California Mares No Match for the Assiniboia Assassin

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Escape Clause | Benoit photo

By Bill Finley

For much of her career, Escape Clause (Going Commando) has spent her time at Assiniboia Downs in Winnipeg, Manitoba, beating up on the outclassed rivals that dared to face her in small stakes on the Western Canadian circuit. Then, after her eighth straight win, one of which was in a two-horse field, trainer Don Schnell had a thought: why not see what she can do against stakes-quality mares in the U.S.?

Schnell sensed his mare had progressed so much last year that she was ready for a new challenge. He ought to know. He is her owner, trainer, groom, hotwalker, farrier and van driver.

“You’re right, you won’t see Bob Baffert driving the van when he ships a horse, but Bob Baffert has a lot more money than me,” Schnell said.

The first time Schnell tried her in a stakes race in Southern California, the betting public didn’t take her too seriously. They sent her off at 18-1 in the restricted Kathryn Crosby S. at Del Mar and she won via disqualification after crossing the wire second, a half-length behind Excellent Sunset (Ire) (Exceed And Excel {Aus}).

Schnell had his answer: Escape Clause belonged.

His mare next ran third, beaten a length, in the GIII Red Carpet H. and then fourth in the Dec. 29 GIII Robert J Frankel S. All three starts were on turf. After running in a stakes race, most trainers on the Southern California circuit would probably look to give their horses five or six weeks off. But that’s not how they do things at the places Schnell competes at–Assiniboia, Northlands Park and Century Downs. Cheaper horses need to run to have any chance of making a profit for their owners, and Schnell is not used to babying his stock. Escape Clause ran 13 times in 2018 and once ran three times in a span of 20 days.

As such, he had no reservations about running his mare back Saturday at Santa Anita on the dirt in the GIII La Canada S. on two weeks of rest, and his intuition was right. Not only was she ready–she ran the best race of her life, winning by 5 ½ lengths under Tyler Baze. The win raised her career record to 19-for-28.

“I never dreamed I’d ever run in a graded stakes race, let alone win one,” said the 66-year-old trainer, who splits his time between Assiniboia and Turf Paradise in the winter. “Every time she runs, she never lets us down. She just keeps getting better. I am really proud of her–she’s quite a star.”

At Assiniboia, she is such a star that, Schnell said, after her victory Sunday they lowered drinks to happy hour prices and offered chicken wings at half price for those who were there to watch the La Canada simulcast.

When you’ve been toiling at cheap tracks in Western Canada since the early seventies, you have no expectations that a horse like this will ever come your way. Before Escape Clause came around, Schnell’s claim to fame was that he was a two-time winner of the $100,000 Alberta Derby.

Schnell discovered Escape Clause at the Canadian Thoroughbred Horse Society’s 2015 Manitoba Yearling Sale and paid $3,500 (Canadian) for the Manitoba-bred.

“At the sale, she kind of looked out of place,” Schnell said. “She wasn’t a super good-looking, mature horse. She was–I wouldn’t say an ugly duckling–but she wasn’t filled out because she was young. When you look at those kind of horses as a trainer, you like to look ahead and imagine what they’re going to look like in a year or so. She looked like she was going to put on weight, muscle and mature. Of course, I had no idea she was going to be this good. She’s just special. She has extreme heart; she tries every time.”

Schnell won 50 races in 2018 and has plenty of help. He doesn’t need to be the jack-of-all-trades that he is with Escape Clause, but she’s so important to him that he won’t trust her care to anyone else.

“I do what I do with her because she is special,” he said. “She is a little bit different to handle. She won’t let anybody else put a bridle on her. I have to do that. She knows me and trusts me. Like a lot of good horses, she has quirks and I know her inside out, and she respects me. I would not feel comfortable having someone else do all those things.”

Schnell was speaking from the van while driving back to Turf Paradise. Turf Paradise to Santa Anita isn’t that bad a trip, but there’s also been the drive from Assiniboia to Del Mar. Schnell estimates that was about 2,000 miles. He better keep the van in tip-top condition. Schnell says there’s no longer any point running in the races in Canada and will stick to U.S. graded stakes. He wants to stay on the dirt for now, and Escape Clause has run some of her best races around one turn, so the Feb. 16 GII Santa Monica S. at seven furlongs could be an option.

At this point, Schnell isn’t afraid to run against anybody.

“Tyler said yesterday after the race that this filly will win a Grade I, that it was remarkable how much horse he had left,” Schnell said. “When he got the lead halfway down the lane, she stopped running, was just galloping and looking around. He said if he had to do it again, he would have waited and made his move later because once she blows by them she almost thinks the race is over and just gallops along.”

Maybe Escape Clause has reached the limits of what she can accomplish, maybe she hasn’t. Just take her lightly at your own risk.

 

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