TORONTO - It has been a long road back for Todd Kabel.
The veteran jockey retired from horse-racing in October 2009 amid a myriad of problems, including a badly damaged throat the result of constantly forcing himself to throw up to make weight. He also had to deal with a divorce, the death of his father and other relatives as well as a problem with alcohol highlighted by the loss of his license after being charged with drinking under the influence.
But the 46-year-old native of McCreary, Man., will be back in the saddle again Sunday, riding Classic Bryce in the $1-million Queen's Plate, the opening jewel of the Canadian Triple Crown and a race Kabel has won twice in his illustrious career.
Kabel said while his time away from racing allowed him to gain control of his demons and heal physically, it also fuelled a passion to return.
"I missed this very much, I couldn't even watch it on TV," Kabel said. "I definitely left early but I had every reason to with the issues I was dealing with. I had to.
"I'm in a new place now, a better place mentally and physically. I'm just doing really well.''
Strait of Dover heads into the 14-horse race as the early 3-1 favourite. The son of English Channel has won his last three starts and will break from the No. 4 post in the opening leg of the Canadian Triple Crown.
River Rush, the 4-1 second choice, will go from the No. 1 post while 6-1 third pick Golden Ridge, one of three horses in the field trained by Mark Casse, starts from the No. 7 post.
Dixie Strike, another Casse horse, and Irish Mission, trained by four-time Plate champion Mark Frostad, are the lone fillies in the field. Dixie Strike was the 2-1 favourite earlier this month in the $500,000 Woodbine Oaks but finished a disappointing fifth in a race Irish Mission won at 9-1 odds.
Both fillies are looking to follow in the footsteps of Inglorious, last year's Oaks winner who went on to beat the boys and capture the Plate.
Trainer Roger Attfield will again go after a record-setting ninth Plate victory when he sends Colleen's Sailor, a 15-1 longshot, from the No. 9 post. Attfield remains tied with Harry Giddings Jr. for most career Queen's Plate victories and last won this race in 2008 with Not Bourbon.
"It would mean a while lot," Attfield said. "I've won three Triple Crowns (also a record) so this would put the icing on the cake and make me a champion of all of it.''
Seven horses have won the Queen's Plate en route to capturing the Canadian Triple Crown, the last being Wando in 2003.
When Kabel retired, he did so as one of Canadian thoroughbred racing's top riders. He's been named the country's top jockey seven times and has amassed over 3,200 career victories. He has ridden in the Queens Plate 15 times, captured the Woodbine Oaks twice and also rode Soaring Free to victory in the 2004 Atto Mile.
In 2003, he won 29 stakes and $11.2 million in purses, the first time a Canadian-based jockey hit the eight-digit mark in earnings.
But before Kabel could resume his riding career, he had to get back into shape. During his time away, he gained more than 30 pounds and had to incorporate a rigid exercise program to get down to his usual riding weight of about 113 pounds.
And it seems to be paying off. Heading into the Queen's Plate, Kabel has registered 13 wins from 143 starts, accumulating over $500,000 in earnings. Luis Contreras, Woodbine's leading rider last year, and multiple Sovereign Award winner Patrick Husbands lead the way with 47 victories apiece.
On Sunday, Kabel will be aboard Classic Bryce for the first time and take the reins to a horse that's had its ups and downs over a six-race career.
Classic Bryce has finished in the money four times (first once, second twice and third once). But on Oct. 9, the son of Grand Slam beat finished second-last in a six-furlong race at Woodbine, more than 13 lengths behind the winner.
However, in his next start, Classic Bryce captured a 1 1/4-length win at 20-1 odds.
"We were surprised to see the odds that day,'' said trainer Darwin Banach. "We ended up being under the radar and I suppose we still are heading into the Plate.''
Classic Bryce heads into the 1 1/4-mile Queen's Plate following a third-place finish in the Plate Trial on June 3 at Woodbine Racetrack.
"This guy definitely has a fight to him," Banach said of his horse. "He can handle all that comes with Plate day, all the people in the stands and all the excitement.
And so is his rider.
"Everyone has ups and downs in life and one thing I have now is confidence," Kabel said. "Absolutely it would be stronger if I was winning more races but I'm very confident right now and am very confident in the team and the way my horse is training.''
However, Kabel isn't merely content to be just another jockey. He's back ultimately to return as Woodbine's leading jockey.
"Oh no, I want to win," he said. "I'm confident I have the talent to do that.''