06/22/2004 12:00AM

Another Triple Crown chase begins with Plate

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ETOBICOKE, Ontario - Racing's eagerness to embrace a Triple Crown winner hit home again recently, with bitter disappointment following the defeat of Smarty Jones in the Belmont Stakes.

Canada experienced the excitement of a Triple Crown last year, when Wando's success in Woodbine's Breeders' Stakes was greeted by euphoria that had not been felt here in many years.

Wando's win ended the second longest drought in the relatively short history of the Canadian Triple Crown, which was inaugurated in 1959. New Providence won the Queen's Plate, the Prince of Wales, and the Breeders' that year, and Canebora won the three races for Canadian-bred 3-year-olds in 1963.

The Canadian Triple Crown then lay unclaimed until 1989, when With Approval got the job done. But it began to look like easy pickings, with Izvestia and Dance Smartly turning the trick in 1990 and 1991, and Peteski following suit in 1993.

The 10-year hiatus that preceded Wando's success, however, reaffirmed the prize's elusiveness.

The quest for this year's Canadian Triple Crown begins Sunday, with Woodbine's $1 million Queen's Plate at 1 1/4 miles.

After that will be the $500,000 Prince of Wales, a 1 3/16-mile race at Fort Erie on July 18. And then it's back to Woodbine for the $500,000 Breeders', a 1 1/2-mile turf race Aug. 8.

The wild card, obviously, is the surface and distance of the Breeders'. Wando had to work hard for his win there after he had won the first two legs of the series with ease.

Not even Wando's Queen's Plate success was a foregone conclusion. His trainer, Mike Keogh, and jockey, Todd Kabel, had actually considered stablemate Mobil better-suited for the distance of the Plate. Mobil finished a distant second to Wando.

This year, the prospect of a Canadian Triple Crown winner is even more difficult to visualize. But then again, who would have predicted before the Kentucky Derby that Smarty Jones would turn out to be live for the Triple Crown?

The favorite coming into Sunday's Plate, which should attract 14 entrants, is A Bit O'Gold, who was an impressive winner of the 1 1/8-mile Plate Trial here June 6 for trainer Catherine Day Phillips.

The Plate Trial was A Bit O'Gold's second start of the season, following a second-place finish in the seven-furlong Queenston, and he should be eligible for another move forward on Plate day.

A Bit O'Gold has a couple of historical anomalies to overcome, however. One is similar to the so-called Breeders' Cup Juvenile jinx that seems to preclude success in the following year's Kentucky Derby.

Last fall, A Bit O'Gold won Woodbine's 1 1/8-mile Coronation Futurity, the top race for Canadian-bred 2-year-olds. Norcliffe was the last horse to capture both the Coronation and the Queen's Plate, in 1975-76.

Also, not since Alydeed in 1992 has a Plate Trial winner gone on to win the Queen's Plate.

Day Phillips will have some family history to contend with in the Plate. Her father, Jim Day, trains both Copper Trail and His Smoothness.

Jim Day sent out Dance Smartly, a filly, to win the Canadian Triple Crown during his heyday with Sam-Son Farm, for whom Day also saddled 1988 Plate winner Regal Intention.

Copper Trail comes into the Queen's Plate off a second-place finish behind Organ Grinder in the 1 1/8-mile Victoria Park here June 13.

Niigon, the second-place finisher in the Plate Trial, also will attract considerable support in the Plate. Although he performed dismally at Gulfstream and Keeneland earlier this year, Niigon has rediscovered his best stride since returning to Ontario.

Eric Coatrieux, a former assistant in the Godolphin outfit and now private conditioner for the Chiefswood Stable of Bob and Mark Krembil, will send out both Niigon and Alleged Ruler, who won his maiden over 1 1/16 miles in his latest start at Woodbine.

Other high-profile Plate candidates, perhaps due more to their connections than their actual chances, are Silver Ticket and Long Pond.

Owned by Sam-Son Farm, trained by Mark Frostad, and ridden by Todd Kabel, Silver Ticket comes into the Plate off just one 2004 outing, a win in a first-level allowance over one mile of turf at Woodbine on June 5.

Long Pond, owned by Eugene and Laura Melnyk and trained by Mark Casse, is perfect in two starts this year, having won his maiden over seven furlongs and a first-level allowance over 1 1/16 miles. He will be ridden by Kentucky-Derby winning jockey Stewart Elliott.