04/20/2006 11:00PM

Knights Templar fresh and fit

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ETOBICOKE, Ontario - Reigning Canadian champion 2-year-old filly Knights Templar returns from a layoff in the $125,000 Star Shoot Stakes at Woodbine on Sunday.

Knights Templar won 3 of 7 starts last year while earning slightly more than $300,000. She took the six-furlong Ontario Debutante Stakes in August, but the highlight of her season was a front-running 13 1/4-length score in the Grade 3 Mazarine Breeders' Cup Stakes in October, for which she received a 95 Beyer Speed Figure.

Knights Templar backed up to sixth after forcing a rapid pace in the Grade 1 BC Juvenile Fillies at Belmont. In her only outing this year

in the Jan. 28 Sunshine Millions Oaks at Gulfstream, she wound up sixth after stalking the pace along the inside under jockey Eddie Castro.

Chris Vella, an assistant to his father, trainer Danny Vella, said he felt Knights Templar had some valid excuses in the Sunshine Millions.

"She hit the gate and got bumped at the start," Vella recalled. "She came back with a little mark on her side, but it was nothing too serious. The track was a bit cuppy on the inside, and Castro said he needed to hustle her a bit just to get her into the race, because she wasn't handling it right away. She didn't run badly. I think she was a touch underfit, and could have been closer with a cleaner trip."

Vella said Knights Templar has trained well this spring.

"She's doing unbelievable right now," Vella said. "I think the biggest thing about her is that she's training as hard as she ever has, but at the same time is more relaxed. She's matured."

The six-furlong race has lured seven other 3-year-old fillies, including Gumboots, who captured the allowance prep for the Star Shoot.

Gumboots, victorious in the six-furlong Fanfreluche Stakes in October, is out of Celmis, the runner-up in the 1994 Star Shoot. Her half-sister Buffalo Jump was third in the 2003 Star Shoot.

Trainer Josie Carroll said she believes Gumboots won the prep even though the five-furlong distance was too short for her.

"We were a little concerned that it wasn't the ideal distance for her," Carroll said, "but I thought I needed to get a race into her. Even though it was a little short for her, I knew that she'd be finishing. I was just hoping that she'd get there."

Gumboots drew ideally on the outside. Her jockey, Patrick Husbands, teamed up with Carroll last Sunday to win the Whimsical Stakes with Abounding Truth.