John Toffan will tell you with a knowing smile that one of his two favorite horses in his stable is a filly named Nice Assay, a name that might ring a bell on the sexism meter. Toffan himself expresses surprise that "we got it by the Jockey Club."
Yet, it bridges the two worlds that Toffan has plunged into, horse racing and gold mining, for an assay is the test of a rock for gold properties.
And if Toffan's other favorite horse, Mane Minister, can win tomorrow's Preakness after finishing a surprising third in the Kentucky Derby two weeks ago, the sensation will be like striking gold.
"This is the biggest deal in the world. I'm surprised to find myself here," said Toffan, a native of Saskatchewan. "I'm asking myself how'd I get here in so short a time."
Toffan is co-owner of the colt with fellow Canadian native Trudy McCaffrey of Calgary. Toffan has been a thoroughbred owner for only three years -- after selling his interest in two Canadian mining companies -- although he has always had an interest in horses.
"I've always liked going to the track and I've always wanted to own horses," said Toffan. "I didn't participate as an owner until I could afford it. And believe me, to get into this business, you have to be able to afford it."
On that score, Toffan more than qualifies. He began as a stockbroker in Vancouver, concentrating on mine interests, but eventually became a major shareholder in a mining company.
After he left the brokerage business, Toffan became president of Strikine Resources, a mining company that two years ago discovered one of Canada's largest gold mines in northern British Columbia, just east of Wrangell, Alaska.
Toffan's right hand is adorned with a ring whose black center is a piece of unrefined gold from the big strike. It's a sort of reminder of the unpredictable nature of both mining and racing.
"The preparation that goes into a mining prospect before you even drill it is very extensive," said Toffan. "You do prospecting, soil sampling, geo-chemical work and magnetometer surveys and after looking at about 100 properties, you may define one that looks like a prospect and then you drill it.
"Quite often in the core, you don't see visible gold. It looks like rock, except the geologists know that it's good rock. You pull the core, but you don't know what's in it until two weeks later.
"We pulled the core and it was different looking, more different than anything that we had pulled. We had no idea it was going to run that high. It was like winning the Derby."
Toffan and McCaffrey have 48 horses, with 32 of them in training. The rest are broodmares, foals and yearlings. They purchased Mane Minister -- a great-grandson of Northern Dancer, the Maryland-based winner of the Derby and Preakness -- from a Kentucky farm last September, and he's won two of his five starts this year, earning just under $200,000.
"He never seems to quit," Toffan said. "He'll try right to the end, every race he's been in. He gives you an honest effort every time out."
Toffan still retains a slight interest in three junior mining exploration companies, but happily says that horse ownership "takes up a lot of my time. It's the most important thing that I'm doing right now.
"It's buying them as a yearling and watching them develop and go through their growing pains," he said. "Actually, their first race is just as exciting as anything, although nothing comes up to the Preakness and the Derby."