Prior to Sunday, jockey Irad Ortiz had never ridden in the historic Queen’s Plate S. at Woodbine. Yet his riding skills were pivotal in guiding 3-1 favorite Safe Conduct to a tenacious victory in Canada’s signature race for three-year-old Thoroughbreds.
A large field of 13 horses faced the starter for the Queen’s Plate, a 1 1/4-mile test of speed and stamina held over the synthetic Tapeta track at Woodbine. The footing was unfamiliar to Safe Conduct, a two-time turf winner exiting an eighth-place finish in the Belmont Derby (G1). But under Ortiz’s careful guidance, Safe Conduct handled the surface transition without issue to become the 162nd winner of the Queen’s Plate.
Breaking from the rail, Safe Conduct got away alertly, but conceded the early advantage to longshot Take a Chance. This allowed Safe Conduct to shift outside during the opening run down the homestretch, squeezing his way between rivals to take up a perfect stalking position in second place.
This early move may have been the winning one. For the better part of one mile, Safe Conduct waited patiently, tracking the leader through modest splits of :24.01, :48.37, and 1:13.11 while clearly poised to pounce at any moment.
“He’s shown some speed before to the half, :48,” Ortiz told Woodbine. “We thought maybe two horses had speed and we want to be out of the traffic, so I broke running. I sat second on the clear, I bided my time, waited for the right time to roll and when I asked him to go, he kept fighting down the stretch. He kept moving forward.”
Safe Conduct launched his bid approaching the top of the stretch, taking over the lead as Keep Grinding advanced into contention on the outside. Safe Conduct met this initial challenge with aplomb, turning back Keep Grinding to secure a clear advantage close to home.
But the race wasn’t over, as 11-1 longshot Riptide Rock—charging boldly from last place—unleashed a furious finish in the final strides to reach nearly even terms. Fortunately for Safe Conduct, the wire came just in time, and the favorite held on to prevail by a head in 2:02.85.
“I saw somebody was flying outside… that was very close,” said Ortiz. “I didn’t know if I won the race after the wire but thank God I did.”
H C Holiday edged the filly Munnyfor Ro for third place, a length behind the top pair, while Keep Grinding, Avoman, Harlan Estate, Haddassah, Tidal Forces, Dance Some Mo, Derzkii, Go Take Charge, and Take a Chance completed the order of finish.
Among Safe Conduct’s human connections, Ortiz wasn’t the only one tasting Queen’s Plate success for the first time. Trainer Philip Serpe and owner WellSpring Stables likewise secured breakthrough victories courtesy of Safe Conduct, who was bred in Ontario by Mitchell H. Kursner before selling for $45,000 as a weanling.
Kursner was on hand to celebrate after the race.
“Blessed,” Kursner told Woodbine. “Blessed. I want to congratulate Dr. Vukevich and the wonderful people at WellSpring. They’ve done a marvelous job bringing this horse along. And of course, Phil Serpe.
“He’s been training like a bear,” Kursner continued. “The rule of thumb is that if you’re a nice horse on the turf, you’ll translate on the Tapeta and we’re just delighted. Delighted.”
Safe Conduct is a son of Bodemeister out of the Congrats mare Duchess Dancer. Bodemeister has also found renown as the sire of 2017 Kentucky Derby (G1) winner Always Dreaming, which means the stallion has achieved a memorable Queen’s Plate/Kentucky Derby double through his progeny.
Previously victorious in maiden and allowance races on the New York circuit, Safe Conduct career record stands at 7-2-1-0, with earnings of $603,202. The question is, what’s next for the improving bay colt? The Queen’s Plate is the first leg of the Canadian Triple Crown, with the Sept. 14 Prince of Wales S. on dirt at Fort Erie serving as the second stop. The series wraps up with the Oct. 3 Breeders’ S. over grass at Woodbine.
No horse has swept the Canadian Triple Crown since Wando in 2003, back when the Queen’s Plate was contested over dirt. It remains to be seen whether Safe Conduct will continue his pursuit of the elusive series, but it would be a testament to Safe Conduct’s budding talent and versatility if he can break new ground and become the first Canadian Triple Crown winner to secure his classic victories across all three major racing surfaces.