Tuesday, 04 June 2024 19:16

Decoy Dominates: Last-to-First Victory Stuns in Journal Handicap at Century Mile

Decoy and Jose Asencio in the stretch drive of the Journal Handicap at Century Mile Decoy and Jose Asencio in the stretch drive of the Journal Handicap at Century Mile Coady Photo/Ryan Haynes

In Century Mile’s first thoroughbred stakes race of the year – last Friday’s Journal Handicap – Decoy turned in the most visually impressive performance of the young season.

Hands down.

He was five wide and last down the backstretch.

He was still five wide and last around the final turn.

At the quarter pole Decoy had passed just one horse and was still five wide and looking like he was still in no hurry to get the milk money and the massive Journal trophy which is dotted with almost all of Alberta’s greatest thoroughbreds.

But then they got to the eighth pole and with Kauai Dan still on top after wicked early fractions of 21.96 for the first quarter and 44.47 for a half, Decoy jumped into the fray.

“With giant strides,” bellowed track announcer Dylan Beardy.

And that was that.

Over a heavily speed biased surface, Decoy, owned by Dale and Barb Saunders, exploded to the top with heavy hand riding by jockey Jose Asencio and drew off to win by a length and a quarter at odds of nearly 5-1.

It was mesmerizing.

And brilliant.

“I thought he ran quite well,” said Dale Saunders, a quiet man who never brags but has certainly plenty to brag about, in his usual most understated analysis.

Quite well?

This was like watching a lion eat.

Come on Dale.

“He ran good,” said Saunders who retired from active training after he was diagnosed with cancer two years ago but is, thankfully, now cancer free, shrugging his shoulders.

In his familiar red silks with a white diamond D on the back, Decoy blew past his rivals, running on to a length and a quarter win that was only getting larger the farther he ran. He stopped the clock in 1:09.12.

Saunders, who was unanimously named Canada’s E.P. Taylor Award of Merit winner in 2022 honoring those who have made significant contributions to the Thoroughbred Industy in Canada, bought Decoy as a weanling for just $1,000 at the Keeneland.

Eight times Alberta’s leading trainer and a winner of 2,177 races, Saunders was the only bidder.

On breeding there wasn’t much to like. His sire Aikenite, won over $800,000, but hadn’t shown much as a sire.

Decoy’s dam, Wine Glow had nine starts. No wins. No seconds. No thirds.

Her progeny hadn’t showed much either.

“He was a nice colt,” said Saunders, who is now battling Shingles.

“Nobody else thought so. But I liked him.

“He is a well-balanced horse.”

Decoy is also huge. He’s so big that he could sell shade.

“He barely fits in the starting gate,” said Decoy’s trainer Alivia Kettleson. “There’s no more room. He’s gigantic.

“I broke him. And he was really good to break but he was intimidating because of his size,” said Kettleson, who worked for Saunders for many years before going out on her own – getting her trainer’s license in 2018 while still working for Saunders.

“At first I was scared of this monster horse.”

But Kettleson, who trains a barn of 15 horses, soon realized there was nothing to be afraid of.

“Little kids can run around him. Nothing fazes him. As big as he is he’s very calm. He’s a stoic animal,” said Kettleson, who ponies Decoy to the starting gate and watches the race from the six-furlong chute.

Now a five-year-old, Decoy was unraced as a two-year-old and started only three times as a three-year-old. He is just getting good.

In nine starts last year he was first four times, second three times and third once.

Always consistent. Always right there. Even with overland trips.

“Unfortunately, Decoy is used to be wide,” said Kettleson, 38, who grew up in Manitoba just outside of Winnipeg but moved to Alberta in 2005. “He’s had several wide trips in his short career. But apparently it doesn’t bother him.

“Every time he races he puts in his best effort,” said Kettleson, who took over the training of Decoy when Saunders retired two years ago.

Kettleson learned plenty working with Saunders. And it’s still on going.

“Dale and I talk multiple times a week. When I’ve got a problem, I always ask myself ‘What would Dale do?’”

As last season went along, Decoy, who is galloped by apprentice rider Kemar Chase, improved with just about every start.

By season’s end he won an allowance race by two-and-a-half lengths and then showed everyone what he was really all about when he won the mile-and-an-eighth Don Getty Handicap by three-and-a-half lengths in his final start of 2023.

“I think he’s better going longer,” said Kettleson, who has a five-month-old baby and a three-year-old. “The Journal was only six furlongs and Dale thought that was too short for him.

Decoy’s next start will likely be the June 24th Spangled Jimmy going seven furlongs.

“He’s going to need a better trip if he wants to win that race; he can’t be five-wide again,” said Saunders, who trained many outstanding horses like Shady Remark, Highland Leader and Dark Hours, who all won over $400,000.

Other high-quality stakes-winning horses Saunders trained were Fair March, Libby’s Love, Lil ‘ol Gal and Mandalero.

While it’s still very early to judge, now the question is: is Decoy and his long stride ready to join that cast?

“I don’t want to jinx him,” said Kettleson. “Anything can happen.

“Let’s just say he’s a very athletic horse. He’s a remarkable animal. And I’m just lucky to have him in my barn.”

STOCK REPORT – There was one other stake race this past weekend that saw Missczech take the RedTail Landing. After battling early with Pretty Aria, Missczech put that one away and easily held off Force to Rekn With to win by 2 ¾ lengths in a very speedy 1:08.73.

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Author of The Turcottes: The Remarkable Story of a Horse Racing Dynasty.

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