04/14/2004 11:00PM

Stronach hands reins to Vella, Keogh

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ETOBICOKE, Ontario - Stronach Stable has shuffled its Woodbine deck again for the 2004 meeting, and the big winners are trainers Danny Vella and Mike Keogh.

Vella returned to front-line duty here last spring after spending the previous five years directing the troops at Stronach's Adena Springs South in Florida. This year, he has 34 stalls set aside for Stronach runners, up from 20 last year.

Keogh, new to the Stronach operation, will have six stalls here for the powerhouse owner, bringing the outfit to its maximum of 40 stalls on track.

Mike Rogers, Stronach Stable's business manager of racing operations, said Keogh actually will start out with 10 horses for the outfit, and Vella will start with 50.

"We'll probably have close to 80 horses racing in Ontario once the 2-year-olds come up," said Rogers.

Rogers also said the Stronach runners will continue to follow the practice of rotating between the racetrack and nearby Adena Springs North, where trainer Sean Smullen is the overseer.

Keogh is currently at Keeneland with a small string, including the Gustav Schickedanz stable stars Wando, Mobil, and Six Sexy Sisters. He will return at the end of that meeting.

Keogh's Stronach runners will include Hour of Justice, a stakes-winning 4-year-old filly; Strizzi, a stakes-placed 4-year-old colt whose specialty is turf; and the steady allowance-caliber sprinters Lucky Tom, a 4-year-old gelding, and Spitfire Man, a 5-year-old gelding.

The odd trainers out in the new Stronach arrangement are Malcolm Pierce, who had 12 stalls for the outfit here in 2003, and Reade Baker, who had eight.

Neither Pierce nor Baker will suffer, however; both had full houses heading into Saturday's opening of the Woodbine meeting.

Pierce, who spent the off-season with a small string at Fair Grounds, will have 30 horses here. Baker, whose winter training headquarters was in Ocala, will have 40.

Still, both trainers will feel the loss of Stronach talent. Pierce has lost the likes of Alpha Saphire, Diadella, Hot Talent, I'm the Tiger, Rock Again, Pop Princess, and Strizzi, and Baker won stakes last year with Hour of Justice and Alpha Heat and also conditioned Spitfire Man and Lucky Tom.

Rock Again, who suffered a hairline fracture in a hind leg when finishing third in last year's Queen's Plate, was among the 35 horses who spent the winter with Vella at Palm Meadows in Florida.

"He's here now and doing well," said Vella, adding that Rock Again should see action fairly early in the meeting.

In the meantime, I'm the Tiger will be looking to get the stable off to a quick start when he goes off as the probable choice in the opening-day feature, the six-furlong Jacques Cartier.

Vella is also looking forward to next Saturday's feature, in which Night Sky is slated to go for his third win in as many starts in the $125,000 Woodstock.

The six-furlong Woodstock is the first stakes prep on the road to the 1 1/4-mile Queen's Plate, which will offer a $1 million purse to Canadian-bred 3-year-olds here June 27.

"He's training better than ever," said Vella. "I don't know how far he'll go, but until he reaches his distance limitation he's going to be a very nice horse."

Assistants play musical chairs

Assistant trainer Ken Barber has been reunited with Vella here after spending the past six years at Adena Springs South.

But another longtime Vella assistant, Greg Broadhurst, has left to pursue a new career as a jockey agent. Broadhurst will be booking mounts for apprentice jockey Jillian Scharfstein.

Andy Bankuti, who was Scharfstein's agent last year, has taken over the book of journeyman Na Somsanith. Bankuti will also continue to represent Dino Luciani.

Seven barns, racing office renovated

Local horsemen who found the off-season uncomfortably long will probably have to get used to more of the same for at least the next two years.

The massive barn reconstruction program, which necessitated a later opening of the backstretch for training and the delay of racing by some four weeks, will continue in the off-seasons with $5 million earmarked for renovations for each of the next two winters.

Approximately $9 million has been spent this year on backstretch projects, including the complete renovation of seven barns and the installation of sprinklers in most of the older structures.

The building that houses the race office and Ontario Racing Commission offices also underwent extensive renovation.

TV show returns Saturday

Rogers Sportsnet will air "Woodbine Post Time" on Saturday at 4 p.m. The 90-minute show will feature live coverage of the seventh through ninth races.

The complete 10-race card will be televised on Headline Sports ("The Score").

Jim Bannon and Jim Mazur will host a handicapping seminar here at 11 a.m. Saturday, at the east end of the second floor of Woodbine's grandstand.