in the G1 Northern Dancer some four weeks ago. The four year-old son of Whiskey Wisdom boasted four wins from seven lifetime starts including a pair of victories over the Woodbine turf in his two races prior to that twelve-furlong event.
Fifty Proof has nothing left to prove
Granted, the giant Ontario-bred owned by Kinghaven Farms, John Fielding and Ben Hutzel was making a steep jump in class from open allowance company to a graded stakes, but a five-panel bullet leading into the assignment suggested improvement - and Fifty Proof responded to the challenge with a rousing front-end romp only to be caught in the final stride by respected European invader Redwood.
That Fifty Proof nearly stole the show was exciting, but the conditioner won’t be endorsing any thievery in Saturday's Pattison Canadian International.
“We won't be doing any stealing,” smiled Black from Barn 15 on the Woodbine backstretch earlier this week. “Last race you might have been able to say he stole it but after he run that last race he won't be 30-1 this time I won't think.”
No need to call security
Black’s assistant trainer, Skippy Bowen, concurs.
“He definitely proved that he can go a mile and a half and that he belongs in top company,” stated Bowen. “It's very tough with Ontario-sired horses when you come out of the OS condition and take that next step. And to go from an allowance race to a grade one is almost the biggest step you can take.”
Fifty Proof leads the field for much of the G1 Northern Dancer
The late-blooming Fifty Proof has come into his own as a four year-old and appears to be a special animal sporting success on both turf and polytrack and surprisingly getting better with each added furlong.
“It's funny,” laughed Bowen while an engrossed Fifty Proof tugged at his sleeve. “But we were talking about running in the Woodbine Mile with this one as opposed to the International as we never truly knew what he wanted to do.”
Skippy Bowen and Fifty Proof
One thing that’s always been apparent, even as a gangly two year-old, is that the horse wanted to run.
“I remember one day Southdale and him were both training out there,” said Black as he pointed towards the dirt training oval. “They were just galloping and Southdale was 15 or 20 lengths in front of him. They were galloping at the same stride but this horse was just eating him up and galloped right on by him.”
It’s a testament to Black and his team how both Fifty Proof and Southdale have developed under his care. The latter colt in particular has blossomed as a four year-old with a pair of G3 wins in the Eclipse Stakes and Durham Cup that puts Southdale in position for a shot at a Sovereign Award for champion older male.
Southdale is having a stellar season for Black
While Fifty Proof would likely have to win Saturday’s event to be in line for any Sovereign award nominations, there is much to be celebrated in how the gelding has raced through his Ontario-sired classifications.
“I’m very pleased with it (his development),” said jockey Justin Stein, who has been aboard Fifty Proof for all eight lifetime starts. “I’ve been hoping for a horse to come along that can turn into something special and he is filling that role nicely. He’s a lot of fun to ride and lot of fun to be around. The thought of him becoming any kind of horse is really exciting.”
So close! Redwood nips Fifty Proof in the shadow of the wire
It was a jubilant team that met Stein and Fifty Proof when the pair returned to be unsaddled following the Northern Dancer jaunt.
“We just keep testing him and every time he steps up to the plate and shows us that he’s capable of achieving those goals,” said Stein. “It’s not common that horses will run in a grade one stakes race as their very first stakes, and stretch out, and basically he went right to the wolves and he proved that he belonged. We hoped that he would run well and he ran such a good race. We weren’t surprised, but we were really happy. It felt like winning a race to learn that he was this good a horse.”
High Five! Stein and crew celebrate their Northern Dancer effort
And a team that has won together is sticking together for Saturday’s challenge. An honour not lost on Stein who will leave the gate as the only Woodbine-based jock.
“I really appreciate the opportunity I’ve been given to ride this horse and I appreciate the loyalty and just having the support from Ian Black and Mr. Willmot is incredible,” said Stein. “It’s every jock’s dream to ride big races and to get on a good horse. It’s hard to get those opportunities if you keep getting pushed aside for a marquee rider so this is my chance to ride a big race like this and hopefully have some success.”
The talented Justin Stein will be the only Woodbine-based jock in Saturday's International
The hometown crowd will certainly be supporting the only Ontario-bred in the field from gate-to-wire - which is also the route most expect Stein and Fifty Proof to take if he is to win on Saturday.
“No. I don’t think he needs the lead,” countered Stein. “He can relax. If he does what he did last time it will be a good race. I’m very happy with the post position. He’s a very rideable horse and from the nine hole I’ve got position to watch how the race shapes up early.”
Fifty Proof is a tall glass of whiskey
Despite Stein’s protestations, Woodbine locals have become accustomed to Black’s turf success on the engine with both Rahy’s Attorney and Stormy Lord.
“You never want a front runner but by the same token, you don't change their running styles,” stated Bowen slyly. “We don't necessarily need the lead. If someone wants it, we can pull back off of them and that's something we've tried to teach him in his allowance races by making him sit off a horse on purpose so he knows there's other ways to do things.”
Can Fifty Proof emulate Rahy's Attorney with a G1 win on Saturday?
Finding new ways to win is something Black has proven successful at time and again with major wins on both surfaces. Each year, Woodbine honours the winners of the Queen’s Plate, Woodbine Mile and Canadian International by flying their colours in the winners circle. Black has garnered honours for victories in two of those races (Mike Fox, 2007 Queen's Plate - Rahy’s Attorney, 2008 Woodbine Mile) and this Saturday the conditioner will look to complete a game of capture the flag if Stein can coax Fifty Proof to the wire first.
And you know what - Fifty Proof has a shot.
PP. Horse, Jockey, Weight, Trainer, ML Odds
1. Memorial Maniac (KY), J Graham, 126, L W Demeritte, 20/1
2. Chinchon (IRE), G K Gomez, 126, C Laffon-Parias, 7/2
3. Mores Wells (GB), S Maillot, 126, R D Gibson, 12/1
4. Simmard (KY), J Castellano, 126, R L Attfield, 15/1
5. Al Khali (KY), A Garcia, 126, W I Mott, 6/1
6. Marsh Side (KY), E S Prado, 126, N D Drysdale, 4/1
7. Joshua Tree (IRE), C O'Donoghue, 122, A P O'Brien, 8/1
8. Redwood (GB), M P Hills, 126, B W Hills, 2/1
9. Fifty Proof (ON), J Stein, 126, I Black, 10/1
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