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Raise Your Glass

Trot Feature - Champagne Phil

In 2011, Georg Leber, still very new to horse ownership at the time, dropped $5,000 on an unheralded Shanghai Phil colt by the name of SOS Silvermercedes, at the Forest City Yearling Sale.

Six years, a new name, a small fan club, and almost a half million dollars in purse earnings later, the gelding now known as Champagne Phil continues to make his owner proud, and to give his trainer, who is battling cancer, a reason to be excited to go to the races. By Melissa Keith

The economics of racing frequently place the sport’s most talented colts and fillies on an accelerated road to the breeding shed. But the class and charisma of the best aged performers is what sustains the interest of fans and bettors, especially when the horse in question has an unforgettable name and embodies maturity like a fine wine.

Welcome to the world of Champagne Phil.

His owner, Georg Leber, is readying for a Saturday night visit to Woodbine at the time of the TROT interview about his top horse. Up a class from the week previous, ‘Phil’ is 9/1 in the 8th race morning line, despite a 1:50.4 victory at the Rexdale track the previous weekend, at those same odds of 9/1.

Turning eight on January 1, 2018, the son of Shanghai Phil hasn’t lost a step at all in his recent performances. Leber confirms that 2017 was Phil’s most consistently-successful season, although classification has tended to land the pacer in deep, if small, fields where he is often the eldest of the group.

Phil doesn’t care about that. As much as he loves to win, he lives to race. Whenever horses are leaving trainer, Dean Nixon’s Flamboro, Ontario farm, the gelding vocalizes his displeasure if he’s not among them.

“When he doesn’t jog in the morning, he kind of figures out it’s race day and he bounces around his stall and throws his head. He just loves his work,” says the conditioner who originally broke the gelding.

Sparkling miles aside, Phil is a low-key horse, a trait which Leber suspects may have something to do with the gelding’s six years of competitive racing at Ontario’s major tracks. “When he’s in the lasix stall before the race, he’s very quiet. Maybe he chews on the chains a little bit. And once he gets out on the track, he’s all business.”

Leber shares a special photo of Champagne Phil. It’s not a winners’ circle photo. It shows Phil as a newborn foal, near dam Champagne Gal on the day of his birth. There’s a silver sheen to his coat as he stands, newly-balanced, on long legs. Leber notes that when he purchased the colt for $5,000 at the 2011 Forest City Yearling Sale, Champagne Phil sold under the name ‘SOS Silvermercedes’, in recognition of this metallic early colour.

A medium-sized colt, the young Phil flourished under Quebec breeder Monalisa Pagliericci’s care. From the first Ontario-eligible crop of Shanghai Phil, who made over $500,000 as a two-year-old, and defeated Rocknroll Hanover twice that year, SOS Silvermercedes didn’t catch the eye of many bidders in London. Leber says even trainer Nixon wasn’t particularly impressed with the colt. He took a gamble anyway, placing the winning bid on both SOS Silvermercedes and a Mach Three filly who would also grow up to disprove her $4,500 price tag - Rubis Prescott. Both were well-loved foals from the Ecurie SOS of Bedford, Quebec, Pagliericci’s small breeding operation.

“I liked both of them right away,” remembers Leber, who was then new to the ownership aspect of the sport. “I said, ‘Wow - they look as good as any of the others, but nobody is coming over to have a look at them.’”

And their stat-lines today?

Champagne Phil p,1:49.4s ($496,668)

Rubis Prescott p,1:51.1s ($452,950)

Not bad purchases for a new owner to the game!

Champagne Phil’s first charted mile also marked his first victory, at a track Leber says, the horse still enjoys - Georgian Downs. Off that successful 1:59.4 qualifier, the two-year-old only finished worse than third 3 times in 11 pari-mutuel starts as a freshman. His lone win at age two came in an Ontario Sires Stakes Grassroots leg at Mohawk - an easy 1:54.2 victory from post 9.

The young pacer really hit his stride at age three, commanding respect on the Ontario Sires Stakes circuit with four OSS Grassroots wins, among them a short-lived divisional track record mile (1:52.1h) at Grand River Raceway for Jody Jamieson. He finished the season with 6 wins in 24 starts, and concluded his first two seasons on the track with just over $100,000 earned.

“As a three-year-old, he really was a shining star in the Grassroots series,” reflects Leber. “He’s an athlete, in that he keeps good care of himself. His racing style isn’t hard on him - he’s got a nice, smooth gait. Whereas a lot of horses are ‘power’ animals, Phil is very athletic in his moves and conserves himself quite a bit.”

During most of his starts at two and three, and well into his four-year-old year, Champagne Phil was trained by Tony O’Sullivan, Ken Oliver and Carmen Auciello. A handful of American starts at four, while under the care of Auciello, did not produce a U.S. win for Phil, although he finished third for Mark MacDonald in a C-1 conditioned event at The Meadowlands - his best result south of the border. Midway through his four-year-old season, he returned to Nixon’s stable. That year, Phil displayed signs of his future dependability: in 42 races, he posted 6 wins, 7 seconds, and 6 thirds. And there were some eye-catching miles among those results, perhaps none more-so than a 1:52.4, ten-and-a-half-length romp in the Flamboro Preferred on November 9th.

“There are some horse fans at Casino Rama. When I play craps there, everybody asks me about Champagne Phil. They couldn’t tell you my name, but they all know Champagne Phil,” laughs his proud owner.

In 2015, the pacer posted a 9-7-4 tally from 37 starts, in season that included a five-race win streak that spanned over two feature races at Western Fair, a conditioned event at Mohawk, and two legs of a series for four and five-year-old Quebec-breds at Hippodrome 3R. He went down to defeat by just a half-length in the $35,000 final of that 3R event, in a speedy 1:52.3h. Phil had earned himself four starts that year, in the Woodbine Preferred ranks, but wasn’t quite ready to excel at that level.

2016 brought a rare interruption to Champagne Phil’s steady career. He started the season well, with a 1:52.3 conditioned win (n/w $13,000 L5) at Woodbine in January, but after another handful of starts, Nixon had to scratch Phil twice that spring, when the normally trouble-free pacer came up lame after a bone chip was detected in a hind leg. The trainer says Phil visited three veterinarians, and eventually a fracture was identified in his right hock, using radioscintigraphy. This method of diagnosis tracks an intravenously-administered radiopharmaceutical, which travels through the horse’s body and binds to areas where bone mineralization is inconsistent, or inflammation is present.

“It was a bit costly, but six months later, after some plasma injections, he made a recovery,” notes Leber. The evidence was clear in Champagne Phil’s second start back, on November 6th. With Bob McClure, one of his regular pilots, in the bike for the Flamboro Preferred, Phil led throughout and won handily in 1:55.1.

In 2017, Champagne Phil’s top form has removed Ontario “B” tracks from his schedule for the foreseeable future, but it has also helped grow his already-considerable earnings - and popularity. Dubbed “The iron horse of 2017” by Western Fair announcer Shannon “Sugar” Doyle, Phil has gone to the gate an amazing 47 times as of mid-December, and has earned his owner a career-best $148,475, this year alone, for his efforts.

To stay in Ontario and keep racing in late 2017, seven-year-old Champagne Phil could be entered at Woodbine or…Woodbine. Nixon confirms that the race secretary for Flamboro and Western Fair considered the gelding too much for even their top class pacers. “Unfortunately, Ian Fleming declined to let him race. Some people get mad because even when he’s been handicapped with the 7 hole, he’s won a few times.”

Currently a regular at the Rexdale racetrack, Phil has benefitted from working his way up the class ladder at smaller Ontario venues. “The half-mile tracks - it’s not for everybody, but sometimes it’s a good tune-up for getting back into the Woodbine circuit,” says Leber. “They may get an easier mile; they’re getting themselves back in shape. That’s what those Preferred 3s and Preferred 2s really help those elite horses do, if they’ve had an injury or they’re struggling or they’re a little bit out of shape.”

Nixon, who runs a 17-horse outfit with a close-knit staff, likes to race close to his home base. He’s ruled out a return to Yonkers Raceway for Phil, because the pacer has responded to the challenge of a class jump at Woodbine with such class of his own. There’s also the fact that Nixon must already visit the U.S. twice a month for cancer treatment, and he doesn’t want to resume the stressful routine that characterized his earlier days in the game.

Now 46, Nixon looks back on a hectic schedule, when he was stabled in Windsor some years ago, that wasn’t even very profitable, let alone sustainable. “My last week stabled in Windsor, I went to Barrie twice, Mohawk twice and Grand River once, and I said, ‘I’m not doing that again.’”

Now he leaves his phone off more, making “personal space” in his life with the support of his brother and staff. “Back in my 30s, I was used to putting in 80-hour weeks. It was just normal,” admits the trainer, who is part of a stage-1 clinical trial for a second-generation immunotherapy treatment at Maryland’s National Institutes of Health. Nixon is responding well to the therapy, reporting a 30 percent reduction in liver tumour size. “It’s not too bad, just time-consuming more than anything,” he says of his regular appointments.

Dean’s brother Justin is a thoroughbred trainer. When Dean needed ultra-reliable help with his stable, Justin became a dual-breed trainer. “I think he likes getting a little more action than with thoroughbreds,” says Dean of Justin. “You know, you’re waiting to race all the time and you’re just going through the daily grind without getting any action. He really seems to enjoy the [standardbred] racing aspect.” What might seem a drawback to some - remaining in Ontario when he could be wintering with thoroughbreds in Florida - is actually a blessing for Justin, as he gets to spend time with his 15-year-old son. It’s also a “huge relief” for Dean, who can travel to Maryland every other week for cancer treatment, knowing Champagne Phil and the rest of the stable are in good hands. He trusts Justin and dedicated employees Mitch Sahely, Ed Sahely (Mitch’s 82-year-old father), Howard Lewis, and Darren Rayner with maintaining the horses’ care and training when he cannot.

Nixon tells TROT it’s an added satisfaction to know Champagne Phil is at his peak. “This guy’s done a lot of work, and it seems he’s fresher now than ever. It’s something to get excited about every week. It’s easy to get out to one of Phil’s races… it’s fun. You enjoy going.” The game gelding’s tactical speed and determination make him a favourite on the track, even when he’s not the betting public’s choice. “I’ve had another horse similar to him, Blissfull Breeze,” shares the conditioner. “They both had incredible speed that they could give you anywhere in the race. Phil can leave as fast as any horse I’ve ever had, but he’s also capable of going the last eighth as fast as any horse I’ve ever had, so he’s never out of the race.”

A man who loves a win from off the pace, Nixon says he thoroughly enjoyed Champagne Phil’s recent December 9th effort at Woodbine. Races, 5, 6 and 7 had been won in wire-to-wire style; Nirvana Seelster looked likely to keep that trend rolling in race 8. Stuck in traffic a frustrating four-and-a-quarter lengths behind that leader at the top of the stretch, things looked bleak for Phil and driver Bob McClure, sitting fifth along the pylons, at odds of 12/1. Somehow they found a seam between JJs Delivery and Make Some Luck, then another between betting favourite Awesomeness and a fading Mr Censi. Making for the inside lane in the shadow of the wire, Champagne Phil uncorked enough late speed in the final strides of a :26.4 closing quarter to catch Nirvana Seelster and put a third of a length between them.

“If you can close in 26 seconds, you’re always going to make money,” says an approving Leber.

Champagne Phil is improving with age. With 27 top-three finishes in 47 races in 2017, it’s impossible to argue. “We got him back to the races and he started racing as well as he ever had, to the point where this year, he’s made more money than he’s ever made before,” notes the man behind ICR Racing. “Barring any injuries, Champagne Phil is probably going to be a horse who’s going to race well beyond ten years old, at a decent level.”

The gelding has never been entered in a claiming race, as Leber says he’s never wanted to lose him, and he would be snapped up instantly, regardless of the claiming price. “This year, he’s had to race against the top 20 in Ontario, week in, week out. So there was a stretch from August until December when he didn’t have a win. There were no easy weeks. But in those 18 weeks, he still averaged $3,700-plus per start in earnings.”

Earnings aside, Champagne Phil’s fun, memorable name and on-track longevity also account for a fraction of his wide appeal. The people who know the horse best offer several more reasons why he’s become a fan favourite, and not just among longshot players at Woodbine.

“What I always do, if I’m at the track and my horse wins, is ask people if they would like to come to the winner’s’ circle with me,” says Leber. “I have a few people at different tracks who look for me when I’m there.” Those photos may be with his other successful horses, like Rubis Prescott, Southwind Ion, or Rebel Voyager, but they are often alongside Phil.

From a horseman’s perspective, Nixon adds, “I think anybody could do well with [Champagne Phil]… He’s always healthy, he eats great, he’s sound, he loves his work on the track. You can throw all the work at him you want and he just thrives on it.”

Looked after by 83-year-old caretaker Ed Sahely, the gelding is a pleasure for those around him. “If he was a person, he’d be the guy everybody wanted to hang out with,” remarks his trainer.

Not part of a racing dynasty, although he’s friends with fellow owner (and possible distant relation) Conrad Leber, Georg owns international collection agencies. “I handicap debt portfolios all day long, out of my office here in Pefferlaw,” he explains.

He appreciates the opportunities that his business affords him, and makes a point of reinvesting in harness racing - Leber owns 16 standardbreds now, mostly broodmares and babies, with six actively racing. He likes to give back to the community, sometimes in unorthodox ways, such as closing a deal to share a trotting yearling with Jared Dodington, a Cape Breton boy with autism (“Inspired by Jareds Courage”, TROT, April 2017). Any profits from racing the Atlantic Sires Stakes-eligible two-year-old will be donated to charity.

Admittedly a drinker of beer, not champagne, Leber says he enjoys helping people get more connected to harness racing. He doesn’t mind being something of a ‘patron of the arts’ for racing in years when ICR Racing doesn’t turn a profit, because he is grateful for his professional success, his horses, industry friends, and the pure joy of the sport. “As hard and as businesslike as it is,” he advises, “if you don’t absolutely love the horses, you’re in the wrong business.”

Raise your glass to that, and to Champagne Phil.

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