On November 2, it was the 30-year anniversary that Dance Smartly made history becoming the first Canadian-bred and Canadian-owned horse to win a Breeders’ Cup race.
It was a moment that stood out for various reasons and I remember it well because I was there that day and wrote about in my book The Greatest Show On Turf, A History Of The Breeders’ Cup.
In almost seems like yesterday.
Ernie Samuel, the successful steel businessman known as the Big E. and patriarch of Sam-Son Farm, had done just about everything in the sport, but one thing missing was a victory in the annual world championship of racing.
The closest he came happened in 1987 when homebred Regal Classic, described by race announcer Tom Durkin as “the Canadian colt,” placed a distant second to Success Express in the $1 million Juvenile at Hollywood Park in California with jockey Dave Penna. In 1990, Dance Smartly placed third in the $1 million Juvenile Fillies at Belmont Park in New York.
By the time she returned to the Breeders’ Cup a year later for the $1 million Distaff, 18 horses that were either Canadian-breds and/or Canadian-based horses had come up short when tested against the best in the thoroughbred globe. It had become somewhat of a touchy subject about the horses with big reputations in Canada failing on U.S. tracks. But it was different with Dance Smartly, affectionately known by her handlers as Daisy, whom many people felt could be the one to end the skein.
By Danzig out of the mare Classy ‘N Smart, Dance Smartly had the physical appearance of a colt, stout and robust. With trainer Jim Day and jockey Pat Day, no relation to Jim but whom he called “Brother Pat,” the big, dark bay filly waltzed through the Canadian Triple Crown, becoming the first filly to sweep the series in the modern era.
Dance Smartly was the third horse in succession to pull off the triple, following in the footsteps of Kinghaven Farms’ homebreds With Approval and Izvestia. Coincidentally, it was the third successive sweep since the Bank of Montreal sponsored the series and offered a $1 million bonus for the connections of a horse that won all three races. Not surprisingly, the bank stopped its sponsorship thereafter because even though it received tremendous publicity, it didn’t sit well with shareholders or the underwriters – or so the story goes.
She followed up on her Triple Crown feat beating male horses in the $1 million Molson Export Million Stakes at Woodbine. Among the runners in the race was Fly So Free, who had come into the race off victories in the Grade II Jim Dandy Stakes and the Grade I Travers Stakes at Saratoga.
How Dance Smartly would fare away from her home base would be the salient issue.
Horsemen from the U.S. had mixed opinions about the filly.
“I’ve yet to see her run (hard),” said trainer Carl Nafzger. “I’ve only seen her win easily.”
Wayne Lukas, never shy about expressing his opinion, offered what could best be described as a backhanded compliment.
“I think Dance Smartly is going to find this is area code 502 and it’s a lot different (than Canada),” he said. “I think she’s a wonderful fully. I think she’s a good filly in a year where it’s not that tough a Distaff. I don’t think there are any Winning Colors or Personal Ensigns in the field, therefore a good, solid filly – not a great one – can win this year. She might be that. I don’t see her as an absolute, mortal lock, a single in the Pick 7.”
Steven Crist, the editor of The Racing Times, felt Dance Smartly was one of the most-vulnerable favourites on the card.
Two Las Vegas betting shops had Dance Smartly as the 4-5 favourite in advanced wagering, one of the lowest odds of any horse on the Breeders’ Cup card. Even though Canadian races weren’t available at the time because there weren’t 24-hour racing channels, the word was out among the wise guys because of her Molson Export Million win.
Samuel also had another homebred filly, Wilderness Song, by Wild Again out of Nalee’s Rhythm, running in the Distaff. The stablemates had clashed in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies, going head-to-head in a blistering and senseless opening half mile. Wilderness Song finished well back of Dance Smartly and was always considered the weaker half of the tandem. She came into the Breeders’ Cup with a three-race win streak, including the Grade I Spinster Stakes at Keeneland in her last race with Pat Day aboard. Canadian jockey Francine Villeneuve, who had ridden Wilderness Song for some of her races in Canada, replaced Day for the Distaff. Interest in Wilderness Song in advance wagering was lukewarm at 10-1 odds.
Pat Day, an American who had become one of the top riders in North America, picked up the mount on Dance Smartly earlier in the year when Woodbine-based jockey Brian Swatuk missed a scheduled workout with the filly.
The fact Pat Day could ride any horse in Canada while Canadian-based jockeys could only ride Canadian-based horses south of the border because of U.S. immigration rules at the time had become a sore spot.
Pat Day viewed the situation from a variety of angles, sympathizing with the plight of Canadian riders, but also looking at it from a personal business standpoint.
“I’m out (here) trying to make a living and I’m not going to turn down an opportunity to ride a top horse,” he said. “The game is not entirely fair.”
To underline the interest in Dance Smartly, some Canadian supporters held up a sign in the paddock area that read: “Breeders’ Cup 1991, Go Canada.” The left part of the sign had the words Sam-Son Farm and a drawing of its red and gold silks.
Jim Day was no stranger to the Breeders’ Cup, having raced horses in six of the seven previous editions. He was asked by the media what winning a Breeders’ Cup race would be like compared to his gold-medal victory as a member of Canada’s equestrian team in the 1968 Olympics.
“Naturally the Breeders’ Cup is the ultimate in horse racing, but it’s like comparing great athletes from one era to another,” he said. “You can’t compare thrills 20 years apart. It would be a great honour and a great thrill to possibly have a chance to win (a Breeders’ Cup race). To be here with a horse that has a chance is an honour. If we get fortunate to win one of those races it would be a dream come true.”
The Sam-Son team would also be sending out homebred Sky Classic – by Nijinsky II out of No Class – in the $2 million Turf, three races later on the card. The four-year-old colt had won his last six races, most recently the Grade I Rothmans International Stakes at Woodbine. Hopes were high for Sky Classic, too.
Dance Smartly and Wilderness Song were coupled as an entry and went postward as the 1-2 favourite in the field of 13. Dan Kenny, a Kentucky-based bloodstock agent who was a commentator for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, remarked on the NBC broadcast: “The Canadian horses brought the Canadian air with them here, so they should be very comfortable.”
Samuel told the CBC in a pre-recorded interview that was spliced into the Canadian simulcast of the NBC broadcast about the pride he felt representing Canada.
“There’s always that little notch any time you’re carrying the Canadian flag – and when do that when we come away,” he said. “Having a Canadian-bred win these important races raises our profile and is extra exciting as well.”
There was a lot on the line going into the race. Firstly, a win would give Dance Smartly a record of eight victories without a loss on the season. Secondly, a win would put her in contention for U.S. Horse of the Year honours. Thirdly, the winner’s share would catapult her to the top as the filly or mare with the most career earnings in North America.
At precisely 1:21, the gates sprung open in the mile and one-eighth race on the dirt. Dance Smartly was positioned comfortably by Pat Day, sitting fifth on the outside, five lengths in arrears of pacesetter Richard’s Lass through the opening quarter of a mile. Wilderness Song was two lengths in front in fourth on the inside of her. After half a mile, Dance Smartly was in sixth, slightly more than 5½ lengths back of Richard’s Lass, while Wilderness Song was fourth by 3½ lengths. It was around this point that Day moved close to Villeneuve and told her to sit tightly. Unlike in the Juvenile Fillies, the message had been conveyed beforehand to not have the pair battle one another. After three quarters of a mile, Day had begun to make his move and was up to fourth, about 2½ lengths back in fourth, passing by Wilderness Song. At the top of the stretch, Dance Smartly was about to seize the lead.
Samuel, nervous at the best of times watching his horses race, was caught on camera watching the stretch drive. It provided some interesting entertainment.
“Hurry up, hurry up, you’re gonna get caught,” he was overheard saying.
Though he had the race well in hand, Pat Day still gave his mount a few cracks of his whip.
In the final few yards to the wire, Samuel’s wife, Liza, tried to hug him, but he was still overly nervous, saying to Dance Smartly, “Hurry up, hurry up.”
Only when she crossed the wire did Samuel let out a visceral victory yell, signalling it with both arms outstretched like a referee signalling a success field goal.
Pat Day admitted in the post-race interview, he may have been a little amped up whipping his mount.
“A million dollars, Horse of the Year, all-time top-earning mare, it was a lot on the line, and I certainly didn’t want to get caught sleeping at the switch,” he said.
CBC announcer Brian Williams, working with sagacious Woodbine analyst Jim Bannon, put everything in perspective.
“If you listen carefully you can hear the fans cheering at Canadian racetracks from coast to coast,” he said.
He said in the annals of Canadian racing, it ranked up as one of the three greatest wins alongside Northern Dancer winning the 1964 Kentucky Derby, and Sunny’s Halo duplicating it in 1983. All of them happened at Churchill Downs.
Samuel remarked in an interview in the winner’s circle what a wonderful feeling it was to win. “We’re just in heaven. And Jimmy Day did a wonderful job nursing her along. It’s magic, just magic.”
Samuel said in an interview with the media that Dance Smartly’s win was huge for national reasons.
“We’re proud she carries (the Canadian flag) the way she doe,” he said. “It’s a big boost for Canadian-breds.”
Samuel et all couldn’t truly sit back and fully enjoy the moment. Sky Classic’s racing was upcoming in an hour. The bettors made him the second choice at just under 7-2 odds. He led for a mile in the 1½-mile race but faded to fourth.
The principals of Sam-Son Farm have either passed or are no longer in the game. The operation began dispersing its breeding and racing stock last year and it will soon come to an end. All that will be left will be the memories, in particular the one 30 years ago.
What a day it was.
By Perry Lefko for Woodbine Communications