By Scott Taylor (@staylorsports)
WINNIPEG — Considering how he got here, Prayforpeace has to be the odds-on favourite to win the 74th running of the Manitoba Derby on Monday night.
Then again, it’s hard to count out a horse trained by a woman who shouldn’t even be alive, or a horse owned by a former Downs employee who went off and made his fortune in Hollywood or three horses trained by the powerhouse stable owned by the legendary Robertino Diodoro.
On August 1, eight three-year-old thoroughbreds will go to post for the $100,000 Derby, run over a mile and an eighth on the dirt at Assiniboia Downs. Each and every one has a story.
Take Strong Belief, a local bay gelding owned by Shelley Brown, Anderson Livestock Stable and the Estate of Harvey Warner. Not is Strong Belief co-owned by Brown, he’s also trained by the only woman to have won a trainer’s title at ASD. It’s also a woman, who by her own admission, should not with us today.
“I’m feeling good today,” said Brown. “I’ve had not the best week, but I’m feeling good today. I had chemo two weeks ago and I’m at that spot now where I feel pretty good.”
Brown started to feel sick just before Christmas in 2019, but wasn’t diagnosed with terminal cancer until September of 2020. As she tells it, there is no possible way she should be alive today let alone training a horse that’s running in the Manitoba Derby, but here she is. As Monday’s race gets closer, she’s getting more excited for a horse that was actually gravely ill itself last winter.
“Last year, he got really sick on us,” she explained. “He had one start and got really sick and we weren’t sure he was going to make it. He had a temperature of 105, which is really bad for a horse, and we had a lot of trouble getting his temperature down and the infection got into his lungs so, we weren’t sure he would ever be a racehorse again.
“So, after he got better, we brought him to the track and started working him in the spring and he was doing well and my thought was he needed more ground because he was always closing. He just didn’t have early speed and we wanted to get him more races, but it’s really hard to get distance races here (the Downs is definitely a sprinter’s track). So, we didn’t know what his potential was. Then when a mile came up last week (July 20) I thought there’s our chance to see if he can go the distance. We’ll find out if his lungs can take it.
“Well, he ran really well (he won an $18,000 allowance by four lengths) and so I figured why not enter him ion the Derby? He’s a horse from the Estate of Harvey Warner (the late Jockey Club President) and his children will be here to give out the trophy. He talked about it as owners and made the decision we were going to go for it. I mean you can’t win if you aren’t entered. (40-1 longshot) Rich Strike wouldn’t have won the Kentucky Derby if he hadn’t got in the race, so we have a one-in-eight chance.”
At 25-1, Strong Belief is the best money in the race. He’s won his last two races and been in the money four out of five starts this year. He’s also trained by a woman who entered a horse named Real Grace in the 2020 Canadian Derby in Edmonton – at a time when she should have been on her death bed – and that horse shocked a national field.
Meanwhile, this year’s race will feature three horses – Clancy’s Pistol (6-1), Great Escape (2-1) and Red Knobs (5-1) – trained by perennial Derby contender Robertino Diodoro. Red Knobs is owned by Rob K. Nokes, who worked in the jocks room at the Downs as a young man and went on to make his fortune with a Sound Recording company in Hollywood. At 5-1, Red Knobs is coming off a second-place finish in a $50,000 claimer at Churchill Downs. That race went off on July 3 and that’s the day Nokes put in the claim.
In the meantime, Prayforpeace, owned by Henry Witt Jr., trained by Downs leader and three-time trainers’ champion Jerry Gourneau and ridden by Antonio Whitehall, is clearly the favourite after a brilliant 6 ½-length victory in the Derby Trial on July 11.
The fact that Prayforpeace even ran in that race is all a bettor needs to know come Monday night.
“We claimed him June 19 at Churchill,” Witt explained via telephone from his home in Texas on Thursday. “He finished third in an $80,000 allowance race at Churchill on July 2 (the Churchill trainer was Mark Simms Jr.), and then we decided we’d run him in the Derby Trial in Winnipeg on July 11. Well, on Saturday, we shipped him 11 hours in the trailer from, Louisville to Canterbury and then on Sunday, got him on the back of Diodoro’s trailer heading to Winnipeg. That was another nine hours of travel on Sunday and I told Jerry that if he didn’t think he was ready to run on Monday night, then he should sit him out.
“But Jerry said, ‘No, let’s stretch his legs,’ so he ran on Monday night in the Trial and won by more than six lengths. That was impressive. That horse was dead tired after almost 20 hours of travel in two days and he still ran an amazing race the next day. I think we have an impressive horse.”
The jockey, Whitehall would certainly agree.
“To be quite honest, I’m very lucky to have the opportunity to ride this very special, nice horse in the Derby,” Whitehall said modestly. “He ran his heart out in the Trial. And he’s a very nice, calm horse. He has a nice demeanor. And in the trial, I just had to hit him once and he gave me another gear.
“You have to have you’re A game on Monday. It’s a big horse race. But I’m excited about riding this horse and I just want to get out on Monday and give it my perfect ride.”
The Derby is the sixth race of an eight-race card and is expected to go to post around 10:05 p.m.
The Post Positions
We like the favourite Prayforpeace to win it all, but in order to make our trip to the track worthwhile, we’ll throw some money at an 8-1-2 triactor.