10/14/2011 2:53PM

Serious green on north side of the border


At the very top it needs to be pointed out that the Canadian International, sponsored by Pattison Outdoor Advertising and presented at Woodbine on Sunday, is worth more than two of the three American Triple Crown races and seven of the 15 races on the Breeders’ Cup program, as well as every other Thoroughbred stakes race of significance run this year in the good ol’ U.S. of A.

Little wonder, then, that Europeans have stormed the beaches of Etobicoke in force, gunning for the lion’s share of the $1.5 million purse. There was a time such a number would have elicited muffled guffaws stateside, typified by this line from the 1995 movie “Canadian Bacon,” describing a highway traffic fine:

“That will be a thousand dollars Canadian, or ten American dollars if you prefer.”

Currency traders and border dwellers know better. The International purse translated on one exchange, as of Friday, to a ripe $1,479,259.12. We may have caught them in hockey, but their dollar – the one with the bird on the coin – is neck and neck.

The history of the race alone is worth its weight in loons. George Royal, the hero of Johnny Longden’s last ride in the 1966 San Juan Capistrano, won it twice. So did Drumtop, the tough mare, and Droll Role, who beat Riva Ridge and San San in the Washington, D.C. International.

Secretariat’s career swan song in the 1973 Canadian International made it a very cool race to win. He was followed in close order by Dahlia, Snow Knight, Youth, Exceller and Mac Diarmida, all of them champions or the nearest thing.

For the 2011 version the prize will be hard-earned, since recent rains guarantee the mile and one-half over the E.P. Taylor course will be contested over some kind of soft going. It is difficult to say which of the Europeans might be at an advantage because of this, their last lines featuring races at Longchamp, Ascot, Baden-Baden, Goodwood, Sandown, Kempton and Sweden’s Taby Gallop. Hopefully, the going is not as deep as it was in the 2006 running won by Collier Hill in 2:37.34.

No matter what the conditions, waiting at Woodbine to greet the invaders will be a pair of runners from Canada’s Hall of Fame stalwart, Roger Attfield. He’ll have two in the field, including the 6-year-old Simmard, owned in part by Attfield and coming out of a smart second-place finish in the Northern Dancer over the course and distance last month.

Simmard was seventh in last year‘s International, beaten about three lengths by Joshua Tree, and has earned the right to try again. It’s Attfield’s other runner, though, who has the real following.

Musketier is a German gelding, gray both by birth and time served. At the age of 9 he is running in his 43rd race, 19 of them having come in North America and many of those in the States. Musketier enriched many a Kentucky fan with victories in the 2010 and 2011 runnings of the mile and one-half Elkhorn Handicap at Keeneland’s springtime meet, while his finest hour may have come in the 2009 Man o’ War at Belmont, when he was second to Gio Ponti, at 26-1.

In his four years under Attfield‘s care, Musketier is finally making it to the International. In 2008 he was still recovering from a fractured hind cannon bone when the race was run. In 2009 he was finished after floundering on a bottomless Belmont course in the Turf Classic (the mile and one-half in 2:41.22). In 2010 minor issues interrupted his campaign and he was not ready to take on the International, although he did run well to be third in October‘s Sycamore at Keeneland instead.

By contrast, Musketier has enjoyed a nearly seamless 2011, highlighted by his near-miss in the Pan American at Gulfstream and a victory in the Singspiel at Woodbine to go along with his second Elkhorn score. Whether or not at his age he is up to facing what Aidan O’Brien, John Gosden, Marco Botti and John Hammond will throw at him from abroad on Sunday remains to be seen. In the end, it’s good to finally have him in the post parade.

“It was a year after getting him I could even run him because of that cannon bone,” Attfield said. “It needed three screws, but it was the kind of fracture I knew he could come back from, given enough time.

“He’s genuine, isn’t he?” Attfield added. “And a great pleasure to be around. He’s still got the desire, which is what you look for, and he’s doing very well.”

In a fairy-tale world, Musketier would find a way to give Attfield his first victory in Canada’s most important open race. Hard as it is to believe, the man who has won the Queen’s Plate eight times, trained three horses to win the Canadian Triple Crown and six to be Canadian Horse of the Year has never won the International. But then, the native of England has only been at it in Canada for 41 years.

“I’m certainly not doing it on purpose – not for a million and a half,” Attfield said with a laugh. “You could say some of my horses might have had a better trip. But the ones that finished second ran their races and just got beat.”

That’s a fact. Queen’s Plate winner Steady Power missed by a head to Hodges Bay in the 1989 International. The filly Alywow was second by a length to Raintrap in 1994 on her way to being Canadian Horse of the Year. And in 2008, Spice Route was second to Marsh Side, beaten less than two lengths.

“Eventually maybe I’ll win one,” Attfield said. “This one’s a very strong running. But least we’ve got a couple of kicks at the cat.”