06/18/2009 11:00PM

Calif. owners seek Plate title

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INGLEWOOD, Calif. - If legendary Canadian trainer Roger Attfield has a good day Sunday at Woodbine, the cherished trophy for the 150th running of Queen's Plate will be heading for . . . Visalia.

Now, before anyone breaks an ankle running for the atlas, please be assured we're not talking about some distant, cobwebbed corner of the known racing universe. Visalia is a perfectly proper town in the middle of California's Central Valley - the heart of the heartland - located just off U.S. Route 99. Bakersfield is to the south. Fresno lies just to the north, and if a pilgrim strays too far to the east he could wind up in majestic Sequoia National Park by sunset.

There is enough Thoroughbred tradition in the Central Valley to make a Queen's Plate bauble feel right at home. Harris Farms, owned by California Horse Racing Board chairman John Harris, is the state's most prolific breeding ground. Old English Rancho, still owned by the Johnston family, is the address of California's top stallion, Unusual Heat. And there remain vivid memories of the El Peco Ranch Thoroughbred operation near the town of Madera, birthplace of Santa Anita Handicap winner Hill Rise, as well as Lou Rowan's Summit Lake Farm in Tulare, where Quicken Tree, Ruken, and Coursing all hit the ground.

David and Paula Mueller hope to make some Central Valley history of their own with Rapid Release, a chestnut son of Action This Day, who is among 13 entered in the 1 1/4-mile Queen's Plate, offering a purse of a million Canadian dollars. That's $883,000 and change in Visalia.

Over the past 18 years, the Muellers have built up their Valley Staffing Services into one of California's most successful privately owned businesses, with an employee pool of more than 5,000 and a growing list of prominent clients. One of them is neighbor John Harris.

"We did get a call from him last week urging us to bring home the Plate," Mueller said.

Show events with Quarter Horses were their first passion, but at one point, noted Mueller, they decided to give Thoroughbreds a whirl. The Mueller horses race under the Dolantori Stable, derived from daughter Tori, 11, and son Dolan, 14.

"We decided to see if there was more to having horses than watching them run in circles and winning blue ribbons," Mueller said with a laugh.

Three years ago to the day, on Queen's Plate Day 2006, the Muellers were otherwise occupied at Hollywood Park watching their 3-year-old colt Genre run in the Cinema Handicap (it will be run again on Sunday as well). Genre appeared to be headed for second money behind the fast-closing New Joisey Jeff. But then New Joisey Jeff bolted and threw his rider, Jose Valdivia, while Genre stayed straight and true for the win.

"He bowed a tendon, so we gave him a year off and brought him back," Mueller said of Genre. "When he returned, he bowed in the other leg, so we retired him and sold him as a stallion. To a farm in Canada, as a matter of fact."

Like Genre, Rapid Release is a citizen of the world who was purchased at the Tattersalls autumn sale in England. Rapid Release was bred in Canada - as is required of Queen's Plate runners - and raced seven times in England before going through the ring. Mueller got him for the equivalent of $127,000.

"We found out that Roger Attfield was also very interested in the colt," Mueller said Friday morning from Woodbine, where the Muellers and their two children are enjoying their first Canadian adventure. "It seemed the natural thing to do to ask if he would train Rapid Release, hoping that maybe we'd have one good enough to go for the Queen's Plate."

This was a good idea, especially since Attfield has won eight runnings of the Queen's Plate, including the 2008 version with Not Bourbon in a thriller over the filly Ginger Brew. The only other trainer to win that many was Harry Giddings, whose eight came between 1911 and 1942. Also, those actually were King's Plates, since the race is named in honor of the British monarch and during that period there were two Edwards and a pair of Georges. But that's nitpicking.

Rapid Release has run four times for Attfield, most recently turning in a solid third in the Plate Trial at nine furlongs on May 31 behind Plate contender Eye of the Leopard. Although Action This Day did not distinguish himself beyond winning the 2003 Breeders' Cup Juvenile and an Eclipse Award, his running style indicated a preference for more than a mile. Furthermore, Rapid Release is out of Bail Money, a daughter of Epsom Derby winner St. Jovite.

"He's got the pedigree for the mile and a quarter, but we really bought him as an individual," Mueller said. "He just impressed us as a real runner, and to see him this morning, he looks all muscle. Just great."

Caught up in the Plate excitement, Mueller is allowing himself a glimmer of hope.

"We actually met Roger for the first time this morning and watched our colt gallop," Mueller said. "He was on the track at the same with Not Bourbon, and I couldn't believe how similar they looked. That has to be a good omen."