06/20/2006 12:00AM

Stealing their thunder

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Michael Burns Photo Ltd.
Queen's Plate favorite Wanna Runner, working Monday at Woodbine, is based in California with Bob Baffert.

ETOBICOKE, Ontario - It used to be one didn't have to venture beyond the Woodbine backstretch to find the winner of the Queen's Plate, the 1 1/4-mile race for Canadian-bred 3-year-olds that will be run here Sunday.

Even the odd successful shippers, such as Awesome Again in 1997 and Archers Bay in 1998, were horses owned by outfits that had strong ties to Woodbine. Awesome Again was owned by Frank Stronach and Archers Bay's majority owner was Eugene Melnyk.

But times are changing.

Last year's Queen's Plate sported a different look, as Wild Desert and King of Jazz shipped in to finish one-two for tried-and-true U.S. connections. Sunday's renewal of the $1 million Queen's Plate will feature another formidable pair who have checked in from south of the border, Wanna Runner and Sterwins.

Wanna Runner and Sterwins offer a snapshot of the two types of Queen's Plate invaders.

Wanna Runner, based in California, is owned by Mike Pegram and trained by Bob Baffert, names rarely associated with Woodbine. Their only previous collaboration here was with Zippersup, the seventh-place finisher in the 1996 Breeders' Cup Juvenile.

Sterwins, based in New York, is owned by Eugene and Laura Melnyk, who have horses here with trainers Mark Casse, David Bell, and Layne Giliforte. Sterwins is trained by Todd Pletcher, who has shipped horses here for stakes on many occasions.

Wanna Runner began the year with two defeats: a third-place finish to Brother Derek and Stevie Wonderboy in the four-horse San Rafael on Jan. 14 and a fifth-place finish in the Grade 3 El Camino Real Derby on Jan. 29. He is coming into the Queen's Plate following victories in the 1 1/8-mile WinStar Derby at Sunland Park on April 1 and the 1 1/16-mile Lone Star Derby on May 13.

"When he got beat by Brother Derek and Stevie Wonderboy, he was off the Kentucky Derby path," said Baffert. "That's when we started thinking about the Plate."

One wrinkle developed in Baffert's plan when Woodbine announced it would be implementing a new big-race surveillance program that would debut with the Queen's Plate. The program called for all prospective Queen's Plate entrants to be on the grounds by 8:30 a.m. on Tuesday, June 20, 48 hours before the entry deadline. Baffert had planned to ship Wanna Runner here from California later this week, but was forced to call an audible, flying Wanna Runner to Belmont on June 7 and vanning him up to Woodbine last Thursday.

"I'd rather just go in right on top of the race," said Baffert, who had employed that method with Wanna Runner at both Sunland and Lone Star. "Coming in earlier is sort of a pain."

While Wanna Runner will be making his ninth career start and competing at his sixth different racetrack in the Queen's Plate, Sterwins will be making his third start and only started racing May 20.

"He never actually arrived in our barn until the beginning of this year, down at Palm Meadows," said Pletcher. "We were expecting to get a start into him at Gulfstream, but he had a little cough and that set us back a little bit."

Making his debut in a six-furlong maiden special at Belmont, Sterwins closed to finish second.

"He got a good education that day," said Pletcher. "He got a lot of dirt in his face and rallied the last part."

Pletcher, of course, said he was aware that Sterwins had been kept eligible for the Queen's Plate.

"It was always in the back of our minds," he said. "After his first start, we felt like we might be a touch behind schedule, so we decided to go ahead and get a two-turn maiden race into him."

Sterwins passed that 1 1/16-mile test with flying colors, scoring by 10 1/2 lengths at Monmouth and earning a Beyer Speed Figure of 101, the best in the Queen's Plate lineup. Suddenly, the Queen's Plate had become a viable option.

"Obviously, it's an ambitious place for a horse that's just out of a maiden race," said Pletcher. "But strange things happen in some of these good races, so we felt like as long as he was doing well that it was worth taking a chance."

The recent influx of Queen's Plate shippers is kind of a mixed blessing. Their presence adds a new dimension to the race, but it also means that a good deal of the $1 million purse could end up heading south.

"The Queen's Plate is like the Stanley Cup - we'd like to keep it in Canada," said Mike DePaulo, trainer of Queen's Plate candidate Shillelagh Slew. "But a lot of good Canadian-breds sold at Keeneland and other sales in the States don't find their way home. I have no problem with them showing up now."

Brian Lynch trains Malakoff, the probable second choice to Wanna Runner, and also has an open-minded view of Queen's Plate invaders.

"I like it," said Lynch. "The more the better, especially with horses that come in with a bit of form, like Wanna Runner. It adds a little bit of spice to the race."