02/01/2010 8:25PM

Ah, Canada


Beginning next week, it will be all Canada all the time with the start of the Winter Olympics from British Columbia. Down here in the States, there will be a resurgence of all things Canadian, from Joni Mitchell and Neil Young to Labatt Blue and Moosehead. We're still working on curling, in terms of both comprehension and appreciation (shuffleboard analogies just don't get it), but this will be a good opportunity to dust off a couple of DVDs from the collection and enjoy "Canadian Bacon" and "Newsroom" for about the zillionth time. 

Before luging forth, though (and I am truly psyched about the skeleton), here's a hats off to Canada's Thoroughbred racing community for giving the memory of Bobby Frankel one last hurrah in selecting Champs Elysees as the 2009 Sovereign Award Horse of the Year. True, the horse was a carpetbagger--British born, American-trained and Saudi owned. But Champs Elysees practically set up shop at Woodbine with four starts, climaxed by a victory over an admirable field in the Canadian International last Oct. 17. Frankel died one month later.

Frankel It has been noted that Champs Elysees was the first American-based horse to take top Canadian honors since the 3-year-old Peaks and Valleys in 1995. It is of even more significance that he is the first American-trained horse so honored since eligibility for Sovereign Awards was altered to require a minimum of three starts on Canadian soil. This is a protectionist stance, and clearly in keeping with a philosophy that takes the glories of free trade only so far. You might show up once and take our money, say the Canadians, but you will not buy our love. At least not after just one date.

The folks who run the Eclipse Awards should take note. For too long, one-shot foreign horses who swoop in to win a Breeders' Cup event have been subsequently rewarded with an American championship as well, as if the money wasn't enough. This is roundly discouraging to U.S. owners who campaign all year long in good faith, showing up for major stakes all over the continent, while the likes of Islington, High Chaparral, Conduit, Johannesburg, Banks Hill, Goldikova, Miesque or whoever could wipe the slate clean with one afternoon's work.

Clearly, it is in the best interests of American breeders that Europeans continue to believe an American championship can be won with just one race. Commerce trumps fairness every time. And as the driving force behind the rules for the Eclipse Awards, the NTRA has done nothing to discourage that synergy. Remember, the NTRA and Breeders' Cup used to operate under the same roof.

These days, however, they are separate entities, and what's good for the Breeders' Cup is not necessarily good for the rest of the American racing season, which supposedly is the concern of the NTRA. The NTRA should take steps to require that horses appear at least twice in North America--three times would be better--to be eligible for an Eclipse Award. This is not an unreasonable request, and if winning an Eclipse Award is truly an incentive for overseas owners, the benefits would be many. Since the idea that the Breeders' Cup is a "world championship" has been pretty well debunked--without serious representation from Japan, Hong Kong, Australia and South America--anything that encourages international competition should be welcomed.

* * * *

Canadians got their championships right, but they leave a bit to be desired when it comes to dealing with appeals before the Ontario Racing Commission, Canada's governing body.

Canadian One of the races that featured Champs Elysees last year was the Grade 1 Northern Dancer Turf Stakes, run way back on Sept. 20, in which the Horse of the Year finished a troubled fourth but was moved up to third upon the disqualification of the alleged troublemaker, Marsh Side, who finished first. Champs Elysees was clearly bothered that day, and might have been best, while runner-up Just as Well, an innocent bystander, was declared the winner.

Robert S. Evans, Marsh Side's owner, quickly appealed the disqualification of his horse, which was his right under the rules of the road in Canada, and the case was kicked up to the commission level. More than four months later, the Ontario Racing Commission has yet to schedule a hearing date. This has left several owners in the lurch, including Jonathan Sheppard, who both owns and trains Just as Well. Sheppard was paid second money, with the difference between first and second--about $320,000--still sitting in an interest-bearing horseman's account at Woodbine pending the results of the appeal.

Sheppard insists he's not fretting about the dough, which is a gentlemanly attitude, but he did make a couple of valid, practical points. Were Just as Well being marketed as a stallion this spring, is he a Grade 1 winner or not? (Don't think it wouldn't make a difference.) And if Just as Well is to race, which is the plan, would allowance weights and eligibilities be based on his past performance line from the Northern Dancer, which places him first, or the reality of the purse distribution, which defines him as second?

To his credit, a spokesman for the Ontario Racing Commission did not use the Canadian winter as an excuse. He did allude to a "backlog" of appeals, and that the Marsh Side case would come up for consideration this spring. Being from Southern California, I really don't know when that is, but half a year is an awfully long time to leave the result of a major race dangling.