It's easy to see why driver Yannick Gingras has a good feeling about the $1-million Pepsi North America Cup on Saturday night.
The native of Sorel, Que., will make his ninth appearance in search of his first victory in Canada's richest harness racing event. But Gingras said there's a good reason why he's not yet won the North America Cup.
"The best horse I've ever had in the race was 17-1," Gingras said in a telephone interview. "I've just never had the right horse.
"Basically you're only as good as what you have. It's not like I ever got beat with a favourite or a horse that had a realistic chance."
The race was originally scheduled for June 20 but was rescheduled due to the COVID-19 pandemic. It will be run Saturday night without spectators.
Gingras has more than just a realistic chance to win as he'll be driving Tall Dark Stranger, the race favourite, at Woodbine Mohawk Park in Campbellville, Ont. Tall Dark Stranger has won five of his six starts this season for $505,131 and 13 of 15 overall for $1.4 million.
"I have all the confidence in the world," Gingras said. "There's no doubt in my mind he's the horse to beat.
"He got a good post position (No. 4) and we think he's going into the race really, really good and will be even better this week. All systems are good."
One of those wins came in last weekend's elimination race. Tall Dark Stranger — a son of '01 North America Cup champion Bettors Delight — edged Capt Midnight by a head in 1:48.4 at Mohawk despite an equipment malfunction.
Many harness horses wear ear plugs during races to help keep them calm. Drivers can remove them, usually down the stretch, in an attempt to wake the horse up, by kicking a string that's attached to the plugs.
But when Gingras tried to do that last weekend, the ear plugs failed to pull. He tried reaching with his hands to pull them manually but the string came off, leaving the ear plugs in Tall Dark Stranger's ears.
"With certain horses, it (the ear-plugs issue) wouldn't bother them," Gingras said. "But this one is a lazy horse to begin with and in a race he only does what he needs to do.
"But I think he's much better if he races in back-to-back weeks. He's the type of horse that likes that, he likes to be in the action, he likes to race. He's a racehorse and so I think going back-to-back weeks will help him."
Tall Dark Stranger is looking to become the first horse ever to win both the Metro Pace and Breeders Crown as a two-year-old, then capture the North America Cup at age three. The horse is also trained by Nancy Takter, who won last year with Captain Crunch in a race-record 1:47.2
Favourites have won 15 of the 36 Cup races but only three of the last 11.
Starting inside of Tall Dark Stranger will be Captain Kirk, who captured last weekend's other elimination race. Captain Kirk handed Tall Dark Stranger his only loss this season at the Geers Stakes on Aug. 1 in a career-best time of 1:48.3.
Captain Kirk, which will be driven by Jody Jamieson of Moffat, Ont., will be one of three Tony Alagna-trained horses in the field, with the others being Capt Midnight (No. 5) and Captain Barbossa (No. 9).
All three were sired by Captaintreacherous, who earned Alagan his first Cup title in 2013.
But for Gingras, being unable to compete before a boisterous Mohawk Park gathering will take some lustre off Saturday's race.
"It stinks, for sure," he said. "The crowd at Mohawk is tremendous, especially for North America Cup night.
"At certain places you don't see a big difference because the crowd isn't on top of you but at Mohawk the crowd is right there with you. You definitely can feel the energy of the crowd. It won't be quite as exciting, that part of it, but there are plenty of other things to get excited about right now."
As for a key Saturday night, Gingras said all he's hoping for is a smooth trip.
"Hopefully no interference and let the best horse win," he said. "If somebody else comes up huge and beats us, that's fine, it is what it is.
"This horse doesn't need a certain trip, he can do it any which way he wants. That part I'm not concerned about. It definitely makes my job easier."
The North America Cup highlights a card that also includes the $400,000 Fan Hanover, $290,000 Roses Are Red and $220,000 Armbro Flight.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Aug. 29, 2020.
Dan Ralph, The Canadian Press