BY JIM WELLS
The connections in horse racing are sometimes astounding as well as confounding and on a strange afternoon at the racetrack some of that played out during a card that featured exceptional stakes racing and some mind-boggling vignettes as well.
Highlights are simple to point out: The two $100,000 stakes on the card, The Lady Canterbury and the Mystic Lake Mile, arguably the best in many years and among the best ever. Granted, the Mile was only run for the fifth time on Sunday, but the Lady Canterbury made its 25th appearance.
Mingled with heart-pounding finishes in those races and heart-warming stories to go with them were the unceremonious unseating of four riders during the card. One at the start of the fifth race resulted in a loose horse whose interference with the remaining field caused stewards to declare it a non-race.
Those episodes were balanced by some of the finest racing yet this summer in two exceptional stakes events that included parallels with the past and unexpected, much appreciated phone calls to the winner’s circle.
$100,000 LADY CANTERBURY STAKES
Think back to 1990 and the Kentucky Derby, trainer Carl Nafzger and Minnesotan Frances Genter celebrating their Kentucky Derby winner Unbridled, trainer and owner featured in a heart-warming video that played over and over again on sports networks across the nation. It was the biggest win at that point for a woman involved in racing for decades. Trainer and owner were later inducted into the Canterbury Park Hall of Fame.
Now, shift to the winner’s circle at Canterbury Park on Sunday and a 4-year-old filly named Sweet Tapper, a 4-year-old daughter of Tapit owned by Lorie Michaels of Wayzata, whose celebration included a phone call from none other than Carl Nafzger.
The trainer of record for the winner is Ian Wilkes, once an understudy to Nafzger who is trying his best to retire without complete success.
Michaels and her husband, Bob, have been in racing for about a dozen years but celebrated the biggest win of their racing involvement on Sunday, their first stakes victory.
“It was absolutely wonderful. I couldn’t be any happier,” Lorie told Nafzger.
She gave this victory to her husband. “It’s his father’s day gift,” she said.
It was a victory, too, another victory, for jockey Orlando Mojica, who won two stakes races and finished second in a third last weekend.
Sweet Tapper,8-1, was hemmed in along the rail coming out of the turn, but his rider was not concerned. “I had plenty of horse and I found an opening inside.”
Just in time. Mojica made his bid from there and caught Insta Erma, the even-money favorite, at the wire by a neck, finishing in 1:35.88. Seeking Treasure at 6-1 was next, 1 ¼ lengths further back.
$100,000 MYSTIC LAKE MILE
Local trainer, local rider, owner a neighbor from South Dakota.
That connection provided the winner for the fifth running of the mile, an aptly named Hay Dakota, a Kentucky-bred son of Haynesfield.
The race included 5/2 Majestic Pride, last year’s Horse of the Year and One Mean Man, winner of the 2016 Mystic Lake Derby and the 2-1 favorite.
Hay Dakota, meanwhile, was sent off by the crowd of 14,150, at 6-1. Sixth out of the gate in the eight-horse field, Hay Dakota under Denny Velazquez tracked the leaders from the second flight, came four wide on the turn and made his bid from there, finishing a head in front of Majestic Pride and another half length in front of Way Striking, finishing in 1:35.37.
Asked how his heart held up during the stretch run, winning trainer Joel Berndt seemed more concerned about his vocal cords. “It’s my voice,” he said. “I was riding the race from the quarter pole on. If you recall, I lost the Mystic Derby last year by a neck.” By that, he meant that Hay Dakota had finished third in the race, a neck out of second place and another nose from first.
Moments earlier Sunday, Canterbury Hall of Fame trainer Doug Oliver had been to the winner’s circle to visit old friends. He once trained for old friends. He once trained for Alice Mettler of Wall, S.D., owner of Hay Dakota.
$24,000 SKIP ZIMMERMAN STAKES
The Fiscal Cliff, a 4-year-old Pyc Paint Your Wagon colt, had his way with nine rivals in Sunday’s opening stakes race, named for a long-time contributor to Minnesota’s horse industry.
Bet too much against Sunday’s winner and a person might end up falling off a fiscal cliff himself.
Eighteen races. First or second seventeen times. Eleven wins. A Grade II winner and runnerup in races at Remington Park.
He could have spotted his competition a length or two and still won this race, although he needed a rare reminder from his rider after shifting his weight in the gate and not breaking cleanly.
Not that he needed the tap as everything turned out. The Fiscal Break appeared to do all that was necessary under the circumstances.
“He didn’t break real well. Couldn’t get hold of the ground,” said owner Thomas Lepic of Iowa City, Iowa. “We rarely touch him, but he did take hold.”
Winning trainer Kasey Willis had even more to celebrate. He also saddled Streakin PR, the second-place horse.
Winning rider Benito Baca told Lepic afterward that his horse didn’t break in a straight line after shifting in the gate but acquired his footing and took charge of the competition, finishing in 17.75 seconds.
Lepic said he will continue training his horse here in preparation for the Bank of America Canterbury Park Challenge on July 4.
Sunday’s race is named for Skip Zimmerman, a quarter horse and thoroughbred owner and breeder who was a charter member of the Minnesota Quarter Horse Racing Association and a member of the HBPA board of directors. Zimmerman died of a heart problem on March 6, 2007.