06/11/2003 12:00AM

Derby fever - Canadian style

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ETOBICOKE, Ontario - The excitement has barely died down following the Belmont Stakes but the Triple Crown build-up is just beginning at Woodbine, where the 1 1/4-mile Queen's Plate will launch the Canadian series here June 22.

The Prince of Wales, a 1 3/16-mile race at Fort Erie July 20, and the Breeders' Stakes, a 1 1/2-mile turf race here Aug. 9, round out the Canadian Triple Crown for Canadian-bred 3-year-olds. A bonus of $500,000 is awarded for a horse who sweeps the series.

But the Queen's Plate, like the Kentucky Derby, carries a mystique unmatched by the Triple Crown races that follow.

The Queen's Plate offers a prestige which is tied to its history, as this will be the 144th edition of the race which was first run in 1860 and is North America's oldest annually run stakes race. It also offers plenty of Canadian money - a total of $1 million, since the purse was raised to that level in 2000.

Those factors cause the Queen's Plate - again, like the Kentucky Derby - to attract a field with its share of pretenders.

But there certainly is no disputing the credentials of this year's top two Plate candidates, Mobil and Wando, a pair of colts sired by Langfuhr, owned and bred by Gustav Schickedanz, and trained by Mike Keogh.

Due to a rule implemented here last year, Mobil and Wando will run as separate betting interests in the Plate, giving the race a wagering appeal which would have been severely compromised if the two had run as an entry.

Mobil, who won the 1 1/8-mile Plate Trial here May 31, and Wando, who returns following a win in the 1 1/16-mile Marine here May 9, will be the first two betting choices.

Todd Kabel, the meet's leading rider, has been aboard both colts in all of their starts here this season and has yet to tip his hand as to his Plate preference.

And, as it turns out, Kabel can be named on both Mobil and Wando when entries for the Plate are taken June 19, as a Woodbine "house" rule can be interpreted to allow the same rider to be named on more than one horse for a stakes race even in the event that those horses are uncoupled.

Under the terms of the rule, Kabel would not have to give his final answer until wagering opens late Sunday morning for the Queen's Plate Day card. Patrick Husbands, who currently is second behind Kabel in the standings here, will pick up the other mount.

Complicating an already thorny situation is the fact that advance wagering for the Queen's Plate will be available Saturday, and anyone wishing to play Wando or Mobil would be lacking a vital piece of information.

Distance may be deciding factor

Mobil will be making just his third start of the season in the Plate, having won the seven-furlong Queenston here May 3 prior to capturing the Trial under the Plate weight of 126 pounds.

Wando has raced three times this year, finishing second in the six-furlong Achievement and winning the six-furlong Woodstock prior to winning the Marine under 119 pounds.

Mobil breezed five furlongs in 1:01.40 here Tuesday and Wando drilled a mile in a startling 1:37.40 last Saturday. Both came out of their most recent workouts in good order.

"Everything's really good," Keogh said. "It's just a matter of getting them there now."

Keogh sees little separating Wando and Mobil, who also were double stakes winners here as 2-year-olds.

Wando, considered talented enough to go to the Breeders' Cup Juvenile after winning the 1 1/16-mile Grey in impressive fashion, finished 12th of 13 at Arlington after breaking from the post 12.

"It was a throwout race," Keogh said. "It was such a ridiculous post; we had to send him."

Lending credence to Keogh's argument is the fact that Toccet, who finished last after breaking from post 13 in the Juvenile, went on to win three straight stakes races last fall, including the Grade 1 Hollywood Futurity.

Mobil also ended his juvenile campaign on a bit of a down note. The colt battled hard to finish in a dead heat for first place in the 1 1/8-mile Coronation Futurity but was disqualified and placed second.

Keogh, who stated his intention at the beginning of this season to keep the two colts apart on their road to the Plate, has succeeded in achieving that goal and now finds himself in an enviable spot.

And while the trainer has maintained his contention that Mobil probably is better-suited to the Queen's Plate distance, he has softened that stance a bit.

"After the way Wando ran in the Marine, I was certainly very impressed," Keogh said. "I just think the other horse will get the distance easier than him, but I could be dead wrong."

Rock Again still improving

Rock Again, another leading contender in the Plate, finished second when making his stakes debut in the Plate Trial.

Owned by Stronach Stable and trained by Malcolm Pierce, Rock Again had raced twice at Gulfstream this winter, winning his maiden and an allowance race at 1 1/16 miles, before being tested for class in the Trial.

Rock Again looked like a winner in the Trial after sweeping past Mobil on the final turn. And although he was unable to contain the resurgent favorite, he did finish nine lengths ahead of third-place finisher Peef.

Eibar Coa, who rode Rock Again for the first time that day, has requested and been granted a return mount.

"He kind of felt if he had known his horse a little bit more, he wouldn't have asked him for his run when he did," Pierce said. "He didn't expect him to explode, and run by that horse.

"He thought if he'd waited a little longer, he would have made a better horse race of it."

While Mobil, Wando, and Rock Again currently would appear to have a significant edge on their Canadian-bred contemporaries, the Plate is still likely to attract another 10-12 horses.