Mark Casse is tinkering with success.
Last year he didn't run Uncaptured — Canada's 2012 horse of the year — in the $1-million Queen's Plate, instead pointing him to the $500,000 Prince of Wales Stakes. The move paid off as a fresh Uncaptured came from fifth to overtake River Seven for an impressive one-length win in the second jewel of Canadian thoroughbred racing's Triple Crown.
Casse, named Canada's top trainer on six occasions, has two horses in Tuesday night's race at Fort Erie Racetrack — 3-1 early second choice Matador and 6-1 pick East Side. Casse had planned to take the same approach with Matador that he did with Uncaptured but had a change of heart and ran him in the Plate on July 6, where Matador was seventh.
"I wish I hadn't run Matador in the Queen's Plate," Casse said candidly Monday from California. "We've always kind of thought he was better on dirt and my plan was to do like Uncaptured and skip the Queen's Plate and go directly to the Prince of Wales.
"But he ran so well on the synthetic that it caused me to run him in the Queen's Plate. I'm not sure East Side is good enough but I bypassed the Queen's Plate with him in hopes he'd be a fresh horse in the Prince of Wales."
Matador ran a host of American Triple Crown prep races last winter, finishing fourth in the Grade 3 Sam F. Davis; fifth in the Grade 2 Tampa Bay Derby; and sixth in the Grade 1 Florida Derby.
Ami's Holiday, second to filly Lexie Lou in the Plate, is the 9-5 favourite in the 1 3/16-mile race, the only Triple Crown event run on a traditional dirt track. The 1 1/4-mile Plate goes on Woodbine's Polytrack synthetic surface while the $500,000 Breeders' Stakes, slated for Aug. 17, is a 1 1/2-mile turf event.
But the surface isn't the only noticeable difference at Fort Erie. The track's long backstretch gives jockeys the opportunity to make up for early mistakes, allowing them to come off the pace and patiently wait for an opening to the finish line.
It's a strategy Casse expects from the top two race favourites Tuesday night.
"I would say so," Casse said. "Ami's Holiday sometimes gets himself in trouble so it will be interesting to see how he reacts to an off-track if that's what we get.
"But my horse has run hard and might not be as fresh as some of the others so there's give and take."
Patrick Husbands, named Canada's top jockey on seven occasions, will make his third career start aboard Matador. Husbands rode Lexie Lew in the Plate — giving Casse his first win in the historic race — as Eclipse Award winner Julien Leparoux was aboard Matador.
Husbands is the last jockey to capture the Canadian Triple Crown, doing so in 2003 aboard Wando. Matador has two wins and a third-place finish in 10 career starts and will break from the No. 4 post.
The field with post, horse, jockey and odds, includes: 1. East Side, Justin Stein, 6-1; 2. Ami’s Holiday, Luis Contreras, 9-5: 3. Ascot Martin, Jesse Campbell, 20-1; 4. Matador, Husbands, 3-1; 5. Money Talks, Gerry Olguin, 20-1; 6. Coltimus Prime, Eurico Rosa da Silva, 12-1; 7. Smart Spree, Emma-Jayne Wilson, 20-1; 8. Lynx, Frankie Pennington, 5-1; 9. Rhythm Blues, Chantal Sutherland-Kruse, 8-1; 10. Lions Bay, David Moran, 5-1.
Missing from the field is Lexie Lou, who Casse says will run in the $250,000 Wonder Where Stakes on Aug. 10 at Woodbine. The 1 1/4-mile turf event is the final leg of Canadian Triple Tiara series for three-year-old fillies.
Casse said Lexie Lou's busy race schedule and having never run on dirt before made the decision to skip the Prince of Wales an easy one. Lexie Lou captured the Woodbine Oaks — the opening Tiara event — by 4 1/2 lengths June 15 at Woodbine before earning her 1 1/2-length Plate victory.
"I knew that evening (after Plate win) we weren't going to run in the Prince of Wales, I just had to confirm it," Casse said. "I don't own her but (owner Gary Barber) is great, he always wants to do what's best for the horse.
"Had she not run in the Oaks prior to the Queen's Plate or had a race over the dirt, then we might've thought about it. To me, Lexie Lou has been so good to us that it would be wrong of me to put her in a situation I wouldn't feel comfortable with. I mean, I'm not so sure she couldn't handle it but I don't want to take that chance ... she has run hard and I just didn't want to do that to her."
Ami's Holiday has five in-the-money finishes from seven starts (two wins, second twice, third) but makes his first start on dirt.
"He always breaks sharp and settles into a good position early," said Contreras. "We'll try to find our spot and hope for a clean trip.
"His fitness is excellent, he's confident and I'm looking forward to the race. We'll see how he handles the dirt but he's raced behind horses on the 'Poly" so I don't think he'll mind having a bit of dirt in his face."
Tuesday's race will be special for Justin Nixon, Coltimus Prime's veteran trainer. The 45-year-old native of Windsor, Ont., got his start in racing at the Fort Erie oval and was based there from 1996 to 2002.
"This is where I learned the game," said Nixon. "It's such a nice atmosphere down here.
"The facilities are excellent and the horses are enjoying the experience. We're happy to be here to support Fort Erie and Ontario horse racing."