05/11/2003 11:00PM

El Prado Essence back for more

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ETOBICOKE, Ontario - El Prado Essence is back, and looking as good as ever at age 6.

A Kentucky-bred trained by Audre Cappuccitti, El Prado Essence racked up her second win in as many starts this meet last Sunday with a four-length score in the George C. Hendrie Handicap.

El Prado Essence had ended her 2002 campaign on an uncharacteristic down note, finishing fifth and seventh in her last two outings and prompting speculation that her racing career was over.

"When she ran the two bad races, everybody was calling," said Cappuccitti.

"They were offering to buy her or sell her for me, as a broodmare, foal share . . . all kinds of things."

Cappuccitti believed that El Prado Essence was suffering from the lingering effects of a blood infection, and the trainer decided to send the mare home to rest before preparing for another campaign. So far, that move has paid off.

"I think she's relaxing much better," said Cappuccitti, who has watched El Prado Essence rally from just off the pace in her two victories. "She's been great in the paddock."

Despite El Prado Essence's improved temperament, Cappuccitti is loath to send her out of town. The mare's lone previous experience with shipping, which involved a short trip to Fort Erie in 2001, was a trial from beginning to end and resulted in a fruitless seventh-place finish.

"She's a poor shipper," said Cappuccitti. "I don't want to risk it."

That situation is significant, because the next locally scheduled filly-mare stakes sprint for which El Prado Essence would be eligible is the seven-furlong Seaway here Aug. 31.

She could also run in the Sweet Briar Too, a seven-furlong overnight handicap here June 22, but that race would not go if less than five horses were entered.

Vella teams up with Phantom Light again

It was a long time between stakes wins here for Danny Vella. Vella won the Eclipse Handicap last Saturday with Phantom Light, owned by Stronach Stables.

Vella's last stakes victory came in the 1997 Kennedy Road with All Firmed Up. He spent the next five years as farm trainer at Frank Stronach's Adena Springs South before coming back to Woodbine this April to run a division of the stable.

Vella's return also marked a renewal of his acquaintance with Phantom Light, who had been among his protŽgŽs in Florida.

"I broke him, and was around him in his younger life," said Vella, who also had Phantom Light after the colt's brief 2-year-old and 3-year-old campaigns here.

"We've always liked him. He always acted like a good horse."

Phantom Light launched his 2002 campaign with an allowance victory here and proceeded directly to Fort Erie's Prince of Wales, where he finished eighth in what turned out to be his last start of the year.

"He had a little inflammation in a knee," said Vella. "I had him since last August; he came back up here at the end of March."

Now, after watching Phantom Light successfully handle the jump from first-level allowance to stakes company, Vella is looking forward to a productive campaign.

"The Dominion Day is coming up," said Vella, referring to the $200,000, 1 1/4-mile race for 3-year-olds and upward here June 30, "but I don't know if that's too far for him.

"Right now, we'll just give him a little rest. He's run three times in four weeks."

Phantom Light's respite began Sunday, as he was shipped to nearby Adena Springs North and farm trainer Sean Smullen.

T J's Lucky Moon pointed for Steady Growth

Saturday's card also featured the 2003 debut of T J's Lucky Moon, winner of last year's Queens Plate, who competed in a second-level allowance under his regular rider, Steven Bahen.

Although T J's Lucky Moon finished second, beaten 7 3/4 lengths by the lightly raced Sam-Son Farm runner Soaring Free, trainer Ross Armata Jr. was more than happy with the effort.

"He did exactly what we wanted," said Armata, who took over as the gelding's training from his uncle, Vito Armata, this year.

"I knew the Sam-Son horse was the tough one," Armata said. "I said to Stevie, 'Let him run his race and get something out of it.'

"He came out of the race really good. He's got the Steady Growth coming up in a couple of weeks, and everything's a go."

The $125,000 Steady Growth, a 1 1/16-mile race for Ontario-sired 3-year-olds and upward, will be run here May 28. In that race, T J's Lucky Moon could face Barbeau Ruckus, who is trained by Ross Armata Jr.'s father, Ross Armata.

Illusive Force to wheel back in Marine

Illusive Force, a British Columbia-bred 3-year-old who is pointing for this year's Queen's Plate on June 22, won his seasonal debut at Hastings Park last Saturday and is expected to swing right back here in this Saturday's Marine.

Owned by Canyon Farm and trained by Robert VanOverschot, Illusive Force won the 6 1/2-furlong City of Vancouver by a half-length and would be stretching out to 1 1/16 miles in the Marine, a Grade 3 race for 3-year-olds.

Dave Wilson, who was one of Vancouver's leading jockeys but shifted his tack to Alberta this year, rode Illusive Force in the City of Vancouver and is slated to be here for the Marine.