06/27/2004 11:00PM

Testament to country life


ETOBICOKE, Ontario - Niigon hadn't set foot on the Woodbine grounds since finishing second in the Plate Trial three weeks earlier.

But Niigon evidently liked what he felt, and saw, here last Sunday as he earned his first stakes win in the $1 million Queen's Plate.

The Queen's Plate also represented a career highlight for jockey Robert Landry, who was competing in his 13th straight Plate and 14th overall, and owners Chiefswood Stable and trainer Eric Coatrieux, who were competing in their first.

The Plate, in fact, also was the first stakes win of any type for Chiefswood, which is the nom du course of Bob and Mark Krembil, and for Coatrieux, whom they hired as their private trainer three years ago.

Niigon's success also was a testimonial to a program which is unusual in these parts as Niigon, along with the rest of Chiefswood's racing stock, is not stabled here.

His home is Chiefswood Stable, about 45 minutes northwest of here, which includes 22 stalls for horses of racing age and a seven-furlong training track. His appearances at Woodbine are limited to race days and the occasional workout when Coatrieux decides a refresher course is advisable.

"The atmosphere here is calmer," said Coatrieux from his own home at Chiefswood the morning after Niigon's star turn at Woodbine. "There's less stress in the environment.

"It works good for horses like [Niigon], especially; he's good up here. He can be a little bit stressed, at times. He's a colt, and he's full of himself."

There will, however, be a bit of a change in the game plan when Niigon contests the July 18 Prince of Wales Stakes, the second leg of the Canadian Triple Crown, at Fort Erie.

Coatrieux does not plan to send Niigon to work over the Fort Erie oval, which is about a 2 1/2-hour drive from Chiefswood, but will send the colt down a couple of days prior to the race.

"He can see the environment over there," said Coatrieux. "It will be good for him."

Niigon will not be returning to Woodbine soon, either, and will do all his Wales work up on the farm.

Landry too excited to sleep

Landry, who rode his first winner in 1981, consistently has been among Ontario's top riders and his major successes include an Atto Mile, a Prince of Wales, a Breeders', and a couple of Woodbine Oaks.

But, the race the 41-year-old Landry admitted he always wanted most was the Queen's Plate.

"It's an unbelievable feeling," said Landry, on Monday morning. "I'm very fortunate to have ridden a lot of nice races, but this is the icing on the cake.

"I want to do a lot more winning, but at the end of the day I can say my career is complete now."

Landry didn't even allow himself the luxury of sleeping late following his Plate success, as he was up at 5 a.m. and was here Monday morning to work turf specialist Parasail for trainer Mark Frostad and Sam-Son Farm.

He did allow, however, that sleeping had not been much of an option in any case.

"I only slept for a couple of hours," said Landry. "It was the excitement; it starts sinking in."

Landry's association with Niigon dates back to last summer, when he rode the colt to a third-place finish in his first career start.

"The first time I ever jumped on his back, I loved him," said Landry. "But, it took him a while to get things together.

"I was still saying these great things, and he still hadn't broken his maiden. But, he kept showing me the signs."

Landry, along with Coatrieux and the Krembils, had to be wondering after Niigon performed dismally in two starts at Gulfstream and one at Keeneland over the winter.

Landry, who had been working Niigon at Gulfstream and was aboard for his first race there, even suggested trying another jockey.

His replacement, Richard Migliore, confirmed Landry's opinion, which was that Niigon simply did not handle the track there. And no better excuse could be found for Niigon's next start, when Mark Guidry was aboard at Keeneland.

Returning to Chiefswood or racing at Woodbine obviously brought back the best in Niigon, and Coatrieux acknowledges that the removal of blinkers also could have contributed to the return to form.

"When he came back here and won the way he did, I was impressed," said Landry, who guided Niigon to his maiden victory over 1 1/16 miles in his start prior to the Plate Trial.

"I had a lot of confidence in him Sunday. I knew he could get the distance, that the mile and a quarter wouldn't be an issue. And I'm confident he'll be able to go on and do better things."

Soaring Free becomes millionaire

While Niigon stole the spotlight, the most accomplished horse on Sunday's program was Soaring Free, who brought his career earnings to $1,053,544 by capturing the Grade 3, $219,000 Highlander Handicap.

"It's really nice," said Mark Frostad, who trains Soaring Free for Sam-Son Farm. "He's a terrific horse. We'll see if we can win the Atto Mile with him this year."

Soaring Free finished second in the Grade 1, $1 million Atto Mile here last September.

A 5-year-old gelding, Soaring Free is scheduled to follow the same program by using the July 24 Ontario Jockey Club Stakes and the Aug. 28 Play the King as his stepping-stones to this year's Sept. 19 running of the Atto Mile.

Both the OJC and Play the King are seven-furlong turf races.