06/18/2002 11:00PM

Armata brothers will be Plate rivals

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ETOBICOKE, Ontario - Brothers Ross and Vito Armata will have more in common than their family ties when their paths cross in this year's Queen's Plate.

The Armatas, who both have been training horses at Woodbine since the early 1980's, will each be saddling their second Plate starters in Sunday's $1 million showpiece for Canadian-bred 3-year-olds.

And, even more to the point, both will be hoping for much better results than they experienced in their first Plate appearance.

Ross Armata, 55, sent out Great Defender to finish 16th of 17 for owners Robert and Shirley Wilson in the 1999 Plate. His entrant in Sunday's race will be Barbeau Ruckus, who is coming off a third-place finish in the open Victoria Park over 1 1/8 miles here June 8.

Vito Armata, 52, sent out Tricky Hearts to finish 15th of 16 in the 2000 Plate for the Molinaro Stable of Gino Molinaro. Sunday he will saddle T J's Lucky Moon, who won his maiden over 1 1/16 miles in his last start here May 25.

Three years ago, Great Defender had two wins from two career starts but had to travel beyond 6 1/2 furlongs for the first time in the 1 1/4-mile Plate.

"I had a very good horse," said Ross Armata. "The breeding was there; his brothers had gone long."

Plagued by foot problems before and since the Plate, Great Defender came back late that season to win the six-furlong Kennedy Road over older rivals and establish a track record (1:08.17) that still stands.

"He had his day in the Kennedy Road," said Armata, who is hoping Great Defender soon will be ready for his bow as a 6-year-old after making it to the races just once last season. "I don't think I'll ever forget that race; that was the Plate for him."

But Armata is hoping the Plate is the big race for Barbeau Ruckus, a gelding whom he trains for his daughter, Jennifer Armata, and Monty Muthulingham.

"I knew he was a nice horse," said Armata, who watched Barbeau Ruckus improve from running for an $80,000 claiming tag to become a stakes winner in the 1 1/16-mile Kingarvie on closing day, Dec. 2.

"But we had never really thought about the Plate, until he after he won the Kingarvie. We'd missed the [nomination] payment so we had to supplement him in February, for $7,500."

While his Kingarvie success had been accomplished in speed-oriented fashion, Armata believed such tactics would not aid Barbeau Ruckus in his Plate quest.

"We worked on changing his style, to see if he'd go a mile and a quarter," said Armata. "I think it's worked okay."

Although Barbeau Ruckus has been a fairly willing pupil in his three appearances this year, all under regular rider Dino Luciani, a few curves have been thrown into the learning process.

Opening up his campaign in the 1 1/16-mile prep for the Marine, Barbara Ruckus stalked the pace en route to a third-place finish. But he ended fourth in the Marine itself, after making a wide bid around the turn.

"The Marine was not a very good race for us," said Armata. "He was too far outside, and too close to the lead."

Then came the Victoria Park, in which Barbeau Ruckus dropped almost 15 lengths off the pace with three furlongs to run before rallying to finish third, beaten 8 3/4 lengths by Kentucky-bred Tails of the Crypt but just 2 1/2 lengths shy of Forever Grand, the Plate-bound runner-up.

"The Victoria Park was a testing race for him, to see if he'd rate as good as we thought," said Armata, "and, he will.

"He jumped up at the break, and got too far back, but he finished pretty well. I think he will go the Plate distance."

Armata is not standing pat with Barbeau Ruckus, however, as he will be reintroducing the gelding to blinkers in the Plate after removing the equipment for the Victoria Park.

"He was bad behind the gate," said Armata. "And turning for home, he started looking up at the grandstand. We're going to take a chance, and put the blinkers back on."

Tricky Hearts wasn't the first choice as a Plate candidate for Vito Armata and owner Molinaro.

Armata and Molinaro had entertained Plate hopes with Molly's Wisdom, who had won the 5 1/2-furlong Clarendon and placed in two other stakes here at 2.

But Molly's Wisdom disappointed in three starts this spring before going to the sidelines with an injury that will keep him on the bench for the balance of the season.

And, after Armata and Molinaro conferred following T J's Lucky Moon's maiden victory, the gelding was called upon as a pinch-hitter.

"I said 'If we're going to the Plate, this is it,' " said Armata. "There were no more races for the horse; there wasn't even a month [until the Plate].

"We'd always thought he could go long, and he's coming up at the right time. We're hoping he's good enough."

Shaws Creek slow but steady

Shaws Creek, who will be one of the favorites in the Plate, breezed four furlongs in 50.60 seconds on a fast main track here Wednesday under regular rider Jake Barton, getting his first three-eighths in 37.40 and galloping out five furlongs in 1:03.80.

"He's not a real fast work horse," said Barton, who has piloted Shaws Creek to scores in the seven-furlong Queenston and 1 1/8-mile Plate Trial in their last two engagements.

"He does everything within himself. That's all we wanted for today."

Shaws Creek is owned by the Jam Jar Racing Stable of Bud and Jackie Reynolds and is trained by John Ross.

Twice Bid works with A Fleets Dancer

Twice Bid, who heads into the Plate off a second-place finish in an entry-level allowance here at 1 1/8 miles, breezed five furlongs in 1:00.60 on a fast training track while going in company with A Fleets Dancer, who was Canada's champion older horse last year.

"He worked really nicely, and recovered really quickly," said Roger Attfield, who trains Twice Bid and is a co-owner along with Bill Werner and Cam Allard. "He's ready enough, if he's good enough."

A Fleets Dancer, who also clocked in 1:00.60 with Robert Landry in the irons, is aiming for a repeat in the $200,000 Dominion Day Handicap here July 1.

Nuclear Debate arrives for Nearctic

Nuclear Debate, winner of two Group 1 stakes in England but now based in California with trainer Darrell Vienna, arrived at Woodbine on Wednesday and will be the 122-pound highweight in Sunday's $200,000 Nearctic Handicap.

The Grade 2 Nearctic is a six-furlong turf race for 3-year-olds and upward.

Nuclear Debate, winner of the Beck Auto Group Turf Sprint over five furlongs of turf at Lone Star last time out, is to be ridden by David Flores.