06/30/2017 8:00AM

Mike Fox still providing joy to owner a decade after Queen's Plate upset

Michael Burns
Mike Fox, with Emma-Jayne Wilson up, wins the 2007 Queen's Plate at 15-1.

Mike Fox had no business winning the 2007 Queen’s Plate.

The blood-bay colt was sputtering at the top of the Woodbine stretch and looked ready to settle for a minor award while pacesetter Alezzandro and heavy favorite Jiggs Coz pulled away to be the only horses with a shot to win the Canadian classic.

It would have been a fine effort for Mike Fox to finish in the money that day. He was still chasing his first stakes win in his eighth career start, and he’d run the kind of trip one might expect from a 15-1 shot – getting his name called a few times and then quietly shuffling back to midpack. Even as the two leaders began to waver, it was a seemingly insurmountable margin to make up as the finish line drew near.

Then, Mike Fox got up and won the Queen’s Plate.

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Well inside the final sixteenth, jockey Emma-Jayne Wilson took Mike Fox off the rail and split horses, first grinding past a spent Jiggs Coz, then taking aim at Alezzandro, whose legs looked heavy from leading at every point of call.

By the time Todd Kabel looked to his right aboard Alezzandro and asked his mount for one last push, it was too late. Mike Fox led the Queen’s Plate for just three strides, but they were the ones that mattered.

Wilson can still recall every step of that stretch drive a decade later, including the surge of confidence she felt from the horse when he first hooked Jiggs Coz and then put Alezzandro in his crosshairs.

“I would say the last three-sixteenths of a mile, it just kind of tunnel-visioned on me,” she said. “It brings back memories of when I was a kid. My parents coached us in softball, and they’d say, ‘Hit the ball, head down, run to first base. That’s all you have to do.’ I kept thinking if I kept my head down and just kept riding ... and that’s what I did.”

In the grandstand, Julie Firestone stood back and watched as her husband, tire magnate D. Morgan Firestone, experienced one of his last great thrills.

Ailing from a degenerative nerve disease that limited his speech and mobility, Morgan Firestone lit up as the horse born and raised at his Caledon, Ontario, farm gave him the signature win he’d chased for decades. Firestone succumbed to his ailments a year and a half later at age 78, but bringing up Mike Fox’s Queen’s Plate always brought a spark out of him in the time he had left.

“I don’t think I’ve ever experienced such joy in somebody, to see that emotion that it was a homebred and was at our farm,” Julie Firestone said. “It’s a wonderful thing. Morgan was originally an American, and he wanted to win the Queen’s Plate more than any horse race, and it was so nice the timing happened when it did because you couldn’t have appreciated it more.”

For the record, neither Wilson, Julie Firestone, nor trainer Ian Black thought Mike Fox was a winner at the top of the stretch.

“I knew he’d run a mile and a quarter,” Black said. “Apart from that, I wasn’t sure he’d be able to get there in time, and I wasn’t sure still at the eighth pole.”

It was the highlight of Mike Fox’s career and secured him a place at stud upon retirement. That was the good news. The bad news: By the time Mike Fox was retired three seasons later, the memory of his Queen’s Plate win seemed distant.

Mike Fox rounded out the Canadian Triple Crown season by running an even fourth in the Prince of Wales Stakes and fifth in the Breeders’ Stakes. The only win he tallied in 16 starts following the Queen’s Plate came in allowance company.

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By the time he retired to Firestone Farms in Caledon, about 30 miles north of Woodbine, any shine Mike Fox had as a stallion prospect was a distant memory.

The son of Giant’s Causeway debuted at stud in 2012 and met just five mares, with three producing foals. Mike Fox still has never seen a book bigger than five registered Thoroughbred mares in a breeding season.

Firestone Farms provided the bulk of the broodmare support in his first season, and many of those mares continue to be return visitors with new owners after the farm downsized. The only active broodmare left on the Firestone roster is the Irish-bred Alexis, the dam of Mike Fox, who visited Giant Gizmo this spring.

Julie Firestone said she had no regrets about the timing of Mike Fox’s retirement and his subsequent stud career, even if it has been a quiet one.

“We don’t get that many mares to him because it’s been a long time, but that’s fine,” she said. “He’s a very happy guy, and he doesn’t owe me anything.”

The testosterone and aggression that often make a busy stallion hard to be around didn’t fit Mike Fox’s style anyway. He became so lonely in the isolation of the Firestone stallion barn that he was moved back to the center stall of the main barn, surrounded by youngsters and layups.

Mike Fox’s paddock sits beside the long driveway into the farm, and the stallion often runs along with Firestone’s car as she leaves. She’ll usually stop at the top of the driveway to chat with her classic winner.

“He’s pretty well the barn favorite,” Firestone said. “He’s the first one to nicker to you when he comes in, and he’s very easy to work with. You have to be careful, but he’s pretty well behaved.

“He’s a stallion, but he’s a very sensitive horse. You can go out there and he’ll be mouthing and biting, but he never did that to Morgan. He just sort of sensed that he was older and disabled and just was very gentle around him.”

Mike Fox remains a fit, strapping animal at age 13. He kept his head high at the end of the shank and cast a long shadow coming out of his stall during an April visit. His eye was intelligent and playful. When he was put away, those eyes widened as he stretched his neck and begged for a carrot out his stall door, to which Firestone obliged.

Judging by the grin on her face as she gave him a snack, interacting with Mike Fox remained as gratifying an experience to Firestone after more than a decade as it was for the horse to be receiving a carrot in the moment.

While racehorse breeders have been slow to come around, Firestone said the stallion has developed a following in other equine arenas.

“I’ve had a couple people breed to him for eventing because he’s got good bone in his legs and he’s got lovely conformation,” she said. “I’ll be interested to see how those ones turn out because they’re still young.”

Eventing was a shared passion between the Firestones, and it continues to be a part of Julie’s life as the operations manager for KingRidge Stables, an Ontario-based breeding outfit for show jumpers.

The discipline even had a hand in shaping Mike Fox’s signature win. Olympic-level event rider Hugh Graham, vice president and head trainer at KingRidge and Morgan Firestone’s son-in-law, rode the Firestone horses at events and instructed Black’s daughters.

That connection, Black theorized, probably helped land Mike Fox in his barn when the Firestones were seeking a trainer for their colt at the start of his sophomore campaign north of the border, following a winter in Florida.

Mike Fox has 10 foals of racing age, and Black has one of them under his watch – an unraced 2-year-old filly named Asha Ironborn who turned in her first breeze June 25 at Woodbine.

“She goes along nicely,” Black said. “She’s pretty green still. She’s never going to be as big or good-looking as him. That would be my first impression.”

The vanguard of Mike Fox’s four runners to date has been Copper Fox, a filly who won on debut last year for owner and trainer David Bell to become the stallion’s first winner from his second starter. She added a pair of allowance wins and became his first stakes runner in May, finishing fifth in Woodbine’s Ballade Stakes. Bell trained Mike Fox for his final three starts.

On Sunday, a decade after his classic upset, Mike Fox will send his first Queen’s Plate starter to post – maiden winner Spirit of Caledon, a full brother to Asha Ironborn.

Like his sire, Spirit of Caledon will go off at long odds – he’s 50-1 on the morning line. Pat Parente trains the gelding and co-owns him with Copper Water Thoroughbred Co. and Centennial Farms (Niagara) Inc.

Spirit of Caledon bears a striking resemblance to Mike Fox, from his stout build, to his color, to the same crooked blaze. Parente hoped the gelding would continue to follow in his sire’s footsteps by finding his next gear when the spotlight shined the brightest.

“He fights for every inch, this horse, so I think he’s a lot like his dad in that way,” Parente said. “I bought a couple of yearlings by Mike Fox, and both of them are big, strong, robust horses with talent.”

Mike Fox is responsible for much of the decor in the Firestone living room, with the centerpiece being the Queen’s Plate owner’s trophy sitting on the fireplace mantle. Looming above it is a Linda Shantz painting of the race’s finish with Wilson fully extended, giving Mike Fox that final shove past Alezzandro.

The horse was a longshot that day, and he’ll be a longshot to make an impact at stud. Firestone knows the odds, but springing the upset once was more than enough.

“It’s a real pleasure just to see him out here,” she said. “Every time I see him out in the paddock, I’m glad he’s there. He looks great, he’s healthy. I think he just gave so much to my husband in that victory.”