Profiles

No One is Laughing at Manitoba’s Escape Clause Now

Opposing trainers may have laughed when Manitoba-bred Escape Clause came to Santa Anita to contest the La Canada stakes, but they weren’t laughing now.

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We’re all suckers for underdogs.

We cheered for Rocky, ran with Forrest Gump and cried with Brian’s Song.

We can’t get enough of the skinny little kid with thick, Poindexter glasses taking down the neighbourhood bully or the trailer park standing up to the tornado.

Well, most of us anyway.

When trainer/owner Don Schnell led Escape Clause, the latest feel-good, rags-to-riches story, into Santa Anita’s receiving barn prior to the Jan. 12 Grade 3 $100,000 La Canada Stakes, a couple of other trainers could easily be overheard guffawing with laughter as the $5,000 purchase from the Manitoba Yearling Sale paraded by.

The air heavy — still thick from the rain which had pounded southern California — Schnell said, “Neither of them knew where Manitoba was. Neither of them could pronounce Assiniboia Downs. Then they started talking about Escape Clause’s sire, Going Commando. One pointed out that Going Commando stood for just $990. The other asked if that stud fee came from Walmart.

“They were laughing it up pretty good but they weren’t laughing after the race.”

Escape Clause once again parked the pumpkin and told her ugly stepsisters to take a hike, effortlessly winning the sloppy La Canada by five and a half lengths.

Nobody is laughing anymore. Bred by Cam Ziprick and Barry Arnason, the mile and a sixteenth La Canada was Escape Clause’s 19th win in 28 starts — all but two of the wins have been stakes victories.

It was also Escape Clause’s second stakes triumph in California having also won the one mile Nov. 9 $75,000 Kathryn Crosby stake at Del Mar where, running on turf for the first time, she crossed the finish line second, but was moved up to the win after obvious interference.

In between the Crosby, which marked the only time a Manitoba-bred was victorious in a California stakes race, and the La Canada, Escape Clause finished in a dead heat for third in the mile and three-eighths Red Carpet — the farthest she’s been asked to run — when the winner, India Mantuana, was able to build an uncontested, soft-paced eight-length lead. She was then a very troubled fourth in the Robert J. Frankel at Santa Anita.

“She could have easily won the Red Carpet and the Frankel too,” said Schnell. “Especially the Frankel. She got shut off five different times. She ran her last quarter mile in 23 seconds. She should have won by five lengths, but she got jerked inside, jerked outside. It was a horrible trip.”

It was clear sailing in the La Canada for the dark chocolate mare with the huge, breath-taking stride.

“When I said ‘Go,’ man, she took off with me,” jockey Tyler Baze said in the winner’s circle after the La Canada victory where she sat third — purposely three wide so as not to get boxed in or have mud thrown in her face — and inhaled her front-running opponents with one bold, explosive move around the final turn.

“When she got the lead she kind of pulled up a little bit. She never really laid down and run down the lane so I don’t know how good she is… Down the lane there was a whole lot left.”

In a script written by Walt Disney, the storybook tale heroine won eight of her 11 starts in 2017. Last year, she won nine races in a row — most of them widening romps like the Manitoba Distaff by 7 3/4 lengths; the City of Edmonton Distaff in Edmonton by four and a quarter lengths and the Century Downs’ Founders Distaff outside of Calgary by 10 3/4 lengths — and would certainly appear to be the prohibitive favourite to win a Sovereign Award as Canada’s champion aged mare.

Now, she’s one-for-one in 2019 with career earnings of $423,500.

“The La Canada was probably her best race to date,” said Schnell, who has won over 900 races as a trainer.

“When she made her move it was spine tingling. How easily she went by and opened up daylight in a split second.

“When she opened up six lengths on them she started to look around. She was in cruise control down the stretch; she was just galloping.

“Tyler Baze’s agent — and he’s been an agent for 43 years — said he’s never seen a move like that before.

“Tyler himself told me that she will win a Grade 1.”

Escape Clause could get that opportunity on March 16 in the one mile $400,000 Beholder stake at Santa Anita.

“That’s the race we are pointing her towards. She’ll have one race before that which will probably be the Santa Monica on Feb. 16. The Santa Monica is only seven furlongs which isn’t ideal because her best distances are probably a mile and a sixteenth or a mile and a quarter. But it should be a good set up for the Beholder.”

All of this from a 5-year-old mare that — outside of a victory in an allowance race at Canterbury Downs — had done all of her winning at Assiniboia Downs in Winnipeg, Northlands Park in Edmonton and Century Downs just outside of Calgary.

All of this also from an as mentioned $5,000 yearling purchase whose sire, Going Commando, was a cheap claimer that ran mostly at Pennsylvania’s Penn National racetrack and out of a mare, Danger Pay, who was named because of her bad temperament.

“Danger Pay was a nut,” Schnell said without hesitation. “I trained her and she was dangerous to gallop and dangerous to ride. She could flip out for no reason.”

But Schnell did allow that Going Commando is by Unbridled’s Song, who won the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile, the Florida Derby and the Wood Memorial and who is the sire of major winners such as Arrogate, Forever Unbridled, Midshipman and Liam’s Map.

“I’ve got a 3-year-old filly I train for Cam (Ziprick) and Barry (Arnason) that is also by Going Commando. She’s run twice and won both times — both stakes.”

Almost 20 years ago there was a very similar underdog tale: Fancy As. Also a Manitoba-bred, Fancy As was purchased at the 1999 Manitoba Yearling Sales for just $3,200 by Linda and R.K. ‘Red’ Smith.

Fancy As went on to win 16 of 26 career starts — 10 of his first 11 — and, after winning the Alberta, Canadian and B.C. Derbies he too went to California where he finished second in a pair of Grade 2 stakes — one of them the $400,000 Strub.

He finished his career with earnings of $672,746.

Another top Manitoba-bred was Liz’s Pride, who, in 1978, was named Canada’s Sovereign-Award winning 2-year-old filly after winning all eight of her starts at Assiniboia Downs.

Then there was Gold Strike, who won the 2005 Woodbine Oaks and also won a Sovereign Award and Merry’s Jay, the first Manitoba-bred to win the Manitoba Derby at Assiniboia Downs.

Now it’s Escape Clause’s turn.

“She just keeps getting better and better,” said Schnell of the big, powerfully-proportioned mare with an insatiable desire for peppermints.

“She never runs a bad race. When she’s gotten beat it was never her fault. It was either a terrible ride or a terrible trip. She’s got more heart than any horse I’ve ever had,” said Schnell, 66, who has trained many good horses in Alberta and Manitoba, including Majestic Horizon, Alberta’s 1990 Horse of the Year when he won 10 races and went on to bank over $500,000 which, considering the smaller purses offered 30 years ago, is incredible.

“She thinks she’s the queen and she goes out and runs like one.

“She’s one of those naturals. Talent, speed and brains and everything to go with it.”

Schnell, who grew up in the central Alberta village of Alliance — where relatives and former thoroughbred trainers Lorne and Harold Spady also called home — said he knew Escape Clause was something special as early as her first race as a 3-year-old.

“I was interviewed after that race and I said I believed she was the best 3-year-old filly in Western Canada. I didn’t say she was going to be the best in the western United States.

“I never believed she would be this good. It’s been quite a run. Who would have thought she would go from Manitoba to Alberta to southern California and win two stakes there?

“It’s remarkable really. I had dreams but they were never that big.

“I had hopes, but to win the La Canada? And be the even-money favourite? No. I never imagined that.”

Schnell said he wasn’t sure where he was going to run Escape Clause after she ended her 2018 Canadian season with a nine-length, track-record setting performance in the Canadian Thoroughbred Horse Society Sales stake at Balzac’s Century Downs on Oct. 21 getting the seven furlongs in 1:22.

But he knew he couldn’t just turn her out as good as she was running.

“After that stake at Century she came to the test barn and didn’t even draw a deep breath.

“After that race, I said, ‘We’ve got to go somewhere while she’s good.”

So it was off to California.

“I used to say anytime I got a good horse I’d like to come to Santa Anita and win a race. I went years without having a good horse. Now, all of a sudden, I’ve got one.”

Does he ever.

Naturally, offers have been plentiful including one for over $500,000.

“As of now I’m going to keep her. Maybe I’ll think about it this fall. Maybe then I’ll put her in the Keeneland November sale.

“But right now I’m just concentrating on the Beholder.

“She’s won on hard tracks, mud and turf. In the last 12 months she’s had nine different riders. She’s won at six different tracks – Canterbury Downs in Minnesota, Assiniboia Downs in Winnipeg, Century Downs in Balzac just outside of Calgary, Northlands Park in Edmonton and now here at Del Mar and Santa Anita.

“She doesn’t need to carry a jockey or a race course around.

“She will adapt to whatever surface or track she is asked to run on. A friend of mine said, ‘If she ever runs on broken glass I’ll be betting on her then, too.’”

Out of the blue, out of the heavens, Escape Clause continues to prove that cats can bark and rivers run uphill.

“She’s just very, very special,” said Schnell.

“She’s a win machine. A very confident win machine.”

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