In baseball, spring training begins in the middle of February in the warm and sunny climate of Florida or Arizona. Pitchers and catchers arrive earliest to prepare their bodies for the rigors of a regular season that begins in April and ends in September - - or late May if you happen to play for the Kansas City Royals.
Queen's Plate contender Ojibway Signal is keeping ahead of the competition
Horses preparing for the beginning of the Woodbine meet endure similar preparation but in far more frigid temperatures. Woodbine’s training track will open later this month and soon conditioners will start to ship their horses in to train their way into the April opening day card. However, some conditioners, such as David Bell, are getting a head start on the competition by prepping their horses locally at Paul and Gemini Caine’s Pine Valley Training Centre which features a fully-covered five-eights of a mile training track.
“It’s good because you can gallop inside and there are not many places in Canada that you can. You can get miles into them in January, which you can’t do anywhere else locally,” explains Bell. “At Woodbine, we don’t use the all-weather track until the spring, so we use the dirt training track where some days it freezes solid and it’s just lumps and you can’t train on it. Whereas here, we have an advantage and get some miles into them and if we miss a day or two it’s not critical.”
Plenty of legroom here!
The facility is located in Kleinburg, Ontario just twenty minutes north of Woodbine and features sixty-five stalls, several large and small grass paddocks, a round indoor breaking ring and an experienced team with quite a bit of history in the game. Paul Caine attended the British Racing School Program for jockeys and worked in England for legendary trainer Bill Watts upon graduating. Watts, a leading trainer in North Yorkshire for more than three decades, had memorable wins with Waterloo in the 1972 edition of the 1,000 Guineas and Teleprompter's timely win in the 1985 Arlington Million - a score that brought the Caine family to Canada.
“My dad was an assistant for Bill Watts in England and he came over with Teleprompter and won the Arlington Million,” says Caine. “He met (then Sam-Son Farms trainer) Jim Day and when Jim asked him if he wanted to work for him, my dad said he had family back home and Jim said, ‘well, just drag them all over.’ So I came over and I worked for Jim for three and a half years.”
There are myriad benefits to getting a jump on the competition. In 2010, trainer Sam Dipasquale's horses got off to a good start at the local meet because, as Caine puts it, “He was way ahead of everybody, right, because I had them breezing in here.”
Pine Valley keeps busy during the meet as well, providing ample space for horses in need of a break, to work their way back to health. It’s a make-sense proposition as stall space is at a premium at Woodbine.
“Last summer I had 40 or 50 horses training all summer,” says Caine. “It was just overflow from Woodbine. Horses that came back for shins to give them some time off and bring them back slowly with jogging. At Woodbine you won’t have time for that as you need a runner in that stall.”
Caine points out that quite a few winners have made their way from the covered track to the winner’s circle.
“Bad Hat, remember that one, that’s a nice one,” recalls Caine of the popular Ontario-bred that won the Kingarvie and Frost King Stakes as a two-year-old and returned a year later to win the Deputy Minister.
“A filly of Dave Cotey’s, Dance To My Tune, she finished second to Zenyatta out west in California,” states Caine, and then nonchalantly adds, “Mine That Bird was here…oh, and Invitation Only, we broke that one here.”
Poor Mine That Bird, he hasn’t won since the 2009 Kentucky Derby and even in conversation is losing out to a group of, admittedly talented, Canadian-breds. The story of how the Caine's helped break and train a young, and studdish, Mine That Bird is well told in this Toronto Star piece.
David Bell and Ojibway Signal
“You pay extra to go in Mine That Bird’s stall,” quips Bell.
Bell, however, is not chasing a Kentucky Derby win, though one supposes he wouldn’t turn down the opportunity. The veteran conditioner has enjoyed plenty of success, most notably in 1993 when he took Kissin Kris to the winner’s circle in the Haskell; the son of Kris S enjoyed a second-place finish in the Belmont and the Travers; and completed the campaign with a rallying third-place finish in the Breeder's Cup Classic won by the impossible long shot Arcangues.
Kissin Kris wins the 1993 Haskell Invitational
And while Bell has won his fair share of stakes at Woodbine in a lengthy career, he now has his sights set on capturing one that has eluded him - the Queen’s Plate –with a promising son of Niigon by the name of Ojibway Signal.
“Ojibway has always been a big leggy horse,” says Bell. “He’s filled out a little bit and he’s always trained like a forward going horse. He has matured some more this year. He was still running just a little bit green in the fall, still putting it together.”
Ojibway Signal raced seven times as a two-year-old earning just shy of $70,000 on the back of one win and a rallying third place finish to end his season in the Kingarvie Stakes won by Pender Harbour.
“When he was third in the fall, he was making a big strong move and then he just looked at the grandstand and ducked in behind a horse when he could have gone on by,” says Bell. “The jockey (Luis Contreras) had to steer him a little bit and it cost him. It might have cost him second; it might have cost him a win. But it’s good, because if that was the best he could do it wasn’t going to be enough to get it done this year.”
There's room to run at Pine Valley
Bell has always had high hopes for the dark bay son of the 2004 Plate winner.
“He’s always trained and moved like a good horse,” observes Bell. “I would watch him gallop and I could pick him out on the other side track. It’s just the way he goes. He has a big strong stride. Justin (Stein) rode him most of his starts and really liked him. That’s all Justin keeps talking about is the mile and a quarter.”
Almost on cue, Stein, who is currently getting in shape for the meet by galloping horses at Pine Valley, strides by and pipes up, “have you seen my Queen’s Plate horse?”
The talented jock had a dream season in 2010 steering Ian Black’s turfer Fifty Proof through a variety of memorable results on his way to a trip to the Japan Cup. Stein is keen to get cracking on what he hopes will be a breakout year with a potential break out horse.
Justin Stein aboard It's Time Bear at Pine Valley
“He’s going to love the distance,” states Stein. “He needs the distance. After the race, I can only get him pulled up by the half-mile pole.”
Stein doesn’t mind putting the extra work in and even in the cold, dark month of January is slugging away at his craft with a purpose.
“I’m a young rider and I’ve only ridden twice in the Queen’s Plate,” says Stein. “That’s the caliber of races I want to be riding in.”
Whether or not Ojibway Signal can take Stein to the Gallop for the Guineas remains to be seen. And though it may be early, the wheels are already turning as Bell looks ahead to the new season.
“The first race is still a ways off. We might have to run him seven eights which is short for him. So we’re looking at April,” starts Bell. “I’ll try to pick my spots and get on with it and give him some confidence.”
Val Topp aboard Ojibway Signal's baby sister - she'll be a cracker in 2011
Ultimately, the experience earned at Pine Valley will go a long way to the success of the many Bell runners currently getting fit at Paul and Gemini Caine’s facility.
“Last year we had 51 winners and 7 stakes winners,” says Gemini. “One of the ones that wintered with us was (Reade Baker’s Wonder Where and Bison Stakes winner) Free Fee Lady. We called her ‘Grandma’ as she had gray hair over her eyes. She’s a Victory Gallop.”
It's chilly under the covered roof
After a full morning watching trainers, horses, exercise riders and one Woodbine jock battle through a bout of bone-chilling spring training, the whole team gathered in the office for a hot drink. The walls of the office are decorated with win photos and newspaper clippings of famous graduates, the most famous of which remains Mine That Bird.
“The whole experience was outrageous,” starts Gemini leaning into the back-story of how a little horse from Woodbine made his way to the Kentucky Derby. “He was 17th or 18th on the earnings list and they only take twenty but eventually it was decided he was going to go to the Derby. And so, everyone at Woodbine began to tease me because they knew I loved Bird.”
The Caine's have grey't expectations for those stabled with them
Caine doubles as an exercise rider at Woodbine and she’s a popular figure on the polytrack each morning.
“Every day I’d get teased, ‘hey, your dumb horse is going to the Derby ha-ha’,” giggles Gemini with a shake of her head.
The First Saturday in May arrived and no one, absolutely no one at Woodbine, figured the 50-1 bomber, Mine That Bird, had a shot - - except for Caine.
“We’re at home watching the post parade and Paul says, ‘I have to put some money on this horse. I just can’t let him go like that.’ So he phoned Dave Cotey who was at the racetrack and said 'you have to put five across on Mine That Bird for me',” recalls Gemini. “When they went into the first turn, he was so far behind I thought, ‘oh no, how embarrassing I cant go to work tomorrow, I’m going to be ridiculed.’”
Mine That Bird rails last to first to win the Derby
But from the back of the pack, Mine That Bird, under a genius rail-hugging ride by Calvin Borel, was about to make Caine’s day, by cashing an across-the-board wager that paid nearly $500.
“Even when he made the move nobody knew who he was, not even the announcer,” beams Caine. “I was like, ‘oh my god is that number eight’ and then immediately our phone started ringing. I couldn’t believe it. Our vet was the first one to call - ‘I can’t believe I gelded a Derby winner’ he said. But, it gives us clout here now because if someone says ‘I can’t geld him, what if he wins the Plate’…well, we can say we’ve gelded a Derby winner.”
Will Ojibway Signal rise to the occasion?
As the stories flow inside Pine Valley, outside Ojibway Signal stands tall in a snowy field growing into a body made stronger training through a cold Canadian winter. Perhaps, one day, his story will be told as part of Queen’s Plate legend.
“It’s one of those things you dream about a little,” smiles Bell wistfully. “But, you know, we’re happy dreaming.”
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You can visit David Bell online at his official website.
Click the link to learn more about Pine Valley Training Centre.
Ojibway Signal emerges from the pack
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