TORONTO, September 16 — Johnny Bear caught the favoured European invader Hawkbill in a flying finish to win the $300,000 Northern Dancer Stakes (Grade 1) featured on the Ricoh Woodbine Mile undercard on Saturday afternoon.
The 1-1/2 mile turf event for three year olds and up is the major local prep race for the Pattison Canadian International to be contested over the same distance and course on October 15.
Johnny Bear and jockey Luis Contreras pulled off the 9-1 upset defeating Hawkbill in a photo finish to give trainer Ashlee Brnjas her first graded stakes win. The six-year-old English Channel-In Return gelding is owned by her father John Brnjas’ Colebrook Farms along with Bear Stables Ltd.
Sent postward as the 3-5 favourite following graded stakes wins in Great Britain earlier this year, Hawkbill established the lead from post eight in his Canadian debut with jockey Colm O’Donoghue aboard. He led the field through mile fractions of :26.09, :50.94, 1:15.74 and 1:39.81 with Johnny Bear, forwardly placed from post seven, tracking in third behind Pumpkin Rumble.
Hawkbill was clear on top turning for home, but Johnny Bear launched his attack in the final quarter and got up in time to score the victory in 2:27.30. Messi and Jose Ortiz closed inside to finish third.
“I was just thinking just stay behind the eight-horse, and follow him as much as I can, and wait for the end to make my move,” said Contreras of his winning trip. “It worked perfect.”
Johnny Bear is now five-for-nine this year, coming off a victory in the Halton Stakes last time out on August 30 at Woodbine.
“I had faith in this horse, right from the beginning, and I didn’t give up on him,” said John Brnjas.
“When I entered him in the Northern Dancer, the Bear [Bear Stable’s Danny Dion] said, ‘Are you kidding me?’ I hope he’s happy now.
“He ran a great race in the Halton and I thought he deserved a shot in this.”
Bred in Ontario by Tall Oaks Farm, Johnny Bear was a $278,000 yearling purchase at the Canadian Thoroughbred Horse Society sale.
“We fought hard for this horse, because when we got him he was a nice horse, but he was the equivalent of a marshmallow,” said Ashlee Brnjas.
“It took a long time for him to develop, and we stuck it out, and it was the right decision.”
Johnny Bear now boasts seven career wins from 33 starts and earnings just shy of $500,000.
Johnny Bear returned $20.20 and $5.60 with runner-up Hawkbill ($2.60) completing a 7-8 exacta worth $64.10 for $2.
Coming up just a head short, O’Donoghue said, “[Hawkbill] travelled well and moved great. He hit the line strong and it was a bob of the heads, and unfortunately, it didn’t go his way.
“The other horse coming encouraged him to go forward again. I thought he would have held, but that’s how it goes.”
The $1 trifecta (7-8-4) with Messi returned $87.30 and the superfecta (7-8-4-6) rounded out by Seeking Albert came back at $861.45.
English Illusion, Noble Thought, Pumpkin Rumble and Camp Creek completed the order of finish.