By Brandon Valvo — Milton, ON — Bold Eagle basked in the afternoon sunlight on the tarmac at Toronto Pearson International Airport last Saturday (Oct. 19) led by longtime caretaker and groom Hugues Monthule, who donned a neon-yellow safety vest.
Despite a flashy black-and-red cooler draped over the trotter’s back and bright red wraps around all four legs up to his knees, it was Bold Eagle’s presence that proved eye-catching.
Bold Eagle carried his head low and ears straight up under a gray hood. His eyes wide and gleaming, the French trotter took long, languid strides over the pavement. Despite emerging from an eight-hour journey over the North Atlantic Ocean, the French champion looked regal.
After clearing customs, Bold Eagle and Monthule boarded a trailer bound for the Woodbine Mohawk Park backstretch. The track’s backside would be Bold Eagle’s home for the next week as the trotter prepares for his start in Saturday’s $500,000 Breeders Crown Open Trot.
The race has been years in the making for owners Pierre Pilarski and Thomas Bernereau.
“It dates from 2017 during our first participation in Elitloppet and our meeting with John Campbell. I promised him to come to the Breeders Crown as soon as it was possible,” Pilarski said.
“It has been two years since John Campbell has invited us to come and compete in this great event with Bold Eagle in North America,” Bernereau said. “We had the opportunity between Pocono and Mohawk, and we decided on Mohawk because this race was very well-placed in the program of Bold Eagle.
If we come to play this great event with Bold Eagle, it is largely thanks to John Campbell, who convinced us to come and who organized everything so that everything went well.”
Despite Pilarski’s promise, Bold Eagle’s voyage seemed unlikely to most until the jumbo jet carrying him lifted into the skies over Frankfurt, Germany bound for Canada.
In 67 races, Bold Eagle has only competed outside of his home country six times. He won the Group 1 Grand Prix de l’U.E.T. at the Netherlands’ Victoria Park Wolvega in 2015, captured an elimination of Elitloppet in 1:50 before finishing fourth in the Group 1 final in 2017, won the Group 1 Grand Prix de Wallonie in Mons, Belgium in 2017, made a break shortly after the start of the first Elitloppet elimination in 2018, and repeated in the Grand Prix de Wallonie this year.
Despite his 4-for-6 record outside France, critics of Bold Eagle cite his Elitloppet defeats as evidence the trotter is not as strong abroad as at home. However, Pilarski and Bernereau reject the notion.
“Bold Eagle’s win that impressed me the most was his elimination from Elitloppet when he won over his opponents in (1:50). This performance is the most impressive in my eyes,” Bernereau said.
Bold Eagle’s 2018 Elitloppet bid proved disastrous. Travel delays may have doomed the trotter’s trip before it even began. However, a recall before the race and a long delay on the track saw Bold Eagle come unraveled.
His connections could only look on in dismay as Bold Eagle galloped in the first 200 meters and failed to advance to the final.
“In 2018, the plane had been sitting long hours on the tarmac and all the horses of this trip raced badly at Solvalla,” Pilarski said. “And then there were these incidents with the autostart. He was not bad because we cannot say that he had a fair chance.”
“This day was the worst moment of my career as an owner. Everything that could happen to destabilize our champion did happen,” Bernereau said. “Bold Eagle is a very nice horse, but when he is in competition mode, he is impatient to start and can quickly go up in pressure.
That day, he stayed 20 minutes on the track after a false start, which completely destabilized our champion. Now it’s the nature of the races and you have to accept it, but that day everything was against Bold Eagle.”
Bold Eagle’s record in France remains impeccable. The Ready Cash son’s career began in the stable of Jean Dubois, where he won eight of his first 10 starts in 2013 and 2014, including the Group 2 Prix Victor Regis. As Dubois looked to retire, Pilarski, Bernereau, and l’écurie Fouquette purchased Bold Eagle.
“When we bought Bold Eagle, he had shown great potential, he had an exceptional pedigree, but we did not think to buy such a champion,” Bernereau said.
“I did not think he would be so good, but I sensed he had a special character,” Pilarski echoed.
Bold Eagle joined the ranks of trainer Sébastien Guarato and his new connections quickly discovered the special horse they had purchased. In his third start for Guarato, Bold Eagle captured his first Group 1 in the Criterium des 3 Ans Dec. 7, 2014.
In 2015, Bold Eagle added another three Group 1 successes in the Prix de Selection, Grand Prix de l’U.E.T., and the Criterium Continental.
Bold Eagle’s career reached new heights in the 2016 Grand Prix d’Amérique. With Franck Nivard in the sulky, Bold Eagle defeated Timoko in the 1,000,000€ French classic and became a household name among harness racing fans worldwide.
“The biggest emotion with Bold Eagle was in his first win in the Grand Prix d’Amérique,” Bernereau said. “The horse was the favorite, we were very stressed, and Sébastien had lost his father four days before the race, which added a lot of emotion to this great victory.”
Bold Eagle’s Group 1 wins continued to pile up after the 2016 Prix d’Amérique. Entering his Breeders Crown bid, Bold Eagle is 45-for-67 with 21 Group 1 successes and $5,365,180 earned.
His resume includes two wins and a second in four Prix d’Amérique appearances, two Grand Prix de France triumphs, and a win in the 2017 Grand Prix de Paris over 4,150 meters that capped a French Trotting Triple Crown. Now, Bold Eagle’s connections seek North American success.
“Bold Eagle has nothing to prove to us, he has won so many great events and we have so much joy that now all the races we play with him are for fun,” Bernereau said.
“We come to Mohawk to present him to the North American public. Bold Eagle is very good, but whatever the result, we are here for the pleasure of playing a big test with our great champion.
“If we want Bold Eagle’s popularity to cross the borders of Europe, it’s important to come up against American champions like Une de Mai or Varenne did at their time.”
A Breeders Crown bid fit perfectly into Bold Eagle’s 8-year-old campaign. Lightly raced, he finished sixth in the Prix d’Amérique to start the year before placing third in the Prix de France.
However, after being parked the mile by Dijon and being eased to a distant finish in the Group 1 Grand Criterium de Vitesse at Cagnes sur Mer March 10, Pilarski doubted his champion.
“After the performance in Cagnes sur Mer, I thought to stop racing him, and I was wrong,” Pilarski said. “He was ill and was opposed by the future winner of the 2019 Elitloppet.”
Bold Eagle returned to the races May 5 and finished second in the Group 2 Prix des Ducs de Normandie with Björn Goop taking over the lines from Nivard. Bold Eagle and Goop earned their first victory together in their next start June 23, as Bold Eagle took the Group 1 Prix René Ballière at Vincennes for the fourth consecutive year.
“For an old horse that has raced a lot in Vincennes, it is very difficult to be still very efficient on the racecourse of Paris Vincennes,” Pilarski said. “Even the great Timoko could not win at the end of his career. This fourth Ballière was important. No horse, not even Ourasi and Bellino II had reached it.”
“It is always important to win a Group 1 at Vincennes, but this one was important to us because many people already announced the retirement of Bold Eagle while we knew he was very good, but we had to prove it in competition,” Bernereau said.
Bold Eagle earned another win on the season in the Grand Prix de Wallonie with Tony le Beller in the bike Aug. 4 before finishing third with Goop in the UET Trotting Masters Series Final Sept. 7.
Bold Eagle enters the Breeders Crown off a troubled second-place finish in the Group 3 Grand Prix de la Fédération Régionale du Nord Sept. 18.
In that start, Bold Eagle squeezed through a narrow opening in the stretch, briefly brushing with rival Anzi des Liards while stablemate Tony Gio stormed to victory with a clear path in the center of the track.
After just nine seasonal starts, Bold Eagle shipped to Canada for his attempt at North American glory. His connections feel this is the right time to try it.
“This year we have not been to Scandinavia, which allows us to have a fresh horse and in great shape at this time of the year,” Bernereau explained. “In other years, Bold Eagle was resting in October after a busy spring and summer.”
“This year we did not make a great trip by plane because Bold Eagle has had problems with repetitive foot abscess which has prevented us from presenting him in Scandinavia as originally planned,” Pilarski said.
“Bold Eagle has raced very little this year, his foot problems are over, so let’s say the planets are aligned.”
Bold Eagle trucked from Guarato’s stable in Normandy to Frankfurt before flying to Toronto. It is the longest trip of Bold Eagle’s life, but he took the journey well according to his connections.
“Everything has been very well managed very professionally by (Global Horse Transport’s) Christian Rakshys and his teams,” Bernereau said. “During this trip, Bold Eagle has always been accompanied by Hugues Monthule, his lad who knows him by heart.
“I was in contact with John Campbell and his team who took care of everything. It’s really a pleasure to work with people who are available, professional, and listening to horses.”
While Bold Eagle’s biggest victories have come over 2,700 meters from a standing start around the Grande Piste at Vincennes, his start in the Breeders Crown will be one mile behind a mobile starting gate.
“Bold Eagle knows how to race all the distances, but I prefer him on the mile,” Pilarski said. “He has raced a lot over 2,700 meters and I think he’s better going shorter.”
“To compare Vincennes and Mohawk is very difficult because the races do not run at all the same way,” Bernereau said. “I think that on the mile, we cannot make a mistake because you have little time to give your horse a breather.”
Bold Eagle drew post one and will have Hall of Fame driver Brian Sears in the sulky. The pair are 4-1 on the morning line. Bold Eagle’s 10 rivals are Will Take Charge, Mission Accepted, Fiftydallarbill, Guardian Angel AS, Atlanta, Lindy The Great, Dunbar Hall, Southwind Chrome, Six Pack, and Marion Marauder.
“It’s great to have in the sulky a crack driver who knows the track and the opponents,” Pilarski said. “Regardless of what happens, it’s going to be a great sporting moment.”
“It is essential to have one of the best drivers in North America to be competitive,” Bernereau said. “In France John Campbell is seen as a legend of the American races. He advised me Brian, who has a lot of experience, who is calm, and who adapts to all the horses.
“It would be wonderful, a great moment of joy to present Bold Eagle in his best light to the North American public,” Bernereau continued. “Bold Eagle is part of the family and at every race I have a lot of stress and emotion. I hope to be able to share all my emotions with the public that I hope will be present in number.”
Breeders Crown finals for 2-year-olds are Friday at Mohawk. The finals for 3-year-olds and older horses are Saturday. Racing begins at 7 p.m. (EDT) both nights. The Libfeld-Katz Breeding Partnership is the presenting sponsor of this year’s Breeders Crown.
Brandon Valvo for the Breeders Crown