He had heard all the stories about the ornery Ontario-bred filly, but Darwin Banach didn’t think twice when he put in a claim on her.
Samurai Queen, a four-year-old dark bay daughter of First Samurai, had already built up a reputation on the Woodbine backstretch, none of it flattering.
Of all the words used to describe the filly, “difficult” was perhaps the most often-used term attached to her name.
But for all of her quirks, bad habits and poor manners, Samurai Queen had the one quality Banach was looking for when it came to adding a horse to his barn.
“Talent,” said the conditioner who has recorded 288 lifetime wins. “You knew she had it. You knew it was there. But you also knew it would take a lot of work. She’s been scratched at the gate, she’s been scratched in the paddock – I think she kicked a jockey in the paddock when they went to get on her – and some of the trainers that had her before, you heard that she flipped in the barn, or on the way to the track. Rob [lead outrider, Love] used to pick her up at the tunnel and pony her the whole time. They used to have to walk her, with Rob ponying her, and try to saddle her that way. So, we knew we had a problem child. She definitely needed a lot of attention and she needed a lot of patience.”
Even more than Banach had anticipated.
In 2018, her first year racing, Samurai Queen posted a second and a third from five starts. One year later, she had four top-three efforts from 11 starts, including her maiden score.
The milestone victory came on September 11, 2019, a wire-to-wire 11 ¼-length romp at 1 1/16 miles over Woodbine’s main track.
That was followed by a fifth and eighth, respectively, in her next two outings.
On behalf of owners John Hillier and John Lofts, Banach claimed Samurai Queen on October 4, 2019, a race she would go on to finish eighth of nine as the even-money choice.
She would finish seventh and fourth, respectively, for Banach and co. to end her sophomore season.
“We didn’t have a lot of time with her that year and obviously it showed. She was showing speed and then stopping all the time in her races.”
Soon enough, the veteran conditioner would get to work with his work-in-progress horse.
Those efforts would be rewarded, but not until hours, days and weeks of labour were dedicated to Samurai Queen’s mental fitness.
“Because of the COVID situation and getting shut down temporarily, we had a chance to spend a lot of extra time with her. We were out on her for an hour or more every day, doing everything. She was the type of horse that if you backed her up to the wire, she’d flip over backwards in the morning. She couldn’t handle it. We just did all kinds of different things. We would train and walk half way back to the wire with her and try to make her stand and relax. Then we would back up a little farther. Once she got that, we’d walk back a little farther. We also had to let her jog and look around. Since there weren’t that many horses on the track, we were able to do figure-eights at the wire to let her know that this wasn’t a place that was going to hurt her.”
It’s then that Banach draws a deep breath and exhales.
“We spent a lot of hours with her. I bet you I schooled her 10 times before her first race this year, to the paddock and back, myself. In between every race, she schooled a minimum of five times.”
In her first start of 2020, she won by a whopping 9 ¼ lengths over six panels on the Woodbine Tapeta, stopping the clock in 1:10.51 and earning her connections $18,573.
Sent off as the 9-5 second choice, Samurai Queen had a 10-length lead at the stretch call and coasted to the wire the easiest of winners.
None of it came as a surprise to Banach.
“I actually was [expecting it]. She had been training really, really well all spring. She had talent. We thought if we could get her to turn the corner and give her a chance to be good, that maybe she would be. When we got her, we just gave her lots of chances, and at some point, we came to some kind of agreement. We would let her do so much and when she would accomplish that, we stopped, and then gradually did a little bit more until she reached her comfort level. And she responded to that. By the end of the year when she schooled, a two-year-old could have taken her over.”
It has been a gratifying journey for Banach, who won 18 races and posted 44 top-three finishes from 100 starts in 2020.
For the multiple stakes winning trainer, who finds himself 12 wins shy of 300 for his career, all of it – setbacks, successes and everything in between – has been worth the hours logged.
“That’s exactly it. When hard work like that – watching them change, grow and seeing behavioral issues corrected – pays off, it’s a wonderful feeling. The whole racetrack at Woodbine knows her. We never had to worry about anyone claiming her because everyone was deathly afraid of her.
“She was a funny horse, in the fact some horses you try to keep away from doing the same thing, but she wanted it to be a routine. If you took her out of her routine, that’s when you’d have problems. We found that she would like to go out early in races, before the rest of the horses. She wanted to go behind the gate and walk around behind it. That was her happy place. We did that so much because she was bad at the gate, and she ended up being comfortable. And the gate crew would always load her first. Usually, you load the tougher ones last, but she got upset if other horses were in the gate ahead of her. She always wanted to be the first one in.”
Samurai Queen will have the winter off from race action, spending the next few months relaxing at Vera Simpson’s Curraghmore Farm in Waterdown, Ont.
All of it well deserved, offered Banach.
“Vera couldn’t believe how much she’s filled up, grown up and turned into this amazing horse. ‘Samurai,’ now that she doesn’t fret over everything and everything isn’t a fight, she’s put on weight, muscled up. She looks great and she’s doing fantastic. We’re thrilled to have her with us.”