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Choices Made, Or Made For Us

Published: September 4, 2019 9:46 pm ET

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James MacDonald had a choice to make with two horses qualified for the final of the 2014 Canadian Pacing Derby. The driver that picked up the horse MacDonald didn't drive went on to win the race in an upset for local connections. It took five years, but those scales finally tipped in his favour.

In 2014 Modern Legend and Captive Audience were a pair of Canadian Pacing Derby rank outsiders according to the toteboard. MacDonald picked Captive Audience, leaving the drive on Modern Legend to David Miller. At the time neither horse appeared to have a chance against the red-hot Sweet Lou, who was on a 10-race win streak with six sub-1:48 wins in his last seven starts.

The similarities between the outcome of the 2014 Canadian Pacing Derby and the 2019 edition are nothing less than startling.

Favoured in the 2019 edition was Lather Up. He and Sweet Lou went off at nearly identical odds, and both fell short. But this time around, MacDonald capitalized on the opportunity when Miller had the choice between McWicked and Courtly Choice. Miller chose McWicked, and MacDonald had his turn to play giant killer.

"Some people said 'oh it’s too bad for Dave, he booked off and then the horse wins' and I didn’t owe him one but it's just funny how it works,"  MacDonald told Trot Insider. "I booked off Modern Legend in the [Canadian Pacing Derby] Final and he ended up winning with him. He didn’t really book off Courtly Choice for the final but Dave told Blake [MacIntosh] he couldn’t drive him in the Derby so I picked up the drive."

MacIntosh noted in Saturday's post-race interview that the call from Miller wasn't the most pleasant at the time but after the decision was made he didn't hesitate to list MacDonald on his stable star.

"James hadn't been beat with the horse at that point so there was no question of who I was going to list," MacIntosh told Trot Insider. "It's James’ home track and he knows the track just as good as anybody and he knows the horse better than anybody other than Dave. There wasn't even a question, I just texted the rest of the partners and said 'Dave's picked off, he's going with McWicked and I'm going to go with James'....there was no question in my mind that James was the man to drive and that was it. It worked out and everyone's happy."

There was a palpable happiness in the Canadian Pacing Derby winner's circle on Saturday night, the first win for both trainer and driver in the country's most prestigious and lucrative older pacing event.

"It's started to sink in," said MacDonald, who also captured the 2017 World Driving Championship on Canadian soil but hadn't won a stakes race of this magnitude. "I’ve been chipping my way to the top and trying to get better every year and I've been competing on the Woodbine circuit for quite a few years and that kind of race has always eluded me. It’s not that I’ve ever had a 1-9 shot and got beat it's just that I haven't had the hot horse at the right time. I see all my buddies that I race against every night and they're winning these races every year...I just kind of felt left out for a few years so to finally get one I can't even put it into words. Anyone that watched the race could see how overjoyed I was.

"Halfway down the lane when the horse kicked in, the hairs on my body were standing up for sure and as he was going by it was something I'll never forget. A big win like that… I can't thank Blake and the horse enough. The horse was incredible that night and you know it's an incredible feeling to win one of those races and to do it in front of a huge crowd at home and hear everyone cheering, it doesn't get any better than that.

"It’s a different feeling. The WDC was built up over a couple of weeks. You do well and then you keep doing well and you keep chipping away and then you have a lead and I kind of had a big lead for the last four or five days...but this is a one-time shot, I was a longshot and no one really gave him a big shot and our big chance and when the time came, he’s blowing by. It was just like all of that emotion that carried on for four or five days of the WDC into two minutes. It was really special."

The intertwining of choices even extended to the race itself. Heading into the final turn, Miller had a choice to make with McWicked: duck to the inside, or take a third over tow into the Mohawk stretch. Miller stayed down on the rail, a similar trip to what Sylvain Filion gave Century Farroh in his Simcoe win. The horse that moved into the third over spot in the Canadian Pacing Derby was, as fate would have it, Courtly Choice.

"I was super happy," commented MacIntosh. "You think about winning the race but it's just been a dream come true for the last couple of years, you win the [Meadowlands] Pace and the [Little Brown] Jug and the Derby all within a year's time pretty much. It's pretty amazing.

"To come home in :25.3 at Mohawk you know that's a huge quarter, you don't see that's The Meadowlands where you see that every night but at Mohawk with no wind at your back that's a huge quarter. That was huge," commented MacIntosh. "Lather Up still came home in :26.3 so you can't really say that he gave it up, Courtly was just good. It was an amazing start but I'm of course a little biased."

The recent form that Courtly Choice is showing is closer to that stakes-winning form that he showed as a sophomore. MacIntosh noted that the horse was struggling with a white blood cell count that recently returned to a more normal level, and that timing couldn't be better with a slate of stakes engagements on the horizon. 

This Saturday, Courtly Choice will line up against nine rivals -- including a number of those from the Canadian Pacing Derby -- in the $440,000 Jim Ewart Memorial at Scioto Downs. MacDonald will drive the horse again on Saturday, and MacIntosh will give MacDonald first dibs on the horse for the rest of the season.

"He has the seven hole in a 10-horse race with a trailer, so whatever happens, happens," said MacIntosh. "I’m sure he’ll give it a good go and hopefully the trip works out again, that’s all we can hope for. 

"We just have to hope the flow goes and Lather Up is on the outside of us so I'm not sure what Montrell [Teague, driver of Lather Up] is going to do but you never know what's going to happen," continued MacIntosh from New York. "You have Jimmy Freight on the rail, McWicked, That Is The's going to be a great race -- they are all good horses. There's a couple in there that don't seem the same but they can win too, you just don't know what's going to happen."

MacDonald echoed the trainer's sentiments on the strength of the Ewart field, but loves the form and versatility of Courtly Choice in such an event.

"It's a tough, tough post and you have Lather Up outside of you and then a trailer, it's not ideal by any means but you can't complain. He can do anything you need. Hopefully something works out and we stay out of too much traffic, and hopefully we have the same feeling crossing the wire."

MacDonald also noted that the five-eighths mile oval at Scioto might be a bit of an equalizer against a horse like Lather Up, who has appeared to have better gait on the bigger tracks. That said, Lather Up has made four starts at Scioto in his career and never tasted defeat.

"It's the beauty of the aged pacing division; it’s so competitive that anyone can win on any given night," continued MacDonald. "But there are a legit five or six horses in the race."

If all goes well Saturday, Courtly Choice will be pointed to the Dayton Pacing Derby and the Allerage Open Pace stateside before returning home for the Breeders Crown. After that, MacIntosh confirmed that a stallion career for 2020 is likely but not yet decided.

"That's the plan so hopefully everything works out and he's there at the end of the year, then we’ll decide and sit down with all the owners if we want to race or breed."

$440,000 Jim Ewart
(Post – Horse – Driver – Trainer – Morning Line Odds)
1. Jimmy Freight-Scott Zeron-Andrew Harris-6/1
2. McWicked-Brian Sears-Casie Coleman-9/2
3. Donttellmeagain-Tim Tetrick-Jim King Jr.-15/1
4. Western Fame-Dan Noble-Dan Noble-8/1
5. This Is The Plan-Yannick Gingras-Ron Burke-6/1
6. Filibuster Hanover-Chris Page-Ron Burke-15/1
7. Courtly Choice-James MacDonald-Blake MacIntosh-5/1
8. Lather Up-Montrell Teague-Clyde Francis-9/5
9. Always A Prince-David Miller-Tyler George-20/1
10. Hitman Hill-Aaron Merriman-Chris Oakes-20/1

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