It dates to 1860, making it older than any of the U.S. Triple Crown events and virtually every race in North America (though Keeneland’s Phoenix [G2] has a checkered lineage tracing back to the 1830s). On Saturday, our friends to the north will celebrate the 160th running of the C$1 million Queen’s Plate at Woodbine, outside Toronto.
There are a couple things that stand out about the long and storied history of the Queen’s Plate (which was run as the King’s Plate during the reigns of Edward VII, George V, Edward VIII, and George VI, and will again, presumably, for much of the 21st century). For example, the current conditions of the Plate — simply for Canadian-bred three-year-olds — date only to 1958 and fluctuated wildly before then.
During its first century of existence, the Plate also had various other restrictions in place. At times it was open to horses of all ages, and then only to those bred in what was then known as Upper Canada (roughly the area of Southern Ontario in and around the Great Lakes) or in Ontario exclusively. For many decades it was a bona fide maiden race, later adjusted to horses that had never won a race except for those exclusively for two-year-olds, the Plate Trial, or other designated races the Ontario Jockey Club deemed okay.
Until the 1940s, racing or shipping your Plate contender outside of Canada for virtually any reason before the big race was generally a no-no. Starting in any race as a three-year-old other than the Plate Trial was also off limits for a period. And for the longest time, owning a Plate hopeful was restricted to British subject residents of Canada only.
The eventual easing of these additional curbs, which occurred not long after the opening of the present-day Woodbine, arguably kick-started a renaissance for the Plate. Canada’s most prolific Thoroughbred son, Northern Dancer, won in 1964 after capturing the Kentucky Derby and Preakness. (However, his Canadian-born son Nijinsky II was too busy winning the 1970 English Triple Crown to be bothered with affairs back home).
Another fascinating aspect of the Plate is the success fillies have had in the 1 1/4-mile jaunt. U.S. Hall of Famer Dance Smartly (1991) is arguably the best filly ever to win the Plate. She later reared two Plate winners, including the filly Dancethruthedawn (2001).
Fillies have made an especially notable impact on the Plate since Woodbine’s main track was converted from dirt to a synthetic surface more than a decade ago. Since 2011, fillies have won four Plates, have run second once and third twice. Holy Helena (2017) and Wonder Gadot (2018) became the first back-to-back filly winners of the Plate since the late 1920s.
A full field of 14 seems likely for Saturday’s edition, and another filly looms as a major contender. That’s the regally-bred Desert Ride, a daughter of Candy Ride who made a furious rally from far back to win the June 8 Woodbine Oaks by a neck in her first try on Tapeta after winning two of her first three starts on grass.
From the family of 2009 Plate winner Eye of the Leopard and Canadian Horse of the Year Quiet Resolve, Desert Ride is a homebred racing for the Samuel family-owned Sam-Son Farm, which campaigned Dance Smartly, Dancethruthedawn, Eye of the Leopard, and two other Plate winners. She’s based at Churchill Downs with Neil Howard, who notably trained 2003 Horse of the Year Mineshaft and 1990 Preakness winner Summer Squall.
“It’s going to be a true test to take on the boys but we have a very talented filly,” Howard told Churchill Downs publicity last week. “We’ve always thought she belonged in these type of races and she proved that to us in the Woodbine Oaks.”
As a horse who looked in the Oaks as if she would thrive going longer, it would be no surprise to see another queen rule over Canada’s most beloved racing prize.
Follow Ed DeRosa (@EJXD2) for his on-site coverage of the Queen’s Plate this week.