Great fillies, Breeders’ Cup stars, a 190-1 winner and Northern Dancer: who’s next on this amazing roll of honour?

Sir Dudley Digges (Julien Leparoux) gets up to beat Amis Gizmo in last year’s Queen’s Plate. Ken and Sarah Ramsey’s colt is trained by Michael Maker. Photo:

It would be easy to dismiss the Queen’s Plate as Canada’s ‘attempt’ at a Kentucky Derby-like contest, but in reality the Queen’s Plate is not only the longest consecutively run stakes race in the whole of North America, but also an historic event older than the country of Canada itself.

This year, the 158th Queen’s Plate will be the jewel of a two-day racing festival on Saturday and Sunday at Woodbine Racetrack over the very same weekend that Canada celebrates its 150th birthday.

The first Queen’s Plate, which is named after the current head of monarchy in England and is known as the King’s Plate when the ruler is male, was run in 1860. The race was created to encourage both farmers and men of higher social standing to continue to breed Thoroughbreds with an eye on one day winning the rich prize.

In an effort to secure that prize, the Toronto Turf Club, first established in 1843, sought a donation of a ‘Plate’ of 50 guineas from Queen Victoria. The Queen agreed to award this prize annually.

A history of drama

Carleton Race Course played host to the first Queen’s Plate on June 27, 1860. The conditions were simple: “Open to all horses bred in Upper Canada which have never won public money.” The appeal of making the race open only to maidens was to encourage further development of the breed in the area.

The Queen’s Plate was run as three one-mile heats, with eventual winner Don Juan, a 5-year-old, scoring in two of the three legs.

In the 1870s, the race moved to a new track each year, and changed distances from three mile-long heats, to a ‘dash’ of two miles, then from 1¾ miles to 1½ miles. Prize money was eventually awarded to the second, and then later the third place finishers as well.

The race settled in its home of the old Woodbine Park in 1883, where it stayed until the ‘new’ Woodbine opened in 1956. By then, the race was also given its current conditions of being open to 3-year-olds foaled in Canada.

The pride of Canada

Since then, the Plate has been established as the most prestigious race in its country. The $1 million contest has seen as much drama as any other major stakes race, from dominating performances, stunning longshot victories, and a host of special fillies taking the race as their own.

No conversation of the Queen’s Plate is complete without mentioning Northern Dancer, the pride of Canada who in 1964 not only won the Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes but also took the Queen’s Plate in his career finale. The diminutive, gutsy bay went on to be the greatest sire influence of the last century, eventually commanding a fee as high as $1 million with no guarantee at a live foal. His bloodline still runs in the veins of a majority of Thoroughbreds competing today.

This year, Roger Attfield will seek to become the Plate’s all-time winningest trainer with a ninth victory. He is currently tied with early 1900s trainer Harry Giddings, Jr. - they have eight wins apiece. Attfield won his first Plate in 1976 with Norcliffe and most recently won it in 2008 with Not Bourbon.

In between, he captured the Canadian Triple Crown - Queen’s Plate, Prince of Wales Stakes (nine and a half furlongs at Fort Erie in July) and the Breeders’ Stakes (back at Woodbine over a mile and a half in August) - with With Approval (1989), Isvestia (1990), and Peteski (1993). Twelve horses are recognized as having won the triple, but none since Wando in 2003.

While Attfield’s looks to set a record that may never be touched, the record for most wins by a jockey seems attainable. Three are tied with four wins each: Avelino Gomez, Robin Platts, and the great Sandy Hawley. This year, Eurico Rosa da Silva and Patrick Husbands will both be hunting for their third wins.

‘Ringer’ controversy

When T J’s Lucky Moon won the Plate in 2002, he stunned bettors with 82-1 odds and a $166 payout on a $2 ticket. That wasn’t the race’s highest payout, however, as the gelding Maternal Pride, who had run abysmally as a juvenile, led every step to take the 1924 King’s Plate with a $193.35 return. Shortly thereafter, there were rumors that the horse that had won the race was a ‘ringer’ masquerading under the name Maternal Pride, but photographic evidence of a scar on the horse’s leg suffered as a foal proved the horse to genuinely be Maternal Pride.

Unlike in the Kentucky Derby, both a female jockey and trainer have won the Plate. Rider Emma-Jayne Wilson took the race in 2007 with the Ian Black-trained longshot Mike Fox, who paid $32.40. Just one year before, Josie Carroll had broken the barrier as a trainer with Edenwold, a 16-1 shot. Carroll got her second win in 2011 with Inglorious.

Inglorious is just one of the 35 fillies that have won the Plate, dating back to Brunette in 1864. The most famous is Dance Smartly, a Hall of Famer in both Canada and the United States, who won the Canadian Triple Crown in 1991, defeated males in graded company on the dirt in the $1 million Molson Export Million Stakes, and then went south of the border to win the Breeders’ Cup Distaff. An Eclipse Award winner and three-time Sovereign Award winner, Dance Smartly went on to produce a pair of Plate winners herself with Scatter The Gold, a colt, and Dancethruthedawn, a filly.

Predicted favorite

Lexie Lou is the most recent filly to win the race, scoring in 2014. The popular horse ran second behind California Chrome in the Hollywood Derby at Del Mar, then added a pair of G2 victories two years later.

Holy Helena will look to add her name to the list of female winners, as she is the predicted favorite for Sunday’s race. The daughter of Ghostzapper races for the Stronach Stables, which campaigned 2015 winner Shaman Ghost, who is more recently known as a multiple G1 winner in America, and 1997 winner Awesome Again, who eventually won the Breeders’ Cup Classic and became a standout sire. Holy Helena won the $500,000 Woodbine Oaks impressively on June 11, the same day that the colts ran more than a second slower in the traditional Plate prep, the Plate Trial.

20-1 shot Guy Caballero won that race over King And His Court and Tiz A Slam, the three colts who were favored for the Plate over the winter. Recent maiden breaker Aurora Way, by Giant’s Causeway, is another drawing a lot of support.

The Queen’s Plate Festival begins on Saturday with two stakes races and a concert, with another concert following the five stakes on Sunday.

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