By Scott Taylor (@staylorsports)
On Friday, Chicago’s Gray trainer Murray Duncan will nominate Manitoba’s best three-year-old for what should be the biggest, most significant Manitoba Derby since the first meeting back in 1930.
It is likely there is only one. OK, maybe two.
However, based on the finishes so far this season, there is just one three-year-old at Assiniboia Downs that appears ready to compete with the highly-touted invaders in the most important Manitoba Derby in the history of the race.
That horse is Chicago’s Gray and through the first seven weeks of the 2023 meet at ASD, no other three-year-old has been nearly as impressive.
He’s been so good, in fact, that this Friday, when nominations open for the 2023 Manitoba Derby, Chicago’s Gray’s veteran 82-year-old trainer, Murray Duncan, will be among the first in line to nominate his prized three-year-old.
“I’ll be there Friday to get him entered,” said Duncan on Wednesday morning. “We’re definitely looking at him as a Derby horse.”
Should all go as planned Duncan will have a horse in the Manitoba Derby for the fifth time in his long, record-setting career. His only Derby win came with Plentiful in 2017 and he’s hoping Chicago’s Gray has what it takes to beat what promises to be a huge field of invading horses from all across Canada and the northern United States.
To say this year’s Derby is the most important in the history of the race is not hyperbole. The fact, is, this year’s 75th running of the Derby is completely different from all the others. For one thing, the purse is a record $125,000. On only 21 other occasions (including the last two) in the 74 previous races, has the purse reached six figures.
It’s also the first leg of the newly created Western Canadian Triple Crown, a three-race stakes series that offers an extra $100,000 to any horse that wins all three races – the $125,000 Manitoba Derby in Winnipeg on Aug. 7, the $200,000 Canadian Derby in Edmonton on Aug. 26, and the $125,000 B.C. Derby in Vancouver on Sept. 16.
Nominations for the 75th running of the Manitoba Derby close on July 26. The entry deadline is Aug. 2. Between now and Aug. 2, the search will be on for a local horse that can compete with Chicago’s Gray, the dominant three-year-old at the track this season, owned by Roll the Dice Stable, Royce Finley and Arnason Farms.
“The rubber will hit the road in the Derby Trial (July 17) as to who has the local interest,” said Assiniboia Downs CEO Darren Dunn. “I’m not sure that there will be significant local representation in this year’s Derby. It remains to be seen. With four weeks to go and the Derby Trial around the corner, those who are interested need to emerge.
“Chicago’s Gray has been so dominant among the three-year-olds this season, I’m not sure if there are a couple of other horses knocking on the door.”
Chicago’s Gray has been sensational. A week ago, in the 47th running of the $50,000 Golden Boy Stakes, he ran straight to the lead under champion jockey Jorge Carreno and then increased his margin all the way to the wire leaving heavily favoured Alberta invader – and the winner of the 2022 Winnipeg Futurity – Cuban Cobra away back down the track. It was a very impressive win and would make Chicago’s Gray an actual pre-race favourite if the Derby were held today.
“Cuban Cobra finished third in that race, and I heard this morning that he broke a leg in Edmonton and had to be put down,” Duncan said. “I hope it’s not true. He was a nice horse. But Chicago’s Gray was just a bit too much for him here. The only real competitor to Chicago’s Gray this year has been Saxon Saga, who has been second in the last two races – the Golden Boy and that Overnight Stakes.”
Chicago’s Gray has won all three races he’s entered at the Downs this season and has been dominant in all of them. He won a maiden special weight by eight lengths on May 23, then won the $25,200 Prime Time Overnight Stakes by 2 ½-lengths over Saxon Saga, owned by Wind Dancer Stable and Bill Meikle and trained by Wendy Anderson with jockey Renaldo Cumberbatch.
Then, in the Golden Boy, Chicago’s Gray led at every pole and beat Saxon Saga, who arrived in Winnipeg from Golden Gate Fields in San Francisco this spring, by 3 1/4 lengths.
Claimed for $20,000 US by Randy Premachuk on May 6 after a second-place finish at Oaklawn Park (where he ran three times this year without a win), Chicago’s Gray didn’t break his maiden until he arrived at ASD. With three wins since May 23, he’s won his owners $57,000 in purses and now all that remains to be determined is if he can run with the speed and power he’s already displayed in races longer than six furlongs.
“He was a maiden when we got him and he’s really run good since we got him here,” said Duncan. “He surprised me a little bit. He’s a nicely bred horse, but somebody had to teach him how to run. He showed speed and he’s carrying himself better. It looked to me that he had a lot left in the tank after the Golden Boy. Jorge never really asked him to run. He still had a hold on him at the finish and he won the Golden Boy easier than he won the other stakes race. Jorge took him out and he was gone.
“We’ll put him the Derby Trial, a mile race, and see if he’ll run as well around two turns. It’s always exciting to be in the Derby.”
There are two big races for three-year-olds before the Derby arrives — next Wednesday, it’s the $40,000 Frank Arnason Sire Stakes and then on July 17, it’s the $50,000 Derby Trial. The $125,000 Manitoba Derby goes on Aug. 7.
“It’s going to be one of the most interesting Manitoba Derbies in years based on it being the first leg of the newly created Western Canadian Triple Crown series,” said Dunn. “That interprovincial cooperation should really put a spotlight on the best three-year-olds in Western Canada.
“This series was a year in the making and took a lot of collaboration but certainly, we have the kind of confidence that the results are going to bear fruit. Assiniboia Downs should benefit in field size by being the first leg, based, of course, on the fact that if a horse sweeps all three legs, it’s another $100,000 in bonus money. There is every reason to believe we’ll have a full gate and you can sense the excitement and the interest in the race. It’s almost palpable around the property. Folks are trying to find a Derby horse. We expect the interest is going to be very strong outside the province.
“Our racing office and the racing offices in Edmonton and Vancouver speak once a week now in an effort to identify potential horses for the series. So, there will be no stone unturned to try and build that race with both quality and quantity. We couldn’t be more excited. It should be epic.”