Phil Serpe said jockey Irad Ortiz was the essential ingredient in Safe Conduct’s victory in the Queen’s Plate. Now the trainer is turning to Emma-Jayne Wilson for Sunday’s (Oct. 3) $400,000 Breeders’ Stakes on the E.P. Taylor Turf Course at Woodbine Racetrack because he feels she’s the right rider to guide Safe Conduct to victory over 1 ½ miles.
“One thing I really learned was just how important a rider was for that particular (Queen’s Plate),” Serpe said of the Aug. 22 race that Safe Conduct won by a head over Riptide Rock on the Tapeta track to claim the first leg of the Canadian Triple Crown.
“Irad Ortiz was pivotal in getting that horse out of the one-hole… He’s a big brute of a horse and if you watch the first 100 yards of that race, to me, that’s where the race was won because he got that horse out of there and in position without having to use him.
“Taking that into consideration, we have a rider change to Emma-Jayne Wilson (for the Breeders’ Stakes). She was going to ride him last year for us as a 2-year-old. The ball was actually in her court to ride him in the Queen’s Plate. The horse had gotten sick and had a couple of bad starts… so I don’t blame her for (choosing to ride Tidal Forces). In fact, she was one of the first people to text me after the horse won to congratulate me.
“We feel confident with her because the whole scenario changes. What we want now is just a nice, calm ride. She knows the turf course up there, it’s her ballpark, so we’re very happy to have her… I feel like he’ll get the distance if he gets the right ride.”
Serpe’s biggest concern is weather. Should it rain, it likely won’t be Safe Conduct’s game. The son of Bodemeister out of the Congrats mare Duchess Dancer wasn’t a fan of soft going in his pre-Plate July 10 start in the Belmont Derby in which he finished 8th.
“The turf it had taken a lot of rain and he was just not getting through it,” Serpe said. “But we can’t do anything about the weather… I actually think that grass is probably going to be his best surface, so I’m more confident about this surface than (the Tapeta).”
Serpe said Safe Conduct came out of the Queen’s Plate in fine form and was back at his base in New York the next day.
“He is a big, strong horse and so he took that well. We just gave him a little breather, then brought him back down to Belmont. He had a terrific work the other day. We just blew him out a little bit (Tuesday, Sept. 28). We let him go about a half on the main track here in about :51. Really, just kind of let him go down the lane and gallop out strong. I think he went the last three-eighths in :38.2 and the last quarter in :24-and-change or something like that. He was stepping it up,” Serpe said.
The decision to skip the Prince of Wales — the second leg of the Canadian Triple Crown — was a tactical one, Serpe said.
“We would love, love, love to win the Canadian Triple Crown, but we weighed it out and we thought that we would rather have a fresh horse to run a mile-and-a-half, than to take a chance running him on the dirt and then he goes backwards and we’re not even coming,” Serpe said. “The Triple Crown in Canada is on three surfaces and, to me, that’s a lot harder, or can be a lot harder, than running at three different distances — and, of course, you are at three different distances anyway.”
Serpe said it was an honour to win the Queen’s Plate, even though neither he nor the owner — WellSpring Stables’ Dr. Robert Vukovich of Colts Neck, NJ — made the trip to Woodbine due to COVID-19 restrictions and pandemic concerns.
“We didn’t even know if we were going to make it or have personnel there, so we had three different plans intact as far as the horse was concerned. Fortunately, it all worked out well. I’m very sorry that I couldn’t be there, because it’s such a prestigious race, but we had to make sure we had people in the right spots in case something went backwards,” Serpe said, adding the fact Safe Conduct won without him there is the reason he won’t be coming for the Breeders’ Stakes.
“I’m going to stay here because I’m slightly superstitious,” he said, laughing. “If he runs a third time (at Woodbine), then I’ll be there… My partner and assistant of 25 years, Lisa Bartowsky will be up again.”
However, this time, Vukovich is expected to be at Woodbine. It was Vukovich who picked out Safe Conduct — bred by Ontario’s Mitchell Kursner — from the 2018 Keeneland November Breeding Stock Sale and bought him for $45,000. Thanks to the $600,000 (Cdn – $467,952 U.S.) payday in the $1 million Queen’s Plate, Safe Conduct now sports earnings of $603,202 (U.S.).
“I’m especially happy for (Vukovich) because he is a really, really good owner and a really good person,” Serpe said.
As for Serpe, the Plate proved to be a Godsend.
“We’ve had three or four pretty large outfits (in New York) where the trainer has retired,” Serpe said. “The pandemic put a lot of strain on people, including ourselves. Our purse earnings were down in 2020 about $800,000 from the year before. So, this money has helped immensely. For whatever reason, also, we’ve been going through a dry, dry, dry spell. Like, drier than the first year I was training horses… So, good things happened at the right time for us and we are grateful for that. The money went to good use, my employees.
“No new cars or boats or anything. The stable is our main focus.”
Dave Briggs for Woodbine Communications