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Purchased as an unheralded yearling, filly Lexie Lou continues to pay off

Jockey Patrick Husbands places a flower on trainers Mark Casse's head as they walk Lexi Lou into the winner's circle after capturing the Queen's Plate Stakes at Woodbine Racetrack in Toronto, Sunday, July 6, 2014. Many felt she wasn't worth the risk. But to John Ross, she had the look of a champion.The veteran owner-trainer fondly remembers being at auction in September 2012 when he first saw Lexi Lou. THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO-Michael Burns

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Jockey Patrick Husbands places a flower on trainers Mark Casse's head as they walk Lexi Lou into the winner's circle after capturing the Queen's Plate Stakes at Woodbine Racetrack in Toronto, Sunday, July 6, 2014. Many felt she wasn't worth the risk. But to John Ross, she had the look of a champion.The veteran owner-trainer fondly remembers being at auction in September 2012 when he first saw Lexi Lou. THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO-Michael Burns

TORONTO - To many she wasn't worth the risk. But to John Ross, she had the look of a champion.

The veteran owner-trainer fondly remembers being at auction in September 2012 when he first saw Lexie Lou. Almost two years before she'd storm to emphatic wins in the $500,000 Woodbine Oaks and $1-million Queen's Plate, Ross sensed the unheralded yearling was a diamond in the rough.

"That's exactly how I'd describe it," Ross said. "She caught my eye immediately, I was lucky enough to see it.

"Although none of (Lexie Lou's siblings) made it to the races, I just thought she looked like a racehorse and was willing to take the chance."

Ross paid $5,576 for Lexie Lou, named after his first granddaughter, Lexie. And the unsung filly has been beating the odds ever since.

Lexie Lou earned $310,244 as a two-year-old before Ross sold her to Gary Barber, the chairman and CEO of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, this spring reportedly for $400,000. Lexie Lou continues to flourish under Mark Casse, six times Canada's top trainer, capturing the Oaks on June 15 and Plate on July 6 and earning Barber $900,000 along the way.

"If I had a crystal ball, I certainly would've kept her," Ross said. "It was tough to let her go, it was like I sold my dreams.

"I'd love to win the Oaks and Queen's Plate . . . but the fact is it's such an expensive game and I had to do it. I got good money for her, I made good money with her and I just couldn't gamble going forward because sometimes it can take just one bad step and it's over. I want to stay in the game for quite a few more years if I can and it takes money."

Lexie Lou returns to Woodbine for the first time since her Plate victory Sunday in the $250,000 Wonder Where Stakes, a 1 1/4-mile race that's the final jewel of the Triple Tiara for Canadian three-year-old fillies. A victorious turf debut would give Lexie Lou two-thirds of the crown following her 4 1/2-length win in the series-opening Oaks.

Lexie Lou skipped the second Tiara event — the $250,000 Bison City Stakes on July 13 — as it came a week after her impressive 1 1/2-length Plate win.

Although none of Lexie Lou's brothers and sisters made it into racing, she has a good pedigree. Her broodmare sire, In Excess, was a solid horse (winning four straight Grade 1 races in '91) who produced many quality runners before dying last year at age 26.

Her dam, Oneexcessivenite, won four of 18 starts while her sire, Sligo Bay, is the son of Sadler's Wells, a Grade 1 turf champion.

Lexie Lou has certainly excelled this year. She won the 1 1/8-mile Oaks in 1:49.77, a full second faster than colt We Miss Artie ran in winning the Plate Trial a race earlier at Woodbine. The following month, she became the 35th filly to win the Plate since 1860 and the sixth filly to record the Oaks/Plate double.

Ross has trained horses for over 20 years and won $500,000 Breeders' Stakes — the 1 1/2-mile turf race and final jewel of the Canadian Triple Crown — in '97 with John The Magician. But Ross has no doubts regarding which horse is the best he's ever had.

"Oh, she is, by far," he said of Lexie Lou. "I feel blessed to have been around her, to have found that diamond in the rough.

"She's a special filly, one of a kind."

Casse says Lexie Lou's consistent returns for both owners shows just how good she is.

"That's an indication of a good horse," Casse said. "A trainer is only as good as his horse and I would never sit there and tell you I'm a better trainer than any other trainer, I'm just very fortunate.

"The biggest job I do is recruiting and managing . . . I think my strength is buying horses and knowing when to buy and not to buy. That, in my opinion, is my strongest asset."

Casse is quick to acknowledge Ross's role in Lexie Lou's development into a champion horse.

"I commend John Ross, he's a great horseman," Casse said. "This is not his first success.

"He puts up his own money, he puts his money where his mouth is. He's a very sharp guy. I have nothing but the utmost respect for him."

Ross echoed those sentiments regarding Casse.

"Mark is doing all the right things for her," Ross said. "I would have to say he has taken her to a higher level . . . he's a great trainer."

Ross definitely had a plan for Lexie Lou, taking her to Florida for the winter after purchasing her. Ross's intent was to bring her along slowly but said Lexie Lou took to racing immediately.

"She developed very quickly," he said. "She had a unique smartness about her and just seemed to enjoy her job."

What also impressed Ross was her temperament.

"This filly just seems willing to please everybody," Ross said. "You can get those real witchy, ornery fillies who decide they're not going to do something but Lexie Lou just does her job so well.

"She's a very intelligent filly who adjusts to things very well."

Casse agrees.

"She's sweet, very unassuming," he said. "You sure couldn't go pick her out of a crowd.

"The only time you can is when they turn for home because she's usually in front."

A win Sunday would further entrench Lexie Lou as the favourite for Canada's horse-of-the-year award. But it would also give Casse more options, notably the $500,000 Queen Elizabeth II Challenge Cup, a 1 1/8-mile invitation-only filly turf race Oct. 11 at Keeneland.

"I take nothing for granted and don't like to get too far ahead of myself," Casse said. "But we do have our eyes on the Queen Elizabeth and the Wonder Where would be a step towards that."

A victory or solid showing at Keeneland would also put Lexie Lou into the mix for this year's Breeders' Cup, Oct. 31-Nov. 1 at Santa Anita. But it would also solidify her potential as a broodmare following her racing career, which would pay Barber further dividends on his initial investment.

Regardless of what else transpires on the track, Casse said Lexie Lou is the people's horse of the year in Canada.

"She has a pretty big fan club," Casse said. "She's a filly who has beat the colts but also has a great name, one that's easy to follow.

"She's also a kind of rags-to-riches type of horse and people like those types of stories."

For Ross, it's a fitting crown.

"When I had her she always loved people," he said. "You give her a peppermint she'd be in front of your face the whole time, she'd love you.

"All she wanted was attention and to look for peppermints. Mark is exactly right, she's the people's horse."

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