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Rick Hedge had a plan. The trainer was going to run his supremely talented and precocious two-year-old filly Big Hug in the October 8 $100,000 CTHS Sales stake and that would be it. Big Hug would be sent to the farm and Hedge would be on his way to Phoenix for the winter.
But those plans quickly changed when Big Hug put on such a marvellous and overpowering display in the Sales stake - winning by more than eight lengths - that Big Hug’s owners, Hedge and Lori and Martin Neyka’s Empire Equestrian, sat down and everything changed. Big Hug is now entered in Saturday’s Freedom of the City - one of four stakes on the Century Mile card.
“I thought the CTHS stake was going to be her last race of the year,” said Hedge, who is having one of the best years of his long training career. “I was going to turn her out to the farm. But after she won that race so easily and came back so good we decided it would be a mistake not to run in this one. So, we’re running. Hopefully everything goes according to Hoyle and she runs another good race. She’s done everything I hoped for. Plus. Plus. Plus.”
“She’s making all of us famous. I knew she was special before she even ran and she’s proven me right,” said Hedge, who bought Big Hug for just $3,400 at last year’s Alberta Yearling Sale and then sold half to Empire Equestrian. “This is definitely her last race of the year. She’ll go to the farm on Sunday and I’m going to Phoenix for the winter with five race horses and a pony.”
Hedge said Big Hug trains like an older horse. “She’s very mature. She does everything right. And she’s sweet,” Hedge said of the filly who, like her name, likes to give hugs.
While the Freedom of the City is a mile, Hedge doesn’t think the added distance will be a factor. “She drew away going seven eighths of a mile. It seems like she will do whatever I want. She settles and rates nicely so I don’t think the added distance will be a factor.”
After winning all four of her career starts, Big Hug will be the heavy favourite in the Freedom of the City. After easily breaking her maiden, Big Hug won the Princess Margaret by three and a quarter lengths, the Sturgeon River by a length and three-quarters and then came the romp in the Sales stake.
Should Big Hug win on Saturday it could make her Alberta’s Horse of the Year when it comes to year-end balloting. “That would be nice. Really, really nice,” said Hedge.
“She’s two-year-old filly of the year but to be Horse of the Year would be awesome. It would be nice if she could run a mile and a quarter,” said Hedge, already thinking of next year’s Canadian Derby.
“We’ll let things play out and let her tell us what she thinks. She’s an Alberta-bred so I don’t think she will be going too far away from home.”
Meanwhile, a pair of brothers - Greek Geek and Cuban Cobra - will compete in two of the other stakes on Saturday. Greek Geek, last year’s Horse of the Year, is in the mile and a quarter $100,000 Speed to Spare for aged horses while Cuban Cobra will be favoured in the one-mile $50,000 Birdcatcher for two-year-old colts.
Both Cuban Cobra and Greek Geek are out of the mare, A E Phi Sensation, Crystal Cates owns. “I bought the mare in foal in Keeneland, Kentucky several years ago. She’s been just great,” said Cates, who owns Cuban Cobra with Gonzalo Anderson.
Cates said you would never know that Cuban Cobra and Greek Geek are half-brothers. “Greek Geek is massive; Cuban Cobra is super sleek. They don’t look at all alike.” Cuban Cobra has won three of his four career starts including the Canadian Juvenile and the Winnipeg Futurity.
“He’s a nice colt. Enrique (jockey Gonzalez) just shook the lines at him in Winnipeg,” said Alberta’s runaway leading trainer Tim Rycroft.
“His only loss came in his second start in July when he definitely not a hundred per cent. We scoped him after that race and he was full of mucus. And he was clean as a whistle when we scoped him seven days earlier. So, it was an easy fix.”
Depending on how he runs on Saturday Rycroft is thinking of taking Cuban Cobra and a couple other horses to Toronto. “There’s a Grade 3 race Cuban Cobra could run in. But maybe five starts is enough. Sometimes that is plenty for a two-year-old. I’ve been through it before - making one more start than I should have.”
Among those entered Tuesday morning against Cuban Cobra are It’s a Fact, who won his last start, and Mudinator, who lost to It’s a Fact by three parts of a length last time out. Mudinator had won his last two races including the Alberta Premiers.
As for the Speed to Spare Rycroft thinks Greek Geek will be tough. “Greek Geek had a nice little breeze the other day and came out of it well,” said Rycroft. “I think we’ll see a different performance by him on Saturday.”
Favoured in the Speed to Spare will probably be Soy Tapatio, who exits a seven and a quarter length victory over Greek Geek in the Don Getty. Since then Soy Tapatio has been readying himself for the Speed to Spare.
“He’s been training very good,” said trainer Robertino Diodoro. “He’s had three great works since his last race. We are excited for him to run on Saturday.” Also the winner of the Manitoba Mile at Winnipeg’s Assiniboia Downs, Soy Tapatio ran fourth in the hotly disputed Century Mile when he was bumped while in tight quarters and still only lost by a length and a quarter.
“Robertino’s horse is very nice but we’ll see if we can out run him,” Rycroft said of Greek Geek, who has been bothered by feet problems all season. “We’ll see what happens. It’s going to be a great race.”
As well as Greek Geek and Soy Tapatio, Barbara Heads is sending At Attention from Vancouver to contest the Speed to Spare. At Attention won the $100,000 Premiers Handicap - by a nose - in his last start and won the Century Mile - by a neck - three starts ago.
“He’s at the top of his game said Heads, who had planned on bringing Infinite Patience, the marvellously talented winner of 10 in a row, to Edmonton for the Lynn Chouinard Founders Distaff, the fourth stakes race on the card. However, at the last minute, Infinite Patience was a late withdrawal because of a foot abscess. That leaves Dance Shoes as the favourite.
Dance Shoes has won five of her last six starts and is also very much in the running for Alberta Horse of the Year honours. Owned by Mohamad Khan, Dance Shoes won the RedTail Landing by five and a half lengths in the mud, the Shirley Vargo by a length, an allowance race by two and a quarter lengths, the Fall Classic by almost seven lengths and then, in her last appearance, the R.K. ‘Red’ Smith by a length.
Her only loss in that six-race streak was against Infinite Patience. “Dance Shoes has had a very good year,” said trainer Jim Brown. “She’s done everything I wanted.”
With Infinite Patience’s unfortunate departure stablemate Solarity also pops into the picture. Solarity has ran second to Infinite Patience three times this year in Vancouver and third two times - once in B.C. and once in Alberta. “She’s just had the misfortune of having to chase Infinite Patience all year,” said Heads.
With the Lynn Chouinard Founders Distaff set at a mile and an eighth, another horse that bears watching is Plum Blue, who is also trained by Hedge. Plum Blue ran second to Dance Shoes in the Shirley Vargo going seven furlongs and second to Infinite Patience in the Northlands Distaff going a mile.
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