Plenty of questions persist, but veteran Woodbine trainer Roger Attfield's plan remains to run Shirl's Speight in the Kentucky Derby next month.
The Derby is slated for Sept. 5 at Churchill Downs. It was originally slated for May 2 but was rescheduled due to the COVID-19 pandemic and will go without spectators or owners present.
Shirl's Speight will be looking to shock the racing world at the annual Run for The Roses. The Kentucky-bred son of Speightstown will come in with just two career starts — both wins at Woodbine.
What's more, Shirl's Speight, owned by Edmonton native Charles Fipke, has never run in a race on the Derby surface (dirt) or covered the 1 1/4-mile distance.
"It's absolutely a huge step for him," Attfield said during a telephone interview Tuesday. "He's had just two races, he's won both of them very easily so he really hasn't been in a horse race yet.
"He's been on two surfaces, the turf and all-weather, but hasn't run on the dirt and had dirt kicked up in his face. I had him run behind horses the other day to get him used to it (dirt in the face) a little bit but it's very, very difficult for sure."
Shirl's Speight registered his first career win in April on turf over seven furlongs. He then topped the field in the Grade 3 Marine Stakes over 1 1/16 miles on Woodbine's Tapeta course July 25.
Despite the limited racing resume, Shirl's Speight holds down 20th spot in the Derby points standings. It determines which horses qualify for the 20 spots in the starting gate, leaving Shirl's Speight in the very precarious position of potentially being bumped leading up to the race.
Should Shirl's Speight make it to the starter's gate, the expectation is the horse will be a decided long-shot in a field that's expected to include Belmont Stakes winner Tiz The Law and Enforceable, trained by Mark Casse, Canada's top trainer an unprecedented 11 times.
"I believe (Shirl's Speight) has a tremendous amount of talent," Attfield said. "I believe he's got a huge future ahead of him but it is a major step to take at this point in his career.
"The owner is very keen on doing it and I know the horse does have the talent. Hopefully it all works out OK."
Attfield said Shirl's Speight has been very solid in training recently.
"He's doing very well," Attfield said. "He's training very well at the moment, very happy.
"All is looking good."
A factor working in favour of Shirl's Speight and Attfield is that in horse racing, long-shots do win on occasion. About the only certainty in the sport is that a horse can't win if he doesn't run.
"That's exactly how Mr. Fipke feels," Attfield said. "A huge amount of talent goes a long way."
Attfield has enjoyed success on both sides of the border, having been inducted in both the Canadian Horse Racing Hall of Fame and the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame in the United States. He's won the Queen's Plate — the first leg of Canada's Triple Crown — eight times, the Prince of Wales Stakes five times and Breeders' Stakes on nine occasions.
Attfield has also captured the Canadian Triple Crown three times (1989, With Approval; 1990, Izvestia and 1993, Peteski).
But he's never won the Derby and doing so, even in the midst of a global pandemic, would be special for the 80-year-old native of Newbury, Berkshire, England.
"Obviously the Derby is the real prize in American racing," he said. "It would be a major deal, for sure."
However, Attfield isn't sure if he'll be making the trip to Kentucky. That's because upon returning to Canada he'd have to self-quarantine for 14 days in the midst of the racing season here.
Attfield had to quarantine for 14 days after racing horses in the U.S. this winter. But he returned prior to the start of Woodbine's 2020 campaign.
"Most definitely," Attfield said about these being very different times. "With no spectators and no owners (at Churchill Downs on race day), it's totally different.
"With the Derby, half of the sparkle is the people and the huge crowds. That's a big, big deal."
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Aug. 25, 2020.
Dan Ralph, The Canadian Press