Canadians are notoriously chauvinistic about their horses. Whenever one mediocre animal wins a few stakes north of the border against other mediocre animals, the folks there inevitably start thinking that they've got another Northern Dancer.
So when Canadian racing fans started talking enthusiastically this spring about a colt named Afleet, Americans could be justifiably skeptical. And when Canadians brought satchels of money to bet on Afleet in his first U.S. appearance, this seemed to be further evidence of their provincialism.
But the Canadians were right. Afleet is a genuine star; indeed, he might be the most talented racehorse on the continent. The only questions about him concern his stamina, and he will answer them when he runs in the 1 1/4-mile Meadowlands Cup Friday.
If he succeeds, Afleet could be a favorite to win the world's richest race, the $3 million Breeders' Cup Classic, in California next month.
Trainer Phil England always knew Afleet had exceptional potential. Not only is he superbly bred -- he is a son of the great Mr. Prospector -- but he outworked an established stakes horse in his morning trials before he ever ran. Afleet won his first three races, all sprints, but he faltered in his first distance race and he was beaten in Canada's premiere race, the 1 1/4-mile Queen's Plate. On the surface, it appeared Afleet couldn't go a distance. But England wasn't convinced.
"Before the Queen's Plate," the trainer said, "he'd kicked a shoe off and he was a little gimpy. He did miss some time galloping. So that might have been the reason he got tired in the Plate."
Even so, Afleet's record didn't look particularly impressive when England brought him to Belmont Park last month for the Jerome Handicap, his first U.S. start. The colt figured to be 8 to 1 or thereabouts against a good field, but an incredible influx of money knocked him down to 5 to 2.
"There's been a lot of enthusiasm for Afleet in Canada," England said, "and I know at least a couple of guys who went to Belmont to bet. They were very confident."
The colt justified this confidence by delivering one of the most brilliant performances of the year in New York, running a mile in a spectacular 1:33 4/5, demolishing his rivals in the process.
Then he went to the 1 1/8-mile Pennsylvania Derby for a duel with another speed horse, Lost Code, who is just about as good as America's best at that distance. The two of them battled head and head until Lost Code started to draw away from his rival on the turn. But Afleet dug in and overtook Lost Code in the stretch, winning by more than two lengths in the excellent time of 1:48 1/5.
From a speed-handicapping standpoint, these two performances were vastly better than any of this country's top 3-year-olds have given -- better than Alysheba, better than Bet Twice, better than Java Gold. But he still hasn't proved he can run effectively at the 1 1/4-mile distance, at which major championships are usually decided. Sons of Mr. Prospector frequently have trouble going this far.
Afleet's stamina will get a tough test at the Meadowlands. His main foe is Creme Fraiche, a solid distance runner who upset Java Gold in the $1 million Jockey Club Gold Cup recently.
"I know that Afleet could be the best miler in America," England said. "We'd run him a mile all the time if we could. But we're not afraid to try a mile and a quarter at the Meadowlands. The race is going to tell us a lot."
In particular, it will tell England whether to run in the Breeders' Cup Classic. And it will tell the racing world whether the Canadian colt is about to become the sport's brightest new star.