As long and storied as the races of the American Triple Crown series are, they are not the oldest classic races in North America—that honor goes to Canada's premier racing event. The Queen's Plate is not only North America's oldest classic but the oldest continuously contested stakes race on the continent, having run 153 consecutive years.
This year's edition went to Canyon Farms' homebred Strait of Dover, a cleverly named son of 2007 U.S. champion turf male English Channel . Now the winner of four consecutive races after taking four starts to break his maiden (though he did finish first in his third start, losing by disqualification), the colt not only went gate to wire to defeat Woodbine Oaks—Presented by Budweiser winner Irish Mission but set a Woodbine track record of 2:01.99 for the Polytrack surface into the bargain.
Given that staying turf runners are generally not that well patronized as sires in the United States, English Channel was something of a surprise as a freshman sire of 2011, finishing 12th among first-year sires. While he did not get any juvenile stakes winners, he had 12 individual winners, including four stakes-placed runners. They were led by Optimizer , who is now graded stakes-placed on all three types of racing surface used in North America after having run second in the 2011 With Anticipation Stakes (gr. IIT), third in the 2011 Dixiana Breeders' Futurity (gr. IA), and second in the 2012 Rebel Stakes (gr. II).
As English Channel scored all five of his grade I wins at ages 4 and 5, it was only reasonable to project that his progeny would improve with maturity. They seem to be doing exactly that. So far in 2012, the Lane's End stallion has been represented by four North American stakes winners. All three of his stakes winners have scored their successes over turf or synthetics, but Optimizer's performance in the Rebel and Blueskiesnrainbows ' third in the Santa Anita Derby (gr. I) suggest that English Channel may be capable of getting major winners on dirt as well.
English Channel is a son of Smart Strike, who has been one of Mr. Prospector's best sons at stud. Now 20, the half brother to 1991 Canadian Horse of the Year and U.S. champion 3-year-old filly Dance Smartly has lived up to his regal heritage as both a grade I winner during his own racing days and as a two-time leading sire in the U.S. While he has yet to establish himself as a sire of sires, he has an excellent chance of getting at least one successor and perhaps more; aside from English Channel, he is also represented by two-time U.S. Horse of the Year Curlin , a freshman sire of 2012, and two-time divisional champion Lookin At Lucky, whose first foals arrived this spring. Standing alongside his sire at Lane's End, Curlin came up with his first two winners June 17: Russian group II winner Zimniy Dvorets and Russian winner Lucky First.
While English Channel's proclivity for turf and distance is not surprising—his maternal grandsire Theatrical was the U.S. champion turf male of 1987 after a thrilling victory over Trempolino in the Breeders' Cup Turf (gr. IT)—his pedigree is hardly devoid of speed. His dam Belva was produced from Committed, a multiple champion sprinter/miler in Europe and a daughter of the good speedster and sire of speedsters Hagley. And his paternal grandsire Mr. Prospector was as quick as they come, good enough reason to suspect that English Channel might be capable of getting more than one-dimensional stayers.
Part of the thinking behind the mating that produced Strait of Dover may have been the fact that his dam Bahrain Star produced the grade III-placed multiple stakes winner Starlite Strike to the cover of Smart Strike (who also sired Canadian Horse of the Year Soaring Free from a Danzig mare and Lookin at Lucky from a Danzig granddaughter). Other than that, Bahrain Star had done little to distinguish herself as a racer or a broodmare despite receiving very good opportunities prior to her sale for $27,000 at the 2002 Keeneland November breeding stock sale. But she is the type of well-bred mare that can come up with a major winner at any time. A daughter of three-time leading sire Danzig, she is out of the winning Mill Reef mare Antigua Rose, whose dam Rose Bowl was the English champion older female of 1976. Mill Reef, of course, was one of the best horses seen in the latter half of the 20th century in Europe as well as an outstanding sire, and Rose Bowl had equally high credentials based on her own racing prowess and her status as the daughter of the top English miler and leading English sire and broodmare sire Habitat out of 1968 French champion 3-year-old filly Roseliere.
The obvious next step for Strait of Dover is the second jewel of the Canadian Triple Crown, the Prince of Wales Stakes. The downside is that the race is contested on the dirt, a surface on which the colt finished unplaced in his first two starts. But in fairness to Strait of Dover, both of those starts were at Hastings Park, a bull ring to which he was probably ill-suited. He has obviously found a home at Woodbine, whatever else happens, and it will be interesting to see how he develops during the rest of the season.