06/20/2006 11:00PM

King of casual invades Queen's Plate

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Lone Star Park
Mary Ellen and Mike Pegram after winning the Lone Star Derby with Wanna Runner. "I have not checked the dress code. My goal is not to hurt international relations." - Mike Pegram, owner of Queen's Plate favorite Wanna Runner

The Queen's Plate, to be run Sunday at Woodbine, is not only Canada's most famous race, it is also North America's longest-running stakes event. It is being presented this year for the 147th time, in ongoing tribute to Canada's former status as a British crown colony.

Still, it's hard to take a race seriously when they keep changing its name every half a century or so, especially when the changes are triggered by the mortality rate of a distant monarchy.

The Queen's Plate was first offered in 1860 and was open to "all horses bred in Upper Canada" - basically Ontario - "which have never won public money," whatever that meant. Don Juan won the grand prize of 50 guineas, donated by Queen Victoria, by taking two out of three one-mile heats.

The death of Queen Victoria in 1901 and ascension of King Edward VII required the Queen's Plate to be rechristened the King's Plate for the 1902 running, won by Lyddite. By then the race was worth 1,500 Canadian dollars and run at 1 1/4 miles. Edward VII's death in 1910 put George V in the British driver's seat, then his brother Edward VIII took over in 1936 when George joined the choir eternal.

Ah, but Edward VIII followed his heart instead of the money, and soon abdicated the throne to marry a commoner (translation: American divorc?e). Edward's stunned younger brother, George VI, stepped up and hung tough through a world war and a difficult peace before passing on in 1952, when succeeded by his daughter, Elizabeth II. Just like that, the King's Plate became the Queen's Plate once again.

Anyone paying any attention at all to the British royals will be aware that Elizabeth II recently celebrated her 80th birthday, which is why there has been no King's Plate lately. The Queen, in her wisdom, will not be making the trip to Canada for the 2006 running of her Plate, which is too bad, because Mike Pegram has been practicing his royal bow since late January.

That's when it dawned on Pegram that Wanna Runner was not a viable Kentucky Derby candidate, but he was most definitely a Canadian-bred - courtesy of breeder Yvonne Schwabe - which meant those one million Canadian dollars up for grabs in the Queen's Plate began to look very tempting.

Wanna Runner is trained by Bob Baffert and is a son of the brilliant Baffert-trained miler El Corredor, winner of the 2000 running of the Cigar Mile. Since his also-ran days in Southern California stakes company behind colts like Brother Derek, Stevie Wonderboy, and Cause to Believe, Wanna Runner has turned into a traveling, chestnut ATM, winning big pots in New Mexico and Texas.

This form makes Wanna Runner the solid favorite to win the Plate, even though 1 1/4 miles might be stretching his pedigree. He'll be facing a full field of proud locals who would prefer to keep the Plate on Canadian soil, in the wake of last year's invasion from south of the border by Wild Desert.

"These are always the hardest ones to win, when you're supposed to," Pegram said this week before heading north. "The only time I saw Gary Stevens totally nervous was when he was getting on Silverbulletday at the Kentucky Oaks, and she was 1-10."

By now, everyone knows that Pegram is American racing's Ambassador of Cool, for whom every day is Casual Friday. He built his racing stable on the success of his McDonald's mini-empire, and for his trouble he not only won that Kentucky Oaks with Silverbulletday, but also a Kentucky Derby with Real Quiet and a Dubai World Cup with Captain Steve.

"Horses are like ballplayers," said Pegram, whose best runners usually cost him in the neighborhood of $100,000. "The first-round draft choices don't always end up being your stars. It's the workmanlike players who keep us fans coming back and loving the game."

Pegram bought Wanna Runner for $80,000 as a yearling. He was cut out to be a very nice colt, too, until his undescended testicles became a problem he could no longer ignore. Since last November he has been doing business as a gelding, winning 4 of 6 starts and more than a half-million dollars. Just in case, Pegram has figured out that the Plate will be worth just over 900,000 American dollars.

In the past, the Queen's Plate has been a decidedly dressy affair, embodied by the memory of E.P. Taylor in formal morning clothes leading New Providence into the winner's enclosure after the 100th running of the Plate in 1959, and being congratulated by none other than Queen Elizabeth Herself.

"I have not checked the dress code," Pegram confessed. "My goal is not to hurt international relations. But I'll tell you what - it's amazing where you can go in black jeans where they won't let you in wearing blue.

"My Canadian friend John Sikura will be be my protocol officer, so I won't feel any pressure," Pegram added. "I'm just going to find me some Labatt's beer and enjoy myself. And if this horse wins, we'll create our own royalty."