TORONTO — He's still a win away from ending Canada's lengthy Triple Crown drought, but Mighty Heart has his championship pose down pat.
Upon noticing a camera, the one-eyed colt immediately turns his head and perks up his ears, presenting a regal image. Impressive wins in the $1-million Queen's Plate and $400,000 Prince of Wales Stakes have certainly boosted the confidence of a horse that lost an eye as a foal and didn't race last year.
"He loves cameras," exercise rider Desmond McMahon said this week following a morning workout at Woodbine Racetrack. "He knows he's the man, he turns his head so he can see the cameraman.
"He's quite a ham but when it's time to get down to business, he does. All two-year-olds are pretty green when they start out but he picks up things pretty easily and has definitely matured a lot."
Mighty Heart has won three of his six races this year (along with a third-place finish) and earned $911,370. A victory in the $400,000 Breeders' Stakes on Oct. 24 at Woodbine will secure Mighty Heart the OLG Canadian Triple Crown, the country's first since Wando in 2003.
And it would cap a most improbable sweep. To many, he was an afterthought heading into the Queen's Plate as one of Hall of Fame trainer Josie Carroll's three race entries behind heralded filly Curlin's Voyage and Belichick.
But after an emphatic wire-to-wire Plate win as a 13/1 longshot - Belichick was second - Mighty Heart rallied from third to claim the Prince of Wales as the 6/5 favourite just 17 days later.
"He has come a long way, particularly from last year when this horse was timid to even walk on the wash bay because it was something new," said Carroll. "He has grown tremendously in confidence with every race."
Siobhan Brown, Mighty Heart's groom, agrees.
"At first, he was kind of a little unsure about himself," she said. "I believe he just needed some love and people he could really trust and get to know.
"This whole team has worked hard to build that relationship and he's become so confident in himself, it's outstanding to see. He has come so far, it's been amazing to watch him grow."
And with growing confidence has come, it seems, the realization by Mighty Heart - who goes by his nickname of Willie - that he's something special.
"I think he knows now," Brown said. "If you look back at the Queen's Plate photos . . . you can actually see him looking under the rail at the camera, he loves the attention.
""Sometimes when the riders go by him, they say, 'Hey champ,' and he looks up as if to say, 'Hey, that's me.'"
Carroll, a three-time Queen's Plate winner, is one of Canada's top trainers. But owner-breeder Lawrence Cordes' operation isn't an overly big one and Japanese-born jockey Daisuke Fukumoto, who turned 23 this week, is in just his fourth season at Woodbine.
Mighty Heart lost his left eye in a paddock accident as a foal. He wears a blinker during races that prevents debris from flying into the eye socket.
"He was about two weeks old when he lost the eye so essentially all he's known is life with one eye," Brown said. "It's changed how I do things a little because everything we do is from the left and so it did take some trust-building.
"I talk to him every day. I like to let him know who's riding him. If it's Des, I tell him uncle Des is coming on and if it's his jock, I'll say, 'Hey, you're going to go fast today bud." He may not always understand, I know he's a horse, but I think he gets the idea."
McMahon said Mighty Heart is an easy horse to ride.
"He's a bit quirky," McMahon said. "He has things he does and likes to do and I think being on him so much, we've kind of got used to each other and how we train.
"It takes him a couple of times with new things. Not seeing out of the left eye it's a lot of trust between everyone involved because that's his blind side."
Off the track, Mighty Heart has his preferred treats.
"Mints are definitely a go-to and he likes apples," Brown said. "However, if you can get the green carrot tops, he goes crazy for those and would actually rather have that than the actual carrot itself.
"He enjoys getting his ears and cheeks rubbed but if he's laying down he loves belly scratches. Sometimes if he's flat out, the owner's grand-daughter scratches his belly and he actually starts shaking his leg like a dog. He loves it."
Mighty Heart also has his favourite toys.
"He has a teddy that he sometimes rubs up against," Brown said. "If you look in his stall, its full of dog toys - ropes and balls and different things he plays with.
"He's very active, he likes to pick at stuff and play around."
Mighty Heart enjoys being hosed down after workouts, but dislikes rain.
"For his first race they were calling for rain and as we were going over I was saying, 'OK Willie, if we go fast enough we can beat the rain.,'" Brown said. "He won the race and we were on our way to the barn . . . but halfway there the heavens opened.
"He definitely wasn't a happy camper."
As Breeders' Stakes preparations continue, both Brown and McMahon marvel at Mighty Heart's journey thus far.
"It's out of this world . . . it's just amazing to be part of this," Brown said. "He's such an outstanding horse, I am so proud of him and want to give him the world."
Added McMahon: "I get on many good horses for Josie and being in this situation is very exciting because I was involved with Mighty Heart from the time he came in here as a two-year-old. We knew last year he'd be a good horse but it might be a little it of a surprise that he's been this good. He's really an amazing story."
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Oct. 16, 2020.