The Queen’s Plate has come and gone each summer, and much to the chagrin of veteran jockey Jim McAleney, he has never experienced the joy of charging across the finish line first in Canada’s biggest horse race.
There is a sense this Sunday at Woodbine could be different for the 42-year-old from Fort St. John, B.C. In the 153rd running of the Queen’s Plate, McAleney will be aboard River Rush, an impressive bay colt that romped in the Plate Trial earlier this month as a 21-1 longshot for her maiden victory in only three starts.
Twenty-five Plate Trial winners have gone on to win the Queen’s Plate, including three of the last four.
"When we rounded the eighth-pole and we had only an 1/8th of a mile to finish line, I knew we were going to win," McAleney said on Monday. "It was really cool because it wasn’t a hope or a dream or a wish, it was just a given feeling, that I didn’t create, that I was going to win the Queen’s Plate this year."
This will be McAleney’s 18th try at winning the Queen’s Plate since he arrived at Woodbine as a teenager back in the late 1980s. He’s had close calls before with runner-up finishes on Anglian Prince and I And I in 2002 and 2000, respectively. But the one that stung the most was when he finished third aboard Gold Strike in 2005, which led by three lengths at the mile-pole only to tire and finish third.
McAleney remarked that finish was the most devastating of his career. But his spirits have been lifted by River Rush, trained by Reade Baker and owned by Stronach Stables. Baker, who also is looking for his first Queen’s Plate win, and McAleney previously have combined to win 33 stakes races.
Just three wins shy of career No. 2,250th, McAleney has won more than his share of big races across North America. But it’s the Queen’s Plate that he continues to covet.
"If I were to finish my career and not have this accomplishment I would feel it would be incomplete," McAleney said. "A race like this really puts the icing on the cake to your career. It’s even more than that. It’s the thrill of winning it. This is the race in Canada. I’ve seen friends and others I know win it and enjoy it. I want that feeling of the joy they had in winning it."
McAleney remembers as an 11-year-old watching the Queen’s Plate on television. It was then he decided that being a jockey was what he wanted to do. His cousin Peter McAleney already was a jockey and helped him early on, but his big break was meeting woman trainer Donalda Cochrane.
A star was born
She let the younger McAleney ride horses around her farm as a 15-year-old and compete in a few local bush meets. Then he made it to the starting gate at Northlands Park in Edmonton and managed to two wins at the end of that summer. A star was born. A few years later, he won the Sovereign Award as Canada’s top apprentice jockey.
McAleney definitely will be a sentimental favourite for Sunday. He suffered a setback in March 2007, when he needed to surgery to repair broken femur from a training accident two days before the opening day of racing at Woodbine.
At the end of the 2010 racing season, his mount Itsallaboutmenow clipped the back heels of another horse. McAleney suffered a collapsed lung, a crushed collarbone and broke all eight ribs on his left side. He endured five months of recovery, rehab and workouts to get himself back into the game.
"I’m on the comeback trail for sure, both physically and as far as my business goes," said McAleney, who has looked sharp this season with nine wins, nine runner-up and 10 third-place finishes in 83 starts. "I’m in a rebuilding phase. Things are a little slower right now than they have been in the past years. The injuries caused me some shifts in terms of the trainers I used to ride for. But I’m very positive and optimistic in terms of where things are going and I’m excited about the future."
Especially, the immediate future. As in Sunday, at Woodbine, at the Queen’s Plate.