When foreign horses Commander Crowe and Rapide Lebel arrive in Toronto for Saturday’s $600,000 Breeders Crown Trot at Woodbine Racetrack, the obstacles to victory go beyond merely facing five rivals.
Commander Crowe and Rapide Lebel will need to recover from shipping overseas, get accustomed to unfamiliar surroundings and compete in a race where the style is likely to differ greatly from that in Europe. The last foreign invitee to win the Breeders Crown Trot was Italian star Varenne in 2001, when he triumphed with a world-record 1:51.1 mile at the Meadowlands Racetrack.
“There are a lot of things involved,” said U.S.-based trainer Trond Smedshammer, who is no stranger to shipping horses overseas. “Keeping them healthy, eating and drinking; it’s a stressful thing for them. Every horse and every ship is different. Some horses deal with it fine and actually like traveling. Other horses don’t deal well with it at all.”
Smedshammer’s Breeders Crown contender, Arch Madness, raced in Europe in May. He won the $480,647 Oslo Grand Prix in Norway and also won his elimination heat for Sweden’s prestigious Elitlopp before finishing sixth in the same-day final.
Arch Madness defeated Rapide Lebel, the fastest French trotter in history, in the Oslo Grand Prix. Rapide Lebel was second in the Elitlopp, losing by a nose to German trotter Brioni.
“He’s obviously a very strong horse,” Smedshammer said. “He can carry his speed for a long time, but so can the top horses on this side. I’m not sure how good or close to top form he is right now, so it’s kind of hard for me to give a real evaluation. You don’t know how they’re going to deal with shipping over here, either.
“On his best day he certainly is a very good horse.”
Ontario native John Bax, whose Breeders Crown contender Define The World also raced in the Oslo Grand Prix and Elitlopp, agreed. Define The World was fourth in the Oslo Grand Prix and finished sixth in his Elitlopp elimination.
“(Rapide Lebel) is fast and tough,” Bax said. “I think he can go all out for the whole mile. He’s a handful; I think he made a little bit of a break at the gate in Norway when we raced against him and spent the rest of the mile on the outside, but he was still around.”
Neither Smedshammer nor Bax saw Commander Crowe in person, but both know he should be respected. Commander Crowe won the first 23 races of his career and is the second-fastest Swedish-born trotter in history, as well as the European record-holder with a 1:50.4 mark.
“He’s a good horse or they wouldn’t bring him over,” Smedshammer said.
“I didn’t race against him, so I can only go on what the guys tell me,” Bax said. “We maybe underestimate the European stock. You go over there to race them and you see how good they really are. I think he’ll be heard from. But it’s hard to say how they’ll handle the shipping coming this way. We’ve got a home-court advantage.”
Both trotters are expected to arrive in Canada on Thursday. They are flying directly to Toronto from Amsterdam, then shipping to quarantine at Mohawk Racetrack.
“They say you either come in right before, or you come in a long way before; it doesn’t seem to work as well if you come in 10 days or a week before,” Bax said. “You can come in real close and maybe get away with it, or come in a month early and get acclimated.”
In addition to getting acclimated, Commander Crowe and Rapide Lebel will face a different style of racing in North America. Both will be driven by their regular drivers, Eric Raffin behind Rapide Lebel and Chris Martens at the lines of Commander Crowe.
“These horses won’t be adapting to anybody’s style,” Bax said. “I don’t think there will be any giving and taking here. Racing two wide is nothing to them, whereas over here people get pretty worked up about it. I’ve seen horses over there go three wide so they can be first up; you’d never see that over here.
“Over there, I think it’s more about strategy and less about just speed. That makes it interesting.”
Smedshammer had Sweden’s top driver Bjorn Goop drive Arch Madness in Europe rather than regular pilot Brian Sears.
“(Racing style) comes into play a lot,” Smedshammer said. “They’re bringing their own drivers, which I think is a mistake. They would have a much better chance if they used some local drivers. The horses, they don’t know the style; it’s the drivers that are not familiar with the style.”
As for his own horse, Smedshammer is hopeful. Arch Madness has won eight of 14 races this year and earned $787,270. He was second to San Pail in the $766,500 Maple Leaf Trot and $300,000 Nat Ray Invitational. He was third in the Allerage Farm Trot, behind San Pail and Hot Shot Blue Chip, on Oct. 1 at Lexington’s Red Mile.
“He’s doing all right,” Smedshammer said. “He was probably not as good as he was this summer. I thought he raced OK in Lexington, but he hasn’t had a lot of races lately. I was trying to get a race for him last week, but I couldn’t get him in anywhere. But he’s healthy and he’s feeling good, so I’m sure he’ll show a decent performance.”
Define The World has won eight of 23 races this season and earned $317,596. He was fourth in the Maple Leaf Trot and is coming off a seventh-place finish in the open handicap at Woodbine on Oct. 15, a race won by San Pail.
“He’s as good as he can be,” Bax said. “I don’t know if that’s good enough, but we’re there. He’s a player, but there are a few that are better than him. I think it would be safe to say that everything would have to work out right, but you’ve got to be in it to have a shot. He’s got great gate speed, so he can usually get himself in position.”
San Pail is the unanimous No. 1-ranked horse in harness racing in the most recent Hambletonian Society/Breeders Crown Top 10 poll. A two-time O’Brien Award winner as Canada’s champion older trotter, San Pail has won 27 of his last 31 starts and finished worse than second only once during that span.
“I think San Pail is still going to be the favorite, and deservedly so,” Smedshammer said. “But anything could happen. With those (foreign) horses, with those drivers, who knows what’s going to happen. It’s going to be an interesting race.”