Barb Minshall wasn’t chasing history on that picture-perfect summer day 25 years ago at Fort Erie Racetrack.
“It seems like yesterday,” started Minshall, from her home office in Mississauga, Ont. “It’s just amazing to me. When you realize that it was 1995… you just say to yourself, ‘Wow.’ But I never thought about being the first one. Your first thought is always the same… win the race.”
Leading up to the 136th running of the Queen’s Plate, there hadn’t been much talk, as she recalled, that the Canadian classic could produce a first in its storied history: a female trainer winning the race.
“I was really just starting training horses back then, so I didn’t really follow the statistics and historical information,” said the Montreal-born conditioner, who took over the reins of Minshall Farms when her husband Aubrey, a respected and successful horseman, died in 1993. “The availability of statistics back then wasn’t anywhere near to what it is today, where it’s nearly instantaneous. Back then, if you didn’t go to the track that day, you wouldn’t find out any interesting info. until you picked up the paper the next day. I didn’t realize a female trainer had never won a Triple Crown race.”
Blessed with a pair of talented three-year-olds, homebreds Kiridashi and Mt. Sassafras, the brown and beige silks of Minshall Farms were well represented when the Canadian Triple Crown series got out of the gates, in the Queen’s Plate, on July 9, 1995 at Woodbine.
Her coupled entry went off as the 7-2 third choice, behind the favoured entry of All Firmed Up and Honky Tonk Tune, and second choice, 2-1 Langfuhr.
At the finish of the 1 ¼-mile Queen’s Plate, it was Roger Attfield trainee Regal Discovery, ridden by Todd Kabel, who was crowned champion after a 1 ¼-length score at odds of 9-1.
Kiridashi, who led the 14-horse field until just after the mile mark, finished fourth. Mt. Sassafras rallied to be third.
“I thought both of them ran their hearts out,” remembered Minshall. “It just wasn’t our day.”
Cue the rematch.
The Prince of Wales, second jewel in the historic Canadian Triple Crown, attracted six starters, a field that included Regal Discovery, Kiridashi, and Mt. Sassafras.
Three weeks removed from Regal Discovery’s triumph in the “Gallop for the Guineas,” Minshall was hoping to turn the tables with her powerful one-two punch entry in the 1 3/16-mile main track Prince of Wales.
She wouldn’t have traded places with anyone at Fort Erie on July 30, 1995.
“I do definitely remember thinking we could win it. We were really confident in both horses. Mt. Sassafras was more of a come-from-behind horse and Kiridashi was an extremely fast horse, a horse that could run the turns very quickly and make up all his ground on the turns. He was a typical ‘catch-me-if-you-can’ type. And if you wanted to go with him, you’d usually empty the tank, and if you let him loose, he got very brave on the lead. He was a very dangerous horse. So, we had both ends covered and we were really confident.”
Her pre-race conversation with jockey Larry Attard, aboard Kiridashi, lasted all of 10 seconds.
“I told Larry to go to the front and wire the field. If Mt. Sassafras runs you down, that’s okay, but you’re on your own.”
Seizing control early from the outside gate, Kiridashi, the handsome son of Bold Ruckus, made every call a winning one, besting runner-up Regal Discovery by two lengths.
“The pace was a kind of slow pace,” said Attard, moments after the race. “The half went 47 [seconds] and change and I said if I make a slow pace, I’m going to win the race. It came exactly like I thought.”
With Kabel once again in the irons, Regal Discovery made a three-wide move to the leader up the backstretch, but midway through the far turn, Kiridashi and Attard were doing precisely what Minshall envisioned.
They were playing catch-me-if-you-can to perfection.
“He [Kiridashi] was the lone speed in the race and he got to dictate everything his own way,” noted Kabel. “I couldn’t get him [Regal Discovery] to relax.”
Attard said, “Every time he [Regal Discovery] came up to me I just kind of opened up a half a length, a length to him. I know I got the horse.”
Mt. Sassafras finished third, a nose back of second spot.
“When Kiridashi had the lead turning for home and you knew he wasn’t going to get headed, I had a really good feeling,” she recalled. “That’s how he won most of his races. If he got that lead down the backside and he wasn’t being challenged turning for home, it would have taken something else to try and run him down because he wouldn’t let them go by him.”
With the win, Minshall, a former member of the Canadian Olympic equestrian team, had secured a spot in the record books as the first female trainer to win a Triple Crown race, in Canada or the U.S.
Recollections of Kiridashi’s wire-to-wire tour de force at Fort Erie still bring a smile to Minshall’s face.
“It’s scary how time goes by so fast, but you keep hoping to find those good ones again. To be in horse racing, you absolutely need to love horses and being around them. For me, nothing is more rewarding than seeing young horses develop and do well down the road.”
Just like Kiridashi and Mt. Sassafras did.
In 44 starts, Kiridashi won 14 times, adding nine seconds and eight thirds, along with earnings of $1.2 million (U.S.). At four, he won the Grade 3 King Edward Breeders’ Cup Handicap, the Fair Play and Heresy, all at Woodbine. One year later, he took the Grade 3 Connaught Cup, Vigil, and Jacques Cartier.
His final race was a fifth in the Grade 1 Woodbine Mile, on September 21, 1998.
“Kiridashi was the studdiest horse to be around. I think it’s why that when he shipped, he didn’t run very well. He was so studdy. Nowadays, I probably would have gelded him. But when a horse is running so well like he did, it’s tough to consider that option. He was a kind horse in the stall, but once you got on his back, he was very aggressive – just a very sound horse and easy to train. He was a strong galloper, but very straightforward.”
Mt. Sassafras, a son of Mt. Livermore, won eight times from 47 starts. He also added seven runner-up finishes, and 14 third-place efforts, to go with $1.38 million (U.S.) in earnings.
The chestnut delivered Canadians a big thrill in the 1996 Breeders’ Cup Classic at Woodbine when he had the lead in deep in the stretch before finishing fourth at 101-1. A length separated him from Alphabet Soup, Louis Quatorze and Cigar.
That winter, Mt. Sassafras defeated Eclipse Award champion Skip Away at Gulfstream in the Donn Handicap.
“He was way more sensitive than Kiridashi. You had to make sure he ate. He was way more high-strung than Kiridashi. But he was extremely durable for a small, slight-framed horse. We got to travel to many big stake races all over the U.S. He ran in eight Grade 1 races and he won a Grade 1, $500,000 U.S. race, defeating good horses like Skip Away, Tejano Run and Suave Prospect.When I think of Mt. Sassafras, I think ‘Grade 1,’ – very talented and also unlucky. He really could have won several other races as well.”
Mt. Sassafras did, however, greatly contribute to Minshall Farms’ banner 1996 season, culminating in five Sovereign awards, including Canada’s horse of the year, champion older horse, top owner, and breeder honours.
The other trophy, for top trainer, represented another first.
“To win the Sovereign was another huge thrill,” said Minshall, the first woman to win it. “Hearing Mt. Sassafras’ name called out as horse of the year and top older horse is something you’ll never forget.”
She no doubt hasn’t.
Minshall Farms, dispersed a few years after the impressive trophy haul, didn’t spell the end of Minshall’s training career.
Multiple stakes winners like Bold Ruritana, Stephanotis, Strut the Course and Stacked Deck have provided her with memorable triumphs over the years.
Their pictures, and many others, hang alongside the ones of Kiridashi and Mt. Sassafras, in Minshall’s home office, happy reminders of treasured victories, past and present.
“You just smile… the good old days. And that day at Fort Erie, it was a really good one. I wasn’t trying to put my name the history books that day. You just wanted to win the race.”
Kiridashi managed to deliver both.
Watch the race replay here: