06/24/2002 12:00AM

Backup plan worked out nicely


ETOBICOKE, Ontario - Heading into the 2002 season, T J's Lucky Moon wasn't even the first choice of his owner Gino Molinaro and trainer Vito Armata as a candidate for the 1 1/4-mile Queen's Plate.

But when Molly's Wisdom fell by the wayside, T J's Lucky Moon got the call and went on to shine brightly at 82-1 under jockey Steven Bahen here in last Sunday's $1 million showpiece for Canadian-bred 3-year-olds.

T J's Lucky Moon, bred by his owner's Molinaro Stable, was entered in the select yearling sale here but wound up being bought back for $27,000.

And while T J's Lucky Moon finished up his juvenile campaign with a pair of fourth-place finishes from as many starts, Molly's Wisdom had won two of four outings including the Bull Page Stakes and banked $151,483.

But Molly's Wisdom disappointed badly in his first three starts this year before being injured early this month. T J's Lucky Moon, meanwhile, had won his maiden race at 1 1/16 miles in his third outing of the season May 25.

"I was going to run Molly's Wisdom in the Plate Trial," said Armata at the barn here Monday morning. "But once the horse got hurt, I had to forget about it.

"Mr. Molinaro always likes to have a Plate horse, and we knew T J's Lucky Moon could run all day. When Molly's Wisdom got hurt, we decided this is the horse this year. The move worked."

While Armata makes the process seem rather straightforward, the reality is that T J's Lucky Moon's journey to the Plate was anything but routine.

"When he started off this year, I just couldn't get him into the right races," said the trainer.

Armata felt T J's Lucky Moon was heading in the right direction when he opened with a fifth-place finish at five furlongs. But the gelding took a step backward in his next outing, faltering to finish 10th over seven furlongs of sloppy going.

"It had taken me a year and a half to get the horse to come from off the pace," said Armata. "I had to take the blinkers off him last time."

T J's Lucky Moon responded to the change in equipment and the move out around two turns by registering his first victory. But the Plate was just four weeks away, which left Armata with few options.

"I was looking to run him back," said the trainer, "but when he breezed him June 8, he worked so good. So I kept galloping him, farther and farther every day. It worked out for him."

Bahen vital to story

The Plate also worked out quite nicely, thank you, for Bahen, whose reunion with T J's Lucky Moon could not have come at a better time.

"I'd worked him a couple of times, and rode him once as a 2-year-old," said Bahen, who was aboard for T J's Lucky Moon's debut here last June 24.

When T J's Lucky Moon returned Oct. 3, after being sidelined by bucked shins, Bahen was elsewhere and did not reenter the picture until after the gelding won his maiden.

Molly's Wisdom also figured in Bahen's side of the story, as he had worked the horse for Armata and got the call on T J's Lucky Moon when the barn found itself in need of a rider for their new Plate entrant.

And Bahen, who will be celebrating his 36th birthday this Saturday, certainly was more than a passenger aboard the Plate winner.

T J's Moon stumbled at the start after breaking from post 9, an incident that Bahen said he had barely noticed until he watched the replay, but almost magically found his way to the inside heading into the clubhouse turn.

"Vito told me just to take a hold of him, and let him run where he wants to," said Bahen. "The key for me was getting him close to the fence. If I had to take hold of him earlier than I did, he'd have been in trouble.

"I actually jumped heels just to get to the rail. I had to give him a yank back . . . to let him run clear to the rail."

Bahen on the inside is not an unfamiliar sight in these environs, yet the jockey makes light of the notion that riding the rail is his specialty.

"Most of the time I just find myself there," he said.

"It is the shortest route around, but you've also got to be playing on the track bias. If it's good there, it's the place to be."

Winner overheated

Bahen also displayed presence of mind following the Plate when T J's Lucky Moon, parading in front of the grandstand under the winner's floral blanket, began to show signs of heat stroke because of his exertions under the oppressive conditions.

The jockey leaped from the saddle, swept off the flowers, and was among several leading T J's Lucky Moon to the trackside hose used for just such emergencies.

"The vets were here last night," said Armata. "He's come out of the race fine."

The Plate win was the first for Bahen, Armata, and Molinaro.

The biggest earlier wins for Bahen, who was riding in his seventh Plate, with his best previous finish a third aboard Mt. Sassafras in 1995, had come in the 1996 Canadian Oaks with Silent Fleet and the 1997 Breeders' Stakes with John the Magician.

Armata was saddling just his second Plate entrant, having sent out Tricky Hearts to finish 15th of 16 for Molinaro in 1999.

Molinaro's best result from three previous Plate tries had come in 1996, when Kristy Krunch finished third.

* T J's Lucky Moon now will take aim at Fort Erie's July 21 Prince of Wales Stakes, the 1 3/16-mile race which is the second leg of Canada's Triple Crown. The finale of the series, the Breeders' Stakes, will be run here Aug. 10 over 1 1/2 miles of turf.

* A record $2,002,940 was wagered on the Queen's Plate, eclipsing the previous mark of $1,441,966. The total handle on the 11-race Woodbine card was $5,267,545. The ontrack crowd was estimated at 15,000, not including customers in the slot-machine area.