It was not as if Frank Stronach was really worried about the drought, the 18 years since one of his own racehorses had won the coveted Canadian classic, the Queen’s Plate. Still, the master of Adena Springs was seen sifting through the lush green grass of the Woodbine paddock in search of a four-leaf clover on July 5, just minutes before the 156th Plate.
Shaman Ghost, a dark bay son of his Breeders’ Cup Classic (G1) winner Ghostzapper, was on his way to post as one of the favourites for the Plate, but Stronach knew sometimes having the best horse is not always enough.
You may know the end of the story by now. Stronach found a four-leaf clover just before Shaman Ghost, under American jockey Rafael Hernandez, turned on the jets in the stretch to win the first jewel of Canada’s Triple Crown and a $600,000 purse.
“No matter how good the horse is, you always need a bit of luck,’ said Stronach. “I’ve been very lucky with a lot of things I have done.”
There is plenty of skill and knowledge, however, which goes into building an empire such as Adena Springs, which has farms in Ontario, Kentucky and Florida. The same goes for the collection of broodmares, planning matings and developing foal into racehorses.
It is last step that was one of the more challenging for the Stronach team when it came to Shaman Ghost, labelled as a slow learner by his trainer Brian Lynch. Lynch, a former assistant to the late Bobby Frankel in California and always colourful in his description of his horses, said, “when the colt was in school, he had to sit at the back of the bus. He wasn’t that smart.”
Even when one of the world’s top jockeys Joel Rosario rode him in his career debut at Woodbine last Oct. 19 (Rosario was in town for Canadian International day), the colt was a modest fourth, beaten over six lengths in a six-furlong sprint.
Sent south with Lynch, who operates a public stable, Shaman Ghost raced twice at Gulfstream and did little to stir up any excitement.
It was when the blinkers were removed that a light bulb went on for the colt.
Partnered with the promising young Hernandez, who was lured to the big leagues from Fairmount Park by Lynch’s close friend, trainer Wesley Ward, Shaman Ghost won a maiden race at 1 1/16 miles at Gulfstream Park on the dirt at 12-1 and an allowance race at Keeneland on dirt at 5-1.
It was at this time that Lynch had unleashed another exciting Stronach 3-year-old foaled in Ontario: Unbridled Juan, a seven-length maiden winner at Gulfstream.
While that colt was getting a lot of racing media buzz, Lynch told anyone who would listen that he thought Shaman Ghost was his better hope for his first Plate victory.
But Lynch had to say goodbye to Shaman Ghost for a short time when the colt shipped north to Woodbine and Lynch’s assistant Erin Cotterill at the end of April. The new regulations for temporary workers set out by the Canadian government meant that many of Lynch’s grooms and riders could not return to Canada and so Lynch took most of his stable to Belmont Park in New York.
The colt won his first, and only, ‘prep’ race for the Plate as he came from nearly 10 lengths back to win the Marine Stakes (Grade 3) over a troubled Danish Dynaformer, who went on to win the Plate Trial.
As is customary for Stronach horses, Shaman Ghost was given plenty of time after the Marine and was simply trained up for the Plate. On race day, the fans could not decide between him and Danish Dynaformer, who was bidding to become trainer Roger Attfield’s ninth Plate winner. The latter ending up favoured by about $2,000 in bets.
The distance between the two colts at the finish was similarly close as Shaman Ghost was the last to move and he nabbed Danish Dynaformer by 1 1/4 lengths. Conquest Boogaloo, owned by Conquest Stable, endured his third consecutive hard-luck trip and finished third.
The Plate win was the third for Stronach since Awesome Again won in 1997 and Basqueian scored in 1994.
Shaman Ghost is the first horse to win the Plate without the diuretic Lasix since Archers Bay 1998.
“It’s a very old, traditional race,” said Lynch, an Australian who still has a condo in the Woodbine area. “It’s a big field and to do it for Frank and Mrs. Stronach, that’s just fantastic.”
The fans on and off-track at the Plate bet the day’s 13-race card with enthusiasm, pounding just over $11 million through the windows, the most bet on any Woodbine card in the history of the track excluding the 1996 Breeders’ Cup day.