06/14/2011 1:09PM

Queen's Plate: Blinkers off, faster pace could make Curgnone surprise contender

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ETOBICOKE, Ontario – There is certainly no shortage of prospects for the Queen’s Plate, with as many as 17 Canadian-bred 3-year-olds eyeing the $1 million showpiece as of Tuesday morning.

The expected presence of major players Check Your Soul, Queen’splatekitten, Bowman’s Causeway, and possibly Inglorious appears to have done little to dampen the enthusiasm of others eager to be part of the excitement surrounding the 1 1/4-mile showpiece for Canadian-bred 3-year-olds at Woodbine.

Curgnone, one of the fringe candidates for the Queen’s Plate, drilled five furlongs in 1:00 here Tuesday for trainer Greg De Gannes.

Quincy Welch was aboard Curgnone, who worked without blinkers and in company with stablemate Silverleo and jockey Justin Stein.

“They went head and head, and finished up strong,” said DeGannes, who caught Curgnone and Silverleo galloping out six furlongs in 1:13.

Curgnone, owned and bred by Joe Stritzl, has made just four career starts, all in Ontario-sired company.

Debuting last October, Curgnone won his maiden over seven furlongs and then finished a close third when traveling the same distance in the Frost King for trainer Norm McKnight.

“He had some surgery after the Frost King, on his left front ankle, and did his rehab and recovery here in Ontario,” said De Gannes, who took over as Curgnone’s trainer during the off-season. “We brought him back into the track in mid-March.’

Curgnone’s two starts at this meeting have come in first-level allowance races as he was beaten 1 1/2 lengths as the third-place finisher in his opener at 1 1/16 miles but then six lengths when fourth over 1 1/8 miles in his last start on June 1.

“His last race was disappointing,” said De Gannes. “The pace was just awful. He needs something to run at.”

De Gannes is hopeful that Curgnone will get that opportunity in the Queen’s Plate, at a distance which he believes will be within his gelding’s scope, and that the removal of blinkers will aid his cause.

“He’s bred to get the distance,” said De Gannes. “His father, Niigon, won the Plate and his mother, Curiosity, did her best running around two turns.”

Silverleo, a Kentucky-bred, is pointing for the $100,000 Charlie Barley, a one-mile turf race for 3-year-olds which is scheduled to be part of the Queen’s Plate undercard. The Charlie Barley is an overnight stakes and will require a field of at least five to be carded.

Two recent maiden winners are Plate prospects

Okiyama and One Big Gator, winners of recent 1 1/16-mile Ontario-sired maiden races, both are under serious consideration for the Queen’s Plate.

Trained by John Mattine, Okiyama was making just his third career appearance and his first of this season here June 3 and was prominent throughout en route to a 1 1/2-length victory under Luis Contreras.

“He ran well first time out last year, and was slated for the Kingarvie,” said Mattine, who had watched Okiyama win his six-furlong opener here Oct. 31 and then was pointing him for the 1 1/16-mile Kingarvie on Nov. 27.

“But he was first on the also-eligible list, and didn’t get in.”

Okiyama did run Dec. 4, in an open first-level allowance at seven furlongs, but finished 5 1/2 lengths behind the winner in seventh.

“He raced okay,” said Mattine, who trains Okiyama for a group including longtime owners Bill Paterson, Rick Okihiro, and Tony Romanelli Sr..

“But I’d had him peaking. He wasn’t the same horse he was coming into the Kingarvie.”

Okiyama had a quiet winter on the farm in Ontario and came back into the track this spring.

“Right away he started to look better, gallop better, breeze better,” said Mattine. “The owners had kept him eligible for the Queen’s Plate, and I said the only way we could find out if he could get there was to run him two turns first time out.”

Having passed that test, Okiyama now could be making his next appearance in Canada’s most famous horse race.

“The owners bought him for $15,000,” said Mattine. “He’s paid for himself. The owners are realistic, and want to have a little fun.

“I think he’ll get the distance, and that’s half the battle.”

One Big Gator, conditioned by John Ross, stalked the pace and rallied for a 1 1/4-length score under new rider Patrick Husbands in last Friday’s finale.

One Big Gator, a $6,500 yearling buy owned by the Jam Jar Racing Stable of Bud and Jackie Reynolds, was making his sixth career appearance but racing without blinkers for the first time.

“We made a couple of changes, and I think they really helped him,” said Ross. “It was his best race of the year; I really liked the way he accelerated.

“He’s going in the right direction, if you’re thinking of going to the Queen’s Plate. We’ll see how he trains back.”

With both Contreras and Husbands already committed to leading Queen’s Plate contenders, Mattine and Ross will be jockey-shopping if their dreams materialize.

Elite Alex no longer a Plate candidate

The potential field for the Queen’s Plate shrank by one on Tuesday with the news that Elite Alex would not be making the trip north from Delaware Park.

“We decided we’re going to give him more time, and go someplace else,” said trainer Tim Ritchey. “There are a lot of possibilities for him.”

Elite Alex was on the Kentucky Derby trail this spring but that plan was abandoned when the colt finished ninth in the Arkansas Derby on April 16.

In a subsequent outing, Elite Alex was a beaten choice when competing under first-level allowance terms in a one-mile race at Delaware Park on May 11.

Stakes fillies pose pleasant problem for Attfield

Trainer Roger Attfield sent out three pairs of stakes winners to breeze five furlongs here Tuesday with Simmard and Mekong Melody going in 1:00, Miss Keller and Oregon Lady in 1:00.20, and No Explaining being clocked in 59.80 seconds while her workmate Perfect Shirl finished in 1:00.40.

“They all worked very nicely,” said Attfield. “I’m just trying to figure out what to do with them all.”

“Simmard’s easy — he’ll run in the Singspiel. The fillies, I’ve got to try to keep them away from each other.”

The Singspiel, a Grade 3, $150,000 turf race for 3-year-olds and upward, will be run over 1 1/2 miles of turf on Queen’s Plate Day.

◗ Woodbine television host Jeff Bratt and freelance broadcaster Jason Portuondo will host a “Woodbine Workouts” session here Saturday morning, from 8:30 a.m. to 10:30 a.m. in the trackside tent.