Written by: Dave Briggs

How the colt initially nicknamed for the new Pope delivered a heavenly Queen’s Plate victory for Sir Dudley Digges’ breeders, Bernard and Karen McCormack.

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The obsession began nearly 40 years ago with a single question that may have cost Bernard McCormack an academic silver medal on his final exam at the Irish National Stud.

Where is the Queen’s Plate run?

The answer is shockingly easy for anyone in Canada who knows anything about thoroughbreds, but for a teenage Irishman, it was trickier than it should have been. McCormack wrote Victoria Park in Australia and immediately kicked himself when he looked up the answer later and discovered he was just a mark or two away from earning a medal.

“I was very highly placed and one or two questions would have made the difference and that was one of them and it burned me,” McCormack said. “Believe me, I knew where the Queen’s Plate was run from that instant. I found out and I never forgot it. In a very roundabout way, I always put that race in the back of my mind.”

It is the morning after Sir Dudley Digges pulled off a 15-1 upset July 3 in the 157th edition of the Queen’s Plate — yes, at Woodbine Racetrack in Toronto, about as far as one can get from Down Under — and McCormack’s phone and Facebook page are blowing up with congratulations.

Bernard and his wife, Karen, are the breeders of Sir Dudley Digges, a son of Gio Ponti out of the Kris S mare My Pal Lana.

Though Bernard was connected to plenty of Plate winners during his 17-year-stint working at the famed Windfields Farm — the last nine years as its general manager — Sir Dudley Digges is the first Plate champion the McCormacks have produced on their own. One day removed from one of his greatest days in the game, the sheer immensity of that achievement has Bernard’s emotions swinging from chatty elation to tears.

Remembering Lana

The morning of the Plate, Bernard said he “had a moment” in the very stall where My Pal Lana died in the spring of 2014, a year after foaling Sir Dudley Digges.

On Canada’s holiest day of thoroughbred racing, not far from where the McCormacks have placed a small sacramental to watch over the mares and foals, Bernard went into the stall to reflect, thank and remember the mare.

“She had a dystocia foaling. We had two vets here. It was very difficult. Probably the foal was dead coming. The foal was early and it just wasn’t meant to be. We did everything to save the mare and just didn’t in the end. Everybody that breeds horses knows that story,” Bernard said, his voice thick.

“Those things are the part that makes us human, that we feel the hurt.”

My Pal Lana was always designed to be something of a game-changing mare for the McCormacks; a mare that was at the forefront of their decision to breed fewer mares, but ones of higher quality.

“I knew her as a racehorse in Mac Benson’s barn. She won several good races, black type races on the grass. I loved the breeding,” said Bernard, who operates Cara Bloodstock with Karen.

When My Pal Lana’s owner, George Strawbridge, asked Cara to consign her to the 2011 Keeneland November Breeding Stock Sale, Bernard suggested putting a $44,000 reserve on the mare. He then offered to buy her himself — with Strawbridge’s blessing — if the bidding stalled at not much more than that price. Strawbridge agreed.

“The bidding stopped at $45,000. That year or the year before, my wife and I, we were just like other breeders in Ontario. We were struggling with some of the prices at the sales here and the realization was, ‘We have to get better. We have to get better stock.’ She was kind of the first mare where we said, ‘We have to spend more money on them. We need to go to the sale and buy something we can use and sell down (in the U.S.).’ She was in foal to Harlan’s Holiday, another sire that I love from the Northern Dancer line back to the Roberto line. She was well bred and a sound mare.”

The McCormacks brought My Pal Lana back to Mapleshade Farm, their 100-acre spread in Janetville, ON. The mare foaled “a lovely Harlan’s Holiday filly,” Bernard said. She was then bred to Gio Ponti, who was standing his first year at stud.

“I love Gio Ponti,” Bernard said. “He is a three-time Eclipse champion and a gorgeous-looking horse. It wasn’t a hard decision to breed to him in his first year. I told the stallion manager in Kentucky, ‘We’re going to breed a Queen’s Plate winner with him.’”

It was a prescient prediction.

Divine designation

The same day white smoke billowed out of the special chimney atop the Sistine Chapel in St. Pete’s Square heralding the naming of a new Pope to head the Catholic Church, a much less auspicious event unfolded quietly 7,000 kms to the west of The Vatican at Mapleshade Farm.

On March 13, 2013, My Pal Lana gave birth to a beautiful dark brown colt.

Bernard and Karen nicknamed the colt Francis in honour of Jorge Mario Bergoglio of Argentina selecting the name Pope Francis. It seemed to be a perfect fit. Bernard is Catholic, his middle name is Francis and Saint Francis is the patron saint of animals.

“We have a little sacramental in the foaling barn because the mares are doing all the work and it’s risky sometimes. The mare’s life is at risk, the foal’s life is at risk. There’s a lot going on. I said, ‘Let’s call him Francis. It’s kind of an omen.’ That’s where he got his stable name.

“The babies are everything to us. More lately they foal and then they’re gone down to Kentucky and we have two weeks or three weeks to imprint them a little bit when they’re here so they remember us when they come back…To do that, they have their personalities, which we get to learn and we get to work with, but they need a name.”

The colt that would officially become known as Sir Dudley Digges bounced around a fair bit before landing with noted thoroughbred owners and breeders Ken and Sarah Ramsey. The McCormacks initially sold him for $72,000 as a weanling at the 2013 Keeneland November sale to Gio Ponti’s owners Castleton Lyons of Lexington, KY. Castleton Lyons then sold Sir Dudley Digges for $110,000 to agent Julio Rada at the 2014 Keeneland September Yearling Sale. Rada tried to pinhook Sir Dudley Digges at the 2015 Fasig-Tipton Florida Select 2-Year-Olds in Training Sale, but the colt failed to reach his $195,000 reserve price. The colt was subsequently sold for $130,000 to the Ramseys a few months later at the Ocala Breeders’ Sales Company’s June Two-Year-Olds and Horses of Racing Age Sale.

Ken Ramsey, a direct descendant of King Edward III, named the colt Sir Dudley Digges in honour of the King’s cousin, a man who spent three days in the Tower of London for publicly questioning the King’s divinity.

He was no longer Francis, but through all his early travels, Sir Dudley the colt seemed to remember the McCormacks. When he returned to Ontario this June for the Plate Trial Stakes, the couple saw Sir Dudley Digges in the backstretch at Woodbine.

“He was just circling back into his stall and Karen in her baby-talking voice just said, ‘Hi, Francis.’ He looked right at her and stopped. I said, ‘He knows. He knows that voice.’ He may not know the words, but he knows the voice,” Bernard said. “I’m not making it up. He stopped and looked right at her, the way a horse will look when they’re doing something intently. I said to Karen, ‘He remembers us.’ Are we being romantic? Yeah, a little bit. But, that was a moment.”

FROM CHEAP SEATS TO WINNER’S CIRCLE

The initial plan was just to buy some tickets and float around Woodbine on Plate Day and take in the crowd. Bernard wasn’t particularly worried about the location of his and Karen’s seats.

“We were in the very back row of section 12 on the fifth level. There was nobody behind us. We were as far away as we could almost get. We were two sections over from the furthest in the grandstand you could be and as high as we could be and nobody behind us,” Bernard said, laughing. “We were right against the back wall. We didn’t get in anybody’s way when we were cheering, I tell you.”

Not that it mattered in the end. Cheap seats or Royal Box, it’s where the McCormacks ended up that counts most.

“The Ramseys were so gracious in including us and letting us share their moment. It was just a wonderful day. I will never, ever forget. Anybody that achieves anything in this business, good luck to them because it is a tough business and we all know it. We all have our downs, but yesterday makes up for an awful lot of it,” Bernard said.

He will tell you that Sir Dudley Digges was bred for this race, this moment — despite a plethora of turf talent in the colt’s pedigree. He will tell you this was the perfect example of a plan coming together. But Bernard also knows it’s much more complicated than that and it took a lifetime to get here.

Actually, it all goes back four decades to that question on his final exam.

“It certainly became a goal,” Bernard said of the minute the Queen’s Plate entered his consciousness. “If you breed horses and if you’re a Canadian — and I am a Canadian, but ex-pat Irish — you’re going to try and breed for that race.”

So, Bernard McCormack, is breeding the Queen’s Plate winner a dream realized?

“Absolutely,” he said with the strongest conviction. “Karen is used to saying to friends in the last few years, ‘I think I’d like to slow down a little bit. It’s a lot of hands-on work here at the farm. But Bernard still wants to breed the winner of the Queen’s Plate.’ That is always her line.

“Now we’ll have to have a new line so we can keep punishing ourselves. Otherwise, I’m out of play,” he said, laughing.