03/31/2011 4:09PM

Woodbine looks to continue last year's momentum as 2011 meet opens

Michael Burns
Horses train at Woodbine earlier this week. The track’s signature race, the 152nd Queen’s Plate, will be held June 26.

ETOBICOKE, Ontario – Both the Toronto Maple Leafs and Raptors missed the playoffs for the umpteenth time this spring, which has left Toronto sports fans starved for some action. The return of Thoroughbred racing to Woodbine on Saturday can help fill that void. The 10-race card is the opener of a 167-day meeting that concludes Dec. 4.

Wagering on live racing was up by 8.9 percent in 2010, an impressive figure that bucked recent industry trends. Glenn Crouter, Woodbine’s vice president of media and sponsorship, said a higher profile in the United States helped to fuel the increase.

“Our product has become well-respected across the border,” Crouter said. “That’s a huge feat, because for the longest time in any sport when you had America versus Canada, Canada was seen as second tier, with the exception of hockey. Attracting big-name trainers like the Asmussens of the world has helped a lot.”

The 152nd running of the Queen’s Plate on June 26 will be the first $1 million race of the meet. There are several promising U.S.-based prospects for the 1 1/4-mile event, most notably Bowman’s Causeway and the aptly named Queen’splatekitten.

The Plate is the first leg of the Canadian Triple Crown, which concludes with the $500,000 Breeders’ Stakes on the grass here Aug. 7. The second leg of the unique series, the $500,000 Prince of Wales Stakes, will be run July 17 on the dirt at Fort Erie.

Fillies have fared well in the Plate in recent years, even when there was just a two-week gap between it and the Woodbine Oaks. For the second year in a row this year, there will be a three-week gap between the two Canadian classics, with the $500,000 Oaks scheduled for June 5.

For the fourth consecutive year, Woodbine will host six Breeders’ Cup Challenge Series Win and You’re In turf stakes, which guarantee the winner a berth in the corresponding BC race.

The $1.5 million Canadian International, which was previously worth $2 million, heads the richest day of Thoroughbred racing in the country on Oct. 16. The card, which has been moved from Saturday to Sunday this year, also includes the $1 million E.P. Taylor Stakes and the $500,000 Nearctic Stakes. These three Grade 1 turf races are all Win and You’re In events.

The $1 million Woodbine Mile has evolved into a productive prep for the BC Mile, and the winner will gain entry into that race as part of the program. The Grade 1 Mile heads a sensational Sept. 18 card that also includes the Grade 2 Canadian and the Grade 1, $500,000 Northern Dancer Turf, which was previously worth $750,000.

The other two Win and You’re In contests, the Grade 3 Summer and the Grade 3 Natalma, are both 2-year-old stakes scheduled for Sept. 17. Last year’s Summer victor, Pluck, returned to take the BC Juvenile Turf, while the 2010 Natalma runner-up, More Than Real, subsequently won the BC Juvenile Fillies Turf.

Total purses for the meet are $84 million, and the average daily purse distribution is $503,000. There is a 2 percent purse reduction from 2010 to start the meet.

Racing will be conducted with a 1 p.m. Eastern post time on weekends. Wednesday evenings will be added to the schedule April 27, with a 6:45 p.m. start. Thursday cards commence June 2 with a 2 p.m. first post. Friday racing, which begins April 8, will have a 1 p.m. post, except for May 27 through Sept 23, when the start time will be pushed back to 2 p.m.

The wagering menu remains the same, with the exception of the pick six, which has been discontinued.

Woodbine’s rider colony has been making waves south of the border. Omar Moreno was the runaway winner in 2010 Eclipse Award voting for top apprentice in North America. He will try to keep the ball rolling in his first full year as a journeyman.

Chantal Sutherland recently captured the Grade 1 Santa Anita Handicap, an achievement that led to her decision to remain in Southern California. Emma Wilson won the Grade 3 Pan American at Gulfstream last Saturday aboard Rahy’s Attorney.

Last year’s meet leader, Eurico Da Silva, is coming off a decent winter stint at Aqueduct and will seek his third straight Plate triumph this year. Expect the personable Brazilian native to vie for leading rider honors with Patrick Husbands and Luis Contreras.

Don’s Folly heads an 11-horse field of older Ontario-sired runners in the opening-day feature, the $100,000 Debut Stakes.

Even though the five furlongs of the Debut is shorter than he prefers, Don’s Folly managed to rally for second in last year’s running. He subsequently captured the six-furlong Kenora Stakes and an optional claimer.

The Debut contains ample speed, including Paso Doble, who is making his first start for Woodbine’s perennial leading trainer, Mark Casse.