03/21/2003 1:00AM

Picking up a Plate winner


ETOBICOKE, Ontario - It wouldn't seem likely that a young trainer embarking on his first full campaign here could look down his shed row and nod at a reigning Queen's Plate champion.

But that's exactly the situation of Ross Armata Jr., who has taken over from his uncle, Vito Armata, as the trainer of 2002 Queen's Plate winner T J's Lucky Moon.

"Going into the Plate last year, Vito and Gino really liked him and I couldn't understand why - he had only won a maiden race," said Armata. "But when you work with this horse, and get to know him, you learn he's a real professional right away. He's genuine."

Armata, 30, spent about 12 years as an assistant to his father, trainer Ross Armata, before getting his trainer's license two years ago.

The son's first Woodbine starter, Deputy Ruler, finished second on March 24, 2002. But, Armata said, the stewards wouldn't allow him to train Deputy Ruler in his father's barn and run him under his own name. Deputy Ruler won his next start, but with Armata's father listed as trainer.

Armata did not officially saddle another horse here in 2002, although he did record three wins from 11 starters at Fort Erie. Most of his time was spent in running the nearby Countryside Training Centre, where he was responsible for 25 horses.

But Armata Jr. got an opportunity to raise his profile significantly when Gino Molinaro, owner-breeder of T J's Lucky Moon, wanted a private trainer and Vito Armata was unable to accommodate him.

Vito Armata enjoyed a career year in 2002, sending out 54 winners and earning $2,859,003 at this meeting with the undisputed highlight being a first Queen's Plate victory for both himself and Molinaro.

But Vito Armata, 53, has been a licensed trainer since 1982 and has other valued clients. He trains 40 horses for members of his family, most owned under the nom-du-course Alpine Stable, and he wasn't willing to give those horses up.

"Mr. Molinaro's been good to me - I said if you want to make a change, do your own thing," said Vito Armata. "We're still the best of friends.

"And, I won the Queen's Plate. You can't take that away from me."

Ross Armata Jr., of course, had been keeping abreast of the Molinaro situation.

"I'd heard Mr. Molinaro wanted to go private, and Vito couldn't really do it," said the junior Armata. "I asked him to give me a shot. He had a couple of horses with my dad last year."

The new partnership was forged over the winter and Armata has set up shop here with 20 horses and has 15 more 2-year-olds on the farm.

"Mr. Molinaro's buying and breeding," said Armata, adding that the owner has recently sent his stakes-winning 4-year-old filly Platel to breed with Touch Gold.

T J's Lucky Moon, who went to the sidelines with unspecified problems after finishing 10th in Fort Erie's Prince of Wales last July, had his first breeze of the year recently.

"I'm going nice and easy with him," said Armata. "He's got a long way to go here this year."

Armata also is well aware that T J's Lucky Moon, despite his Plate win, remains eligible for nonwinners of three.

"I'll be trying to make the road a real easy one for him, win some conditioned races early in the year," said the trainer.

Jockeys, agents play musical chairs

The normally volatile jockey-agent scene is relatively stable this spring, although there are a couple of significant changes.

Journeyman Greg Hutton, who has been riding in Maryland, has moved his tack to Woodbine and will be represented by Beverlee Morris, who has been an agent since she and Emile Ramsammy parted company in the summer of 2001.

Neal Wilson, who replaced Morris as Ramsammy's agent, also will be representing apprentice Julia Brimo this year.

Chantal Sutherland, the Sovereign Award-winning apprentice in both 2001 and 2002 when represented by Lorne Spearman, has hired Nancy Sullivan to book her mounts.

Sullivan, a former trainer and assistant trainer, had made her debut as a jockey agent with Robert Landry here in 2001 but moved to Fort Erie last April to run trainer Mark Casse's division there.

Spearman will continue to represent veteran Richard Dos Ramos.

Executive moves at Woodbine

Speaking of Sullivans, Nancy's sister Kathryn has joined Woodbine's racing operation as administrative assistant to director of Thoroughbred racing Chris Evans.

Steven Bragg, a 12-year veteran of the clocking department here, was appointed head clocker last week. Bragg replaces Steve Lym, who took over from Evans as racing secretary in February.

Marty Velden, a former trainer, has taken the new position of assistant to stabling superintendent Mike Wasilkowsky.

Surveillance procedures change

Woodbine's pre-race surveillance program has been modified, with the races to be monitored no longer being announced at scratch time.

Instead, trainers of horses in the races selected will be notified five hours before the scheduled post time of their race, which will mark the start of the surveillance period.

Due to the new procedure all entered horses, including ship-ins, now must be on the grounds a minimum of five hours before their post time.

Horses remain in their own stalls for surveillance, but their care, including feed and medication, is monitored by Woodbine security.