TORONTO — No stranger to the winner's circle south of the border, Irad Ortiz Jr. wasted no time making his mark in Canada's elite thoroughbred racing series.
Ortiz rode Safe Conduct to victory in the 162nd running of the $1-million Queen's Plate on Sunday, taking the first leg of the OLG Canadian Triple Crown.
It was the Queen's Plate debut for Ortiz, a three-time Eclipse Award winner as top jockey (2018-20).
He is no stranger to big-time wins in the United States. Ortiz is an 11-time Breeders' Cup winner and rode Creator to victory in the 2016 Belmont Stakes.
He rose to the occasion Sunday, riding Safe Conduct into the front of the pack for the final stretch and finishing the Woodbine's 1 1/4-mile Tapeta course in a time of two minutes 2.85 seconds to claim the $600,000 winner's prize.
"He was game," Ortiz said of the three-year-old colt. "He just kept fighting all the way through the stretch. Honestly he responded very well.
"The trainer did a great job — he was ready to run."
Safe Conduct, the 3-1 favourite, fought off several challenges from his competitors, including a late charge from Riptide Rock (11-1) that needed a photo finish to sort out.
"I went ahead and hit him at the top of the stretch. And when I hit him, he responded really well," Ortiz said after the race. "He kept moving forward. I saw somebody was flying outside... that was very close, I didn't know if I won the race after the wire but thank God I did."
H C Holiday (29-1) finished third. Munnyfor Ro, the 2021 Woodbine Oaks winner listed among the race favourites at 7-2, finished fourth.
Safe Conduct's victory denied a Queen's Plate title to the Attard family, which has ties to six of the 13 horses that competed in the race.
Kevin Attard, who is still looking for his first Queen's Plate victory as a trainer, had H C Holiday, Munnyfor Ro, Haddassah and Harlan Estate in the field.
Fifth-place Keep Grinding, who was installed as the early 4-1 favourite at the Queen's Plate draw on Wednesday, is owned by Attard's son, Joshua, and trained by his father, Tino. And Kevin Attard's uncle, Sid, conditions Riptide Rock.
Safe Conduct is owned by WellSpring Stables and is trained by Philip Serpe.
"He's been training like a bear," the three-year-old colt's breeder, Mitchell Kursner, said. "The rule of thumb is that if you're a nice horse on the turf, you'll translate on the Tapeta and we're just delighted.
"They've done a marvellous job bringing this horse along."
Ortiz credited his agent for getting him his first Queen's Plate ride.
"It's a great feeling always to come here," he added. "It's my pleasure to come here. I've got a lot of fans. They showed me some love. I really enjoyed it."
Fans were back in the stands for the iconic race after not being allowed at Woodbine Racetrack for the 2020 edition due to COVID-19 protocols.
Around 5,000 tickets were sold for Sunday's race. Upwards of 35,000 spectators have attended The Queen’s Plate in past years.
While the crowd size was comparatively small, the event returned to having a festive feel. Decorated Olympic swimmers Penny Oleksiak and Kayla Sanchez were on hand as race ambassadors, and Canadian musician Jim Cuddy performed live.
The Queen's Plate, the opening jewel of the OLG Canadian Triple Crown, is the longest continuously run thoroughbred stakes race in North America.
The second leg of the Triple Crown, the $400,0000 Prince of Wales Stakes, goes Sept.14 at the Fort Erie Race Track.
The final leg is the $400,000 Breeders' Stakes on Oct. 3 at Woodbine.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Aug. 22, 2021.