On a cold, damp Thursday night, the Air Canada Animal Cargo area of Toronto's Pearson International Airport was bustling with horse trailers, harness racing caretakers, anxious owners and even the odd photographer.
The weekly planeload of horses from Amsterdam to Toronto carried some driving ponies, a Haflinger and a young trainee for equine show Cavalia. The last and most attended pallet carried priceless cargo -- trotters Rapide Lebel and Commander Crowe, two French-sired competitors with combined earnings of $4.2 million.
The European horses are in town for the $6.2 million Breeders Crown championships on Saturday in Toronto. They will race in the $600,000 Breeders Crown Trot, carded as race seven (post time 9 p.m. ET), one of the nine races carried live on the Score in Canada and on MAVTV in the U.S.
They are superstars in the international trotting community, with Facebook pages, Twitter followers and a traveling entourage. Though foreign classic winners are invited every year to participate in the Breeders Crown, they rarely accept due to cost, rigorous quarantine regulations and date and timing conflicts. To have two of the best trotters on the European circuit eagerly accept the challenge is unprecedented.
Once cleared through customs, the pair was shipped to the Mohawk backstretch in Campbellville. They are separated from the general populace but seemed bright-eyed though slightly bushy-tailed after their long journey.
Accompanied by caretaker William Tillets (Rapide Lebel) and Karollina Oinonen (Commander Crowe) the trotters enjoyed some paddock time and hand walking in preparation for the big race.
Their task is made formidable by the presence of the No. 1-ranked harness racing horse in North America. Rod Hughes and Glenn Van Camp’s San Pail, who is riding a six-race win streak has dominated the top trotting ranks this year.
Despite the time difference, racing fans across Europe will be awake and watching to see how their champions fare. Honour, trophies and a lot of cash is on the line.