06/15/2004 11:00PM

Vella back on Plate scene

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ETOBICOKE, Ontario -The last time trainer Danny Vella was represented in the Queen's Plate was 1998, when his three-horse Stronach Stable entry of Platino, Star on Fire, and Yodelman brought up the rear in the 13-horse field.

But Vella, who spent most of the ensuing five years running Team Stronach's Adena Springs operation in Florida, is anticipating a much better result in this year's $1 million Queen's Plate, a 1 1/4-mile race for Canadian-bred 3-year-olds here June 27.

Vella's hopes rest with Night Sky, his first Plate contestant since his reincarnation here last spring as Stronach Stable's main local trainer.

"I think he's improving all the time," said Vella. "I think his last race did him a world of good. He seemed to come out of it stronger than ever."

Night Sky saw action just twice at 2, winning his maiden over five furlongs here Oct. 30 and returning Nov. 16 to take the 6 1/2-furlong Sunny's Halo, an overnight stakes for Canadian-breds.

But the bubble burst here May 8 in the seven-furlong Queenston, as Night Sky, making his seasonal bow, was a badly beaten sixth as the 5-2 second favorite.

Vella later learned that Night Sky had been severely compromised in the Queenston by an entrapped epiglottis. Following minor throat surgery and a quick recovery, the gelding was back in action June 4.

In that race, a second-level allowance at 1 1/16 miles, Night Sky was not only venturing into new territory in terms of distance but also was the lone 3-year-old in the field of nine.

The result was a smart three-quarter-length victory, which yielded a highly respectable Beyer Speed Figure of 88.

"When I asked him to go a mile and a sixteenth, it was his first important test of the year," said Vella. "He responded very well.

"Now I know he'll get two turns, and he beat some pretty nice older horses."

Vella also indicated that Night Sky has since joined the Lasix program.

"He'll be on first-time Lasix for the Plate," said Vella.

Basqueian, who gave Vella his first Queen's Plate win in 1994, also was racing with Lasix for the first time that day.

Cotey bringing Strike Em Hard

It has been an even longer time between Queen's Plate appearances for trainer Dave Cotey, who participated in the 1992 renewal as the co-owner of Change of Fortune, who was trained by Bobby Lane.

Sent off as the longest shot in the field of 12 at 108-1, Change of Fortune finished ninth, beaten 17 1/2 lengths by the runaway winner, Alydeed, but just six lengths behind the runner-up, Grand Hooley.

Cotey's candidate this year is Strike Em Hard, whom he trains and owns in partnership with Derek Ball, Hugh Galbraith, and Gregg Peacock.

Strike Em Hard, purchased for $5,700 as a 2-year-old at Keeneland, was showing steady improvement at the end of his first campaign.

After dropping to $50,000 to win his maiden over seven furlongs, Strike Em Hard ran two solid 1 1/16-mile races in entry-level allowance company, finishing a close third and then closing out his season with a victory.

And while Strike Em Hard has yet to hit his best stride this year, finishing on the fringes in his three starts, including a distant fourth-place finish in the 1 1/8-mile Plate Trial, Cotey believes his charge is capable of much better.

"His blood count had been way off," Cotey said Wednesday morning. "We were close to scratching him last time, it was so bad.

"In his training, he'd been very lethargic. He didn't want to go to the track. He usually drags you around there."

Cotey, who adds that Strike Em Hard had bled and come back "full of mucus" following the Trial, said the gelding recently returned from a week off at nearby Huntington Stud Farm.

"We're treating him, and I think his blood count is on its way back," added Cotey. "The way he acted today, I think we're on the right track."

All being well, Cotey can see Strike Em Hard making a big move forward in the Plate.

"I'm not saying he's going to win it," said Cotey, "but I know the mile and a quarter won't be a problem at all."

Emile Ramsammy, who rode Strike Em Hard for the first time in the Trial, has the call for the Plate.

Elliott to ride Long Pond

Jockey Stewart Elliott, who surged into the spotlight this spring through the exploits of Smarty Jones, is scheduled to ride Long Pond in the Queen's Plate.

Elliott, born in Toronto, has not competed here since experiencing mixed success as a regular rider in 1987. His mother, Myhill, is a longtime assistant here to her brother, trainer Bill Stewart.

"I don't know too much about my horse, or the other horses in there, so I've got to look into that," said Elliott, who will be riding in the Plate for the first time. "But, just to come up and ride the race is great. I'm pretty excited about it."

Long Pond, owned by Eugene and Laura Melnyk and trained by Mark Casse, is undefeated in two starts this year, winning his maiden over seven furlongs and an entry-level allowance over 1 1/16 miles.

Casse credits Eugene Melnyk with the idea of obtaining Elliot's services.

"I think it's a great thing for the Queen's Plate and a great thing for Woodbine," said Casse. "It will add some luster to the deal, and we get a good rider in the process."

Kent Ridge, slated to contest the Plate for Casse, the Melnyks, and part-owners Bill and Iris Bristow, will be ridden by Patrick Husbands, who won last year's Canadian Triple Crown aboard Wando.

Archers Bay, the sire of Kent Ridge, was sent out by trainer Todd Pletcher for the Melnyks and Bristows to win the 1998 Queen's Plate under Kent Desormeaux, who had captured that year's Kentucky Derby with Real Quiet.

* Catherine Day Phillips, trainer of the probable Plate favorite, A Bit O'Gold, gave birth to her second child in North York General Hospital Wednesday. Colton Mackay Phillips weighed in at seven pounds, eight ounces and is the second son for Day Phillips and her husband, Todd Phillips.