It used to be said: “If you have a filly or a mare, come to Delaware.”
In the case of trainer Don Schnell, he’s done that from an unusual place.
The native of Castor, Alberta, a town of under 1,000 people in the Canadian Prairies east of the Rockies, brought Escape Clause to the First State looking for the richest win of a long career.
Escape Clause is the 5-1 third choice on the morning line for the Grade II, $750,000 Delaware Handicap on Saturday in Stanton.
The 1 ¼ test is longer than most horses run, but for Schnell, he looks back to a 3rd place finish in a turf race at a California track as a guide she can be competitive.
“The actual distance appealed to me. She ran 1 3/8 miles at Del Mar and was beat one length. I think 1 ¼ miles, she won’t mind the distance, but I also know that’s Elate’s favorite distance so that will be tough, but anytime you run against these types of horses it won’t be easy.”
Getting to compete on some of horse racing’s biggest stages has been a long time coming for Schnell, who said he got into the game in the rural plateaus of Canada.
“I was brought up on a farm, and some cousins of mine had race horses so I’d help them with them. I went to the track one year, and I’ve been here ever since. It gets in your blood. The competition, I played hockey when I was young, and always enjoyed competition, but I’m too old to run fast. I enjoy the travel, the people you meet, I’ve met some very nice people through the travel, and that keeps me going.”
Schnell has saddled over 900 winners in his career, but can still remember the first time he entered the winner’s circle on June 15, 1976, at Edmonton, Alberta’s now-demolished Northlands Park.
“It was a filly named Ma Barker. That was quite a thrill, and as Jim Rome says 'racing gives us our highest highs and our lowest lows.'”
It was a $1,900 claiming race that day, but now the 66-year-old Schnell is training a horse that would earn him $450,000 with a victory in the DelCap.
“I tell people after 45 years I’m in the 4th quarter, and I’m very fortunate to get a horse this good. I never dreamed I’d get a horse this good, and it’s been quite the ride and I’ve really enjoyed her.”
That ride has taken them away the small tracks of Manitoba and Minnesota, and to places like California’s Del Mar and New York’s Belmont Park.
“I told the people in New York that I feel like Crocodile Dundee in the movie when he went to New York, I was pretty out of place. I wasn’t used to the big cities, but it wasn’t as bad as I thought, it was okay, we met some nice people in New York, too.”
Schnell said as Escape Clause has shown her skill, he gave up 29 of his horses to associate trainers so he could focus on her, plus 5 rising two-year-olds. That one-on-one time has been valuable, even with the new locations.
“I know her like the back of my hand, and she knows me. I know when we went to New York, it was too long of a trip. There were rough roads, and I could tell she wasn’t right, and she didn’t run as good. I can now she’s come back well off of 5 weeks off, and she’s as good as she was before.”
Escape Clause will have to be good. Facing defending champion Elate and former Grade I winner Blue Prize, this could be as tough an assignment Schnell has challenged his 5-year-old with.
“First of all, she’s going to have to run her best race. I think she can with the way she feels, and the way she handles the track. She’s had two strong workouts on this track, and seems to love it. The 1 ¼ miles is Elate’s distance, so you know she’ll be coming. I’ll have to look at the past performances, but I think we can be laying up near the leaders, second or third, and hopefully we’ll have enough stamina and speed to stay ahead of Elate and Blue Prize”
That figures to be tough, but if it happens, it will be an amazing accomplishment for the pride of Winnipeg, Manitoba’s Assiniboia Downs, where Escape Clause claimed 11 of her 20 career victories.
For her trainer, he could be another apex on a journey that has brought him 45 years of joy, and a career that might have been much different without the sport of kings.
“I’d probably be back on the farm growing grain and raising cattle.”
The 82nd running of the Delaware Handicap takes place Saturday at about 5:25 p.m. It’s part of a 9-race card featuring four other stakes races that gets under way at 1:15 p.m. in Stanton.