Attfield tries out new look amid bid for Plate record ninth win
Hall of Fame thoroughbred trainer Roger Attfield is at it again this week, trying to work his magic in the Queen’s Plate, a race he has already won a record-equalling eight times. He hasn’t had an easy task this spring, considering he has been hobbling about on crutches for the past two months.
At 76, Attfield knows it probably takes longer for his bones to heal than when he was young. But he has work to do. Among the 45 horses in his barn on the Woodbine backstretch is Queen’s Plate Winterbook favourite Shakhimat, a splendid coal-black steed that won the Coronation Futurity last fall by 9 ¾ lengths.
And although Attfield always has preferred to do his work astride his stable pony, this spring he has taken to renovated golf carts and his SUV which he drives up a narrow and steep paved path by the trackside tent to watch workouts, his lower leg bound up in a heavy black supportive cast. “It hasn’t affected the training,” he said. “It just makes it a lot more difficult.”
Attfield ended up in hospital while trying to ride a 3-year-old Dutch warmblood filly from the stable of his girlfriend Tina Konyot, a U.S. dressage rider.
“I was helping break [the filly] and she tipped me off and ran over the top of me, basically,” Attfield said, with a laugh. “Guess I was thinking I was still 27 or something.”
The filly, “a big, green baby,” had been ridden for only two or three days and when she went underneath a tree, Attfield leaned forward to avoid the branches. His action scared her and she dropped her U.S. and Canadian Horse Racing Hall of Fame rider and planted one of her giant feet on his left foot. A Dutch warmblood is far heavier than a thoroughbred. This youngster weighed about 1,500 pounds. A thoroughbred, depending on size, could weigh 1,100 or 1,200 pounds.
Attfield has broken bones in his feet before, and left many of them to heal on their own. “This one was a lot worse than I thought it was,” he said. When the verdict was that surgeons would have to insert two plates with eight or nine screws to repair it, Attfield came home to Nobleton, Ont., early to have the operation done. He usually returns to Woodbine when the Keeneland meeting ends around May 1, but Attfield was back by the end of March. Two days away from shipping his stable to the lush Kentucky track, he missed the entire Keeneland meet and had to direct his charges from afar.
With Attfield back in Ontario, Shakhimat won his first start of the year in the Transylvania Stakes on the grass at Keeneland.
A case of equine herpes at Paysan Park in Florida where Attfield trains during the winter put Shakhimat under quarantine for a time, preventing Attfield from shipping him anywhere and messing up his preparation for the Plate somewhat.
Then again, nothing has been easy for Attfield in trying to bag that Queen’s Plate record. His last win in the Plate came eight years go with Not Bourbon. And he had waited 13 years for that win. In an ironic twist, Attfield was also ailing at that 2008 Plate. He shattered a heel on his other foot over the winter and had eight screws and a plate inserted to hold it together. The foot later became infected and Attfield trained on horseback with an intravenous bag attached to one hip and a wound treatment pack slung from the other shoulder. He was able to ditch all of the equipment the week before that Plate.
This time, his biggest gain is to finally train while aboard his pony this week, doctor’s orders or no. “I miss training when I can’t walk with the horses back and forth,” he said. Another tragedy: Daddy Cool, his longtime stable pony, had to be put down in January because of cancer. Attfield has a new pony.
After a mysterious ninth-place finish in the American Turf the day of the Kentucky Derby – he was bumped and got rank – Shakhimat finished second in the Plate Trial, but Attfield was pleased with his effort. “You don’t have to win the Plate Trial to win the Plate,” he said.
Is Shakhimat a horse that could handle the 1 ¼ miles of Sunday's Queen’s Plate? “Questionable,” Attfield said. But then, Not Bourbon was not considered to be a 1 ¼-mile horse either. Jockey Jono Jones figured he wasn’t at his best past seven furlongs.
If Attfield wins a ninth Plate, it will be gratifying. But, “Oh god, I don’t think about it as much as everybody else,” he said. “If it happens, it happens.”