04/08/2009 12:00AM

Pierce starts meeting strong


ETOBICOKE, Ontario - Trainer Malcolm Pierce, in the midst of his annual stopover at Keeneland after racing at Fair Grounds this winter, wasn't on hand for the opening weekend here at Woodbine.

But Pierce's wife and assistant, Sally, was a more than able deputy as she sent out Mullins Beach and True Vindication to win the top two races on the program.

Mullins Beach became a stakes winner by capturing the $100,800 La Voyageuse, a five-furlong race for Ontario-foaled 3-year-old fillies.

True Vindication, a Kentucky-bred 4-year-old gelding, made a successful local debut in a second-level allowance/$62,500 optional claimer at the same distance.

"There's a little advantage to winter-trained horses," Pierce said from Keeneland.

Both Mullins Beach and True Vindication raced this winter at Fair Grounds, where the Pierce stable fashioned a record of 12-9-12 for purses of $485,250 from 71 starters at the meeting.

Mullins Beach, whose only outing in New Orleans was a seventh-place finish in the Mardi Gras over 5 1/2 furlongs of turf on Feb. 24, won for the third time from six career tries in the La Voyageuse.

"She'd trained well, but I didn't expect her to be so sharp, up there close to the pace," Pierce said of the front-running victory.

While Mullins Beach is nominated for the $500,000 Woodbine Oaks, a 1 1/8-mile race for Canadian-bred 3-year-old fillies here June 7, Pierce is reserved about her prospects.

"I think she's a sprinter," Pierce said. "If she'll stretch out at all, I think it's going to be on the turf. She'll be looking to get back on the grass, when it opens."

True Vindication, meanwhile, also can look forward to turf racing here as he won twice and was second in his first three starts for Pierce at 5 1/2 furlongs on the Fair Grounds grass.

Last year, True Vindication was unplaced in three starts for trainer Steve Asmussen.

"He just seemed like a nice little horse," Pierce said. "Maybe he just needed to mature."

Double Malt wants to go longer

Double Malt, who had wintered for Pierce at Fair Grounds without starting, finished fifth when making her seasonal bow in the La Voyageuse.

"She doesn't want to go that short," said Pierce, who sent out Double Malt to win the 1 1/16-mile South Ocean here last November for Mike Ambler and partners.

"And, she needed a start. I really didn't want to run her there, but we've got to get going because we have dreams that maybe she can get to the Oaks. She was only beaten two lengths for second - it really wasn't a bad race."

El Brujo on path to Queen's Plate

El Brujo, a 3-year-old gelding owned by Windways Farm, will be taking his first step toward what Pierce hopes will be a berth in the Queen's Plate when he goes postward in the six-furlong Achievement here Saturday.

"I would have loved to get a race into him at Fair Grounds, but there was no two-other-thans for 3-year-olds, and by the time he was ready to run there were no sprint stakes," Pierce said.

"Then, I might have been able to run him around two turns at Keeneland, in the Lexington. Now, we're just going to have to get him ready through the Woodbine program."

The $1 million Queen's Plate, a 1 1/4-mile race for Canadian-bred 3-year-olds, will be run June 21.

Sterwins targeting Ben Ali repeat

Pierce is pointing Sterwins for the Ben Ali, a 1 1/8-mile race at Keeneland on April 19.

Sterwins, a 6-year-old gelding, won the Grade 3 Ben Ali last spring.

"He had a big, big work here the other day," said Pierce, who sent out Sterwins to breeze five furlongs in 59.40 seconds last Sunday.

Attfield eyes Keeneland stakes

Roger Attfield, who also will be headquartered in Lexington until returning here later this month, will be represented by Passager in Friday's Grade 1, $300,000 Makers Mark Mile on Keeneland's turf course.

Passager, a 6-year-old gelding who had raced in France and England, was sent to Attfield at Gulfstream this winter and is coming off a troubled third-place finish in the Grade 3 Appleton over 7 1/2 furlongs of turf on March 28.

Spice Route, an unlucky third when making his last start at Gulfstream in the Grade 2 MacDiarmida over 1 3/8 miles on turf on Feb. 21, is being aimed for the Grade 2, $200,000 Elkhorn, a 1 1/2-mile turf race at Keeneland on the closing day of the meeting, April 24.

Rapid Release impresses Attfield

Attfield, who got on the scoreboard at Keeneland last Saturday when he sent out Society's Chairman to win a classified allowance over one mile of turf, unveiled a dark horse for this year's Queen's Plate there the following afternoon.

Rapid Release, an Ontario-foaled 3-year-old colt who was purchased at auction in England last fall, finished a closing fourth when debuting for Attfield in a first-level allowance over 1 1/16 miles of turf.

"I gave him some time off over the winter," said Attfield, who actually had been the underbidder on the colt and took over as his trainer for the California-based Dolantori Racing. "He'd run seven times as a 2-year-old."

Rapid Release had finished second in each of his two starts on synthetic tracks but won his maiden over seven furlongs of turf. Sunday's race was his longest to date.

"He needed to start, and I wanted to get him around two turns," Attfield said. "He ran very well, actually. He really closed some ground down the lane, which I was looking for."

"He's going to be an interesting horse."

* Not Bourbon, who gave Attfield a record-tying eighth Queen's Plate win en route to a Sovereign Award as Canada's champion 3-year-old last year, also is at Keeneland but is not scheduled to see action until June.

"He's behind schedule a little bit," Attfield said. "He's still jogging a couple of miles; he's going to start galloping next week."

* California-based trainer Vladimir Cerin, who was given 16 stalls at Woodbine this year, will have his first career starters here Friday. My Natalie (4-1 morning line) in the first, Essence of Charm (5-2 favorite) in the second, and Recoil (5-2 favorite) in the third could get Cerin off to a solid start. Gerry Olguin, who has been spending winters riding in California, has the mounts.

* The opening-day handle showed a significant gain as $2.3 million was wagered on the 10-race program, up from $1.7 million last year. Sunday's handle was down marginally from the corresponding 2008 program, at $2.78 million compared to $2.3 million last year.