09/12/2005 11:00PM

Atto outsiders try it again

Michael Burns Photo Ltd.
Trainer Justin Nixon walks with Royal Regalia and rider Jono Jones.

ETOBICOKE, Ontario - Even though they finished third in last year's Atto Mile, Royal Regalia and trainer Justin Nixon still have something to prove in Sunday's renewal of the Grade 1 grass race.

Nixon and Royal Regalia have always seemed like an unlikely tandem to contend for a Grade 1 victory. Royal Regalia didn't win a race until he was 5, and that maiden victory came at Tampa Bay Downs. He has never won a graded stakes. Nixon's first winner came in a $2,500 claiming race at Penn National in 1996, and he has only two stakes wins in his 163 career victories.

Leroidesanimaux and Artie Schiller, who are expected to be in a field of 10 when post positions for the Atto Mile are drawn on Thursday, are much more typical of horses that have had success in the Atto Mile. They are both multiple graded stakes winners based in New York.

Royal Regalia, a winner of 7 of 15 starts and just under $400,000, has been preparing for the Atto Mile in relative obscurity here at Woodbine. Now 7, he has started just once this year, winning a one-mile turf allowance here July 28.

"He's the type of horse that the fresher he is, the better he is," said Nixon, after watching Royal Regalia breeze five furlongs in 58.40 seconds here Wednesday on the turf training course under regular rider Jono Jones. "He likes a little time between races."

Although the Atto Mile will be Royal Regalia's first start in almost eight weeks, that's a relatively minor absence considering that his 2005 debut was his first start in almost nine months. A gelding, he had closed out his 2004 campaign with a win in the $100,000 Texas Turf, one of the supporting features on the Breeders' Cup undercard at Lone Star Park last Oct. 30.

The Texas Turf had not been the race of choice for Royal Regalia that day. He was pre-entered in the Breeders' Cup Mile, but missed making the cut by one horse.

Nixon, 36, began training for Royal Regalia's owner, Stronach Stable, in the fall of 2002. He was based in Maryland when Royal Regalia came under his wing in the summer of 2003. Royal Regalia was sent to Florida that winter and then rejoined Nixon the following spring.

"When I moved back to Fort Erie last year, he came with me," said Nixon.

Royal Regalia was making his first start in more than eight months when he won a mile turf allowance in a course-record 1:31.84 at Woodbine on July 1, 2004.

"After he broke the track record here, the Atto Mile was in the back of our minds," Nixon said.

Royal Regalia made his stakes debut at age 6 that year in Saratoga's Grade 2 Fourstardave.

"He still hadn't faced stakes horses," said Nixon. "That's basically why we took him to the Fourstardave, to see if he could hold his own with those kind. He certainly did."

Royal Regalia set the pace before finishing 1 1/2 lengths back in third.

Three weeks later, in the Atto Mile, Royal Regalia was prominent throughout and wound up just three-quarters of a length behind winner Soaring Free and a head shy of runner-up Perfect Soul.

While the Atto Mile and Breeders' Cup Mile were tentative targets for Royal Regalia last season, his current campaign has been planned solely around those two events.

Following his successful return to action this summer, a return trip to Saratoga for the Aug. 27 Fourstardave was under consideration.

"We kind of mulled it over, and thought maybe the best plan was to skip the race," said Nixon. "To van him 10 hours there and 10 hours back might have been too much for him, three weeks before this race."

Nixon also believed that the 2004 Fourstardave was Royal Regalia's best race to date, and the Beyer Speed Figure - a career-high 104 - supports that contention.

"That came off an eight-week layoff," said Nixon. "So, maybe that's the best approach."

An interesting subplot to this year's Atto Mile involves Nixon and Bobby Frankel, who has been Frank Stronach's other trainer of record here at Woodbine this year.

Stronach has had just eight stakes starters and one stakes winner at the meeting. Sean Smullen, the trainer at Stronach's nearby Adena Springs North, sent out Daddy Cool to win the overnight Singspiel on June 26.

Based in New York, Frankel has left the day-to-day running of the operation to assistant Brian Lynch and will be making just his second visit here of the season.

Frankel will be here to oversee Leroidesanimaux, the Atto Mile favorite whom he trains for T N T Stud. It might be a bit awkward if Stronach's Atto Mile hopes were dashed by a Frankel-trained invader.

It's safe to say, however, that Royal Regalia, Justin Nixon, and Jono Jones will be doing their utmost to prevent that scenario.