Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Okiyama in Peak Condition for the Queen's Plate

John Mattine, trainer of Queen’s Plate contender Okiyama, is an enthusiastic fan of horse racing. The son of the late conditioner Tony Mattine enjoyed a childhood on the backstretch at Woodbine watching the races from a unique vantage point.

John Mattine and the mountainous Okiyama

“I watched my first Queen’s Plate when I was four years old,” recalls Mattine of Kennedy Road’s gallop for the guineas. “My grandfather worked the gap and I spent a lot of time on the backside there as a kid with him watching races.”

At the urging of his father, Mattine completed his education, graduating from the University of Toronto in 1991 with a Bachelor of Science degree, but the pull of the racetrack was just too much to resist and he returned to Woodbine to work as his father’s assistant.

“It’s the family business,” says Mattine. “I thought he (Tony Mattine) was one of the best back here. He was a great teacher and a great horseman. He was an all-around trainer.

When his father passed away in May of 2009, John took over the reins and saddled his first winner just a few days later.

Memories, in the form of winner’s circle photographs, of a lifetime spent working side-by-side with his father adorn the walls of the trainer’s backstretch office. Framed pictures of Woodbine stalwarts such as Highland Ruckus and Drone Counsell are placed side-by-side with glossy portraits of Cigar and his personal favourite, Secretariat.

“I cried the day Onion defeated Secretariat,” admits Mattine.

His love of the sport is unconditional to the point that he holds the ones who defeated his father's horses in highest regard.

“One of my favourite horses was Play The King. We couldn’t beat him,” says Mattine of the champion Kinghaven sprinter. “You have to respect that. We tried a bunch of times with Highland Ruckus and Stars and Stripes but when you’re running against a horse that ends up in the Breeder’s Cup, that’s a good horse.”

Will Okiyama peak in time for the Plate?

As he talks, his face lights up and the names of the old Kinghaven champs his father’s horses used to battle keep coming.

“Carotene, With Approval, Izvestia…keep going…,” he says wistfully.

It’s not just the horses he likes, but also those that ride them.

“When you see Angel Cordero working one of your horses,” says Mattine with a shake of the head. “He’s a hall of famer, but if he shows up ten minutes late he’s apologizing. I have to tell him, ‘no, no it’s okay, it’s a pleasure to have you on a horse’.”

Placed prominently above Mattine’s desk is a picture of his father winning a race at “New Woodbine” on June 13, 1961 as a jockey aboard Mr. Kip. (A sleeper pick if ever there was one.) Another rather unique picture is of the 1988 Friar Rock Stakes when the elder Mattine swept the triactor.

Jockey Tony Mattine put the field to sleep aboard Mr. Kip

“One, two, three - - Drone Counsell, Tony’s Gimmick and Highland Ruckus,” recalls Mattine with a laugh.

The conditioner’s passion for the sport is refreshing and one can feel the connection he builds with the horses he trains as he talks about a pair of old favourites - - Dancin Joey and Skier’s Gift.

Dancin Joey was a hard-knocking gelding that raced until the age of eight competing in the allowance and claiming ranks at Woodbine. The son of Joyeux Danseur-Rosie O’Greta even hit the board in the G3 Play The King in 2004 at odds of 40-1 - - a race won by Sam-Son Farm’s Soaring Free. Remarkably consistent, Dancin Joey was in the money in 21 of 30 lifetime starts including eight wins.

Skier’s Gift was a promising Florida-bred son of Appealing Skier-Prom Gift who won a pair of races in five starts before injury struck. One of the wins was a scintillating five furlong affair at Gulfstream, in January of 2004, stopping the clock in 57.76 under jockey John Velazquez.

Okiyama wins at Woodbine

The two old-timers, both foaled in 2000, are still in the trainer’s thoughts.

“Skier’s Gift is on a farm now with Dancin Joey. It’s funny right,” smiles Mattine. “The two of them are on a farm with our ex-Premier David Peterson. They live in a nice horse community and the two of them are having a great life in the same paddock together having a good time. They deserve it.”

On Sunday, Mattine will try and add another photo to his impressive collection when he sends out the lightly raced Okiyama in the Queen’s Plate.

Okiyama, which means ‘big mountain’ in Japanese, is a tall chestnut gelding by Old Forester out of the Dr. Adagio mare Sangoma. He won at first asking on Halloween at Woodbine with a three-quarter length victory in a time of 1:11.79 for six furlongs. The long-striding fellow raced last of 12 at the half and survived a scare at the top of the stretch when he came out and bumped a rival before tipping out six-wide under jockey Chantal Sutherland to score in a driving finish.

Okiyama is hungry for success

He stretched out to seven furlongs in his second, and final, start of 2010, finishing an even seventh in a race won by Kentucky-bred Fast Yankee who was up late to catch Queen’s Plate contender Oh Canada.

Still maturing, Okiyama spent the offseason locally.

“He had a real quiet winter in Ontario,” states Mattine. “He’s a horse that was growing. I thought we’d give him a real quiet winter and let him grow up a wee bit. I’ve done that with a couple other horses (notably with the filly Megha last season) and it seemed to work out.”

Mattine’s plan worked to perfection as Okiyama opened his sophomore campaign with a front-running performance in a difficult non-winners of two route for three-year-olds and upward. He broke well and commanded the lead from fellow pacesetter Brother Bo down the backstretch opening up a two and a half length lead turning for home. Okiyama held strong down the lane to stave off fast-closing four-year-olds Vinny’s Valley and Mudder At the Bar to win in a time of 1:46.50.

“He’s a nice horse, I really like him,” says Mattine. “It’s yet to be seen how good he is. Now we’re taking it up a notch. For me, it’s a first Plate horse and I’m excited. I’m honoured to be in it. The horse wasn’t even here at this time last year. He was on a farm. He’s come a long way quick.”

Mattine's filly Megha has already had her picture taken once

With a pair of starkly contrasted wins - - out of the clouds with Chantal Sutherland and on the engine for Luis Contreras - - the handy Okiyama will be easily placed in the Queen’s Plate for jockey Jesse Campbell.

“Jesse Campbell is a good rider. He’s the son of a trainer and I think he’s raked the shed row once or twice in his life,” starts Mattine. “He’s had his nose underneath a horse before, he’s had a hand on their legs. He grew up in a horse family and so did I. When you talk to someone like that, you’re on the same wavelength.”

Campbell is no stranger to big races having won the G2 $500,000 Louisiana Super Derby last year with the Al Stall trainee Apart. The rider joined the Woodbine jockey colony full-time in 2011 and recorded his first Woodbine stakes victory with Jenny’s So Great in the $100,000 Zadracarta Stakes last weekend. Needless to say, Mattine is content to let the capable Campbell call the shots on Sunday, be it on the point or with a cavalry charge.

“It all depends on the break,” says Mattine. “My horse is versatile. We’ll see how he breaks and then take it from there. Once you leg him (Campbell) up, it’s out of your hands."

Mattine, charged with preparing Okiyama for the biggest race of his young career, is steadfast in his methods honed from a lifetime of experience.

“I gave him a real strong gallop this week and we’re quite satisfied,” states Mattine.

There’s a certain energy surrounding the trainer as he talks about his horse and a hint of a grin that suggests he feels ‘Big Mountain” might be peaking at just the right time.

Okiyama could win it by a long neck

“I’ve got a good feeling about how this horse is going into this race,” says Mattine. “When he won going a mile and a sixteenth, I started thinking ahead about what needed to be done. I didn’t want to miss anything. I’m always thinking ahead because I don’t want to miss anything.”

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