Queen'splatekitten is a potential favourite in Sunday's Queen's Plate, but it's time to pause and reflect on 'the other kitten' that will leave the starting gate for a shot at the million-dollar prize - - the Joe Woodard trained Maple Leaf Kitten.
Woodard is a high-percentage trainer (235-78-40-29) saddling winners at a 33% clip, and his 78 wins in 2011 is good for ninth overall in North America. Woodard may not get the attention that other trainers in this win range (Baffert 74 wins, Maker 76) receive, but his talents are much appreciated by Maple Leaf Kitten's owner, Billy Hays.
"Joe is the best kept secret in the country," said Hays. "About five years ago we got on a streak at Churchill Downs and we won ten races in a row which was a Churchill Downs record and a major track record. We really weren’t dropping horses to win. We had some long shots in there and were wining everything. We didn’t even realize it was a streak until we got to five or six."
The streak started on May 13, 2005 when Woodard sent Lehigh Grad to victory. Over the next few weeks, Woodard recorded victories with Funky Pirate, Soaring with Eagles, Term in Office, Dayton Flyer, Mean Kisser, Cowboy Hardware, Native Bull, and Quick Blend.
"We won ten over a two week period and we actually had the eleventh race won and had a three-length lead coming down to the wire and lost by a nose," recalls Hays. "That would have made eleven and then we won three more in a row after that. By the time it was in the newspaper level we could have entered a donkey and been even money."
It was a special moment for the trainer.
"It was a fun run for us," Woodard said in a Thoroughbred Times interview. "I hope it was great for the racing fans. It sure was for us. We hate to see it end, but all things come to an end sooner or later."
The fun with Maple Leaf Kitten, however, is just beginning. Hays and Woodard claimed the chestnut son of Kitten’s Joy for $75,000 from owner/breeders Ken and Sarah Ramsey out of a Gulfstream turf race in March.
“I like the Kitten’s Joy horses and most of them are runners,” said Hays. “I felt like taking a shot and jumped in there and claimed him. Most of Mr. Ramsey’s horses are good horses and we figured he had his good string at Gulfstream. I’m pleased. I think he’s a good horse.”
Handicappers can toss Maple Leaf Kitten’s opening race lines into the litter box due to a combination of illness and inexperience.
“He ran green his first race or two. He had a lung infection the race we snatched him out of,” explains Hays.
It seems the horse was also in need of a, 'time out'.
"He's a little rambunctious," said Woodard. "He's a big strapping, strong thing and when he rolls out in the mornings he likes to introduce himself to everyone at the track. He's a little wound up but he's settled down a bit now."
The conditioner took his time with the colt giving Maple Leaf Kitten a two-month break from racing.
"When we first got him up here, he was a handful and we backed off of him a little bit and taught him a few new things to get him to settle down a little bit," explained Woodard. "We've got some small paddocks out here so we gave him a little afternoon paddock time and just let him come down a little bit."
Maple Leaf Kitten returned to the races on Kentucky Derby day and had a troubled trip finishing fifth, beaten three and a half lengths.
"We ran him on Kentucky Derby day and the jockey (Corey Lanerie) said this horse will really like to stretch out. He got a terrible trip that day and got in all kinds of trouble,” said Hays of the routing effort in Louisville. “He tried to go down the rail and then he tried to swing him out and he still only got beat three lengths”.
Maple Leaf Kitten stretched out to nine furlongs on May 28 at Churchill Downs and put in a game effort rallying from off the pace to narrowly miss against a top Al Stall trainee, Shrill. The horse was supposed to race with blinkers on that afternoon, but a clerical error meant the horse had to race without the shades.
In his final Queen’s Plate prep, Maple Leaf Kitten had blinkers on for a turf tilt at Indiana Downs and the equipment change was a major catalyst. Off to a slow start sitting tenth, eleven lengths in arrears at first call, Maple Leaf Kitten overcame traffic trouble with a strong outside rally to win by a head in a time of 1:37 and four. He earned a 71 Beyer in that effort.
"We came back with blinkers in the Indiana race and it worked out good," understated Woodard. "I'd of liked to have more distance for him than the mile but it turned out."
With the maiden score taken care of, the versatile 'kitten' is now preparing to try a new surface - - Woodbine's polytrack. The turf-to-poly angle was meant to be in double-effect for the Queen's Plate with Maple Leaf Kitten skedded to have a public turf workout at River Downs this past Sunday, but rain forced a new plan.
"They asked us to back out because of the weather," said Hays. "The turf course got real soft and the training centre I have is polytrack so we just decided to stay home and do it on the polytrack. He had a little half-mile blowout in 51 and 2 just to get a little air in him. He doesn't need a whole lot off of that last race."
Woodard is not too concerned with questions regarding surface or distance for Sunday's million-dollar event.
"It looks like he can run on anything. I don't think the polytrack will be a problem at all, he sure trains over it nicely at the training centre," said Woodard. "I think he's begging for the added distance. The further this horse goes, the better he's going to get."
The other notable tidbit on Maple Leaf Kitten's past performance sheet is that the horse will meet his sixth new rider in six lifetime starts as 2010 Eclipse Award winning apprentice Omar Moreno takes over from Ben Creed. Omar Moreno, currently sixth in the Woodbine jockey standings with 24 wins through Sunday, is a tough competitor and provides a welcome local edge.
With Queen'splatekitten likely to go to post at odds of less than 3-1 on Sunday, it stands to reason that the other son of Kitten's Joy deserves a second look at likely double-digit odds.
Queen'splatekitten is out of the Wild Again mare Iteration. Wild Again won the inaugural Breeders' Cup Classic and earned more than $2M in a 28-race career. Our other 'kitten' is out of the E Dubai mare Time to Indulge. E Dubai won the G2 Suburban Handicap traveling the classic distance to go along with a pair of second-place efforts in the G1 Travers and Super Derby.
Maple Leaf Kitten would need to jump more than ten points on his career-high Beyer speed figure of 71 to compete with Queen'splatekitten who consistently runs an 80+ Beyer number. But the horse is definitely one worth giving some extra consideration when the fur flies on Sunday.
“We’ve won races in nine states already this year at 12 different tracks,” said Hays. “It would be nice to make it nine states and Canada.”
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For more info on Joe Woodard, please visit his excellent website.
The annual Queen's Plate Barbecue was held in the Woodbine walking ring on Monday. It was a chance for local media to meet some of the contenders and their connections for Sunday's Queen's Plate. Below are some photos from the event.
(As always, double-left click the photo to enlarge, and use your BACK button to return to the photo essay.)
A swish of the tail from Budweiser Woodbine Oaks winner Inglorious
CTV interviews Josie Carroll
Many punters are sold on Check Your Soul
Winter book favourite Inglorious enjoys the sunshine
Will Hipploytus will unleash a mighty stretch run on Sunday?
A kiss for Curgone
Catherine Day Phillips is in charge of Head Honcho
The connections of Okiyama, which is Japanese for 'Big Mountain', hope their horse will peak in the Plate
Will One Big Gator say 'see you later' to the Queen's Plate field?
Put a bird on it
John Mattine and wife Joanne enjoy the festivities
Pender Harbour will try and keep the competition at bay
All signs point to Ojibway Signal enjoying the added distance of the Plate
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As always, keep track of the latest goings on in the world of horse racing by clicking into TripleDeadHeat's Woodbine News page or join in on the conversation by following TripleDeadHeat on Twitter.