12/10/2012 3:47PM

Woodbine notes: Aunt Els rewards McKnight's confidence in Ontario Lassie

Michael Burns
Aunt Els wound up her first campaign with a 3-for-4 record and earnings of $154,884.

ETOBICOKE, Ontario – Aunt Els had not been among the original nominees to last Sunday’s Ontario Lassie, a $150,000 stakes race for Ontario-foaled 2-year-old fillies.

But after watching Aunt Els score a sharp allowance win over six furlongs here Nov. 23, trainer Norm McKnight decided she deserved a shot, even though she would be trying 1 1/16 miles for the first time.

A $3,000 supplementary fee was anted up on entry day last Thursday, and Aunt Els made the investment look brilliant as she collected $90,000 after leading throughout the Ontario Lassie to score by a length under Justin Stein.

Original Script, who had captured her two previous starts in front-running fashion, took a run at Aunt Els but had to settle for second money in the field of five.

“We’d discussed a couple of scenarios,” said McKnight, who trains the homebred Aunt Els for the RMC Stable of Syd Cooper.

“We’d kind of expected that Original Script would go to the lead, and that if she did we would let her go, but make her work for it, not leave her alone.”

As it happened, Original Script broke a step slowly and it was Aunt Els who was the pursued rather than the pursuer.

“She broke sharp, and Justin just went on with her,” McKnight said.

And on Monday morning, said McKnight, Aunt Els looked ready to go another round.

“She was bouncing around the shed row this morning, on her toes,” the trainer said. “It was like she’d never even run.”

Aunt Els, who had made her first two starts at the $32,000 claiming level, now winds up her first campaign with a 3-for-4 record and earnings of $154,884.

And, quite naturally, long-term plans now must include next year’s Woodbine Oaks, the lucrative 1 1/8-mile race for Canadian-bred 3-year-old fillies.

“Mr. Cooper already said ‘Don’t forget to nominate her’ ”, McKnight said. “You’ve got to live the dream.”

McKnight said that Aunt Els probably would go to nearby Huntington Farm and from there to South Carolina.

Sending horses south during the off-season will be a departure for McKnight, but the uncertainty surrounding the 2013 racing season here has prompted him to change his approach.

“We don’t know when the backstretch is going to open or when the season is going to start,” McKnight said. “I’ve got a few 2-year-olds that didn’t get to race and other young horses that I have to get ready to go.”

Woodbine and the rest of the Ontario racing industry still awaits word from the provincial government on a sustainable business plan for horse racing once the racetrack slots revenue-sharing program ends March 31.

In the meantime, McKnight will be looking to build on his recent 6-for-11 roll, with Hitec Dave and Italo entered in Wednesday’s seven-furlong second race and Dubai Dot in the six-furlong fifth race.

Hitec Dave, a homebred 3-year-old gelding owned by Cooper, is stepping up a notch to $30,000 after winning at seven furlongs here Dec. 2.

Italo, a 3-year-old gelding who races for the CEC Stable of Eugene George, is coming off a win at 1 1/16 miles for $12,500.

Dubai Dot, a consistent 4-year-old homebred filly who races for Cooper, is dropping a notch into a $19,000 claiming race.

Stein at a peak

The success of Aunt Els was the latest in a career year for 32-year-old Justin Stein.

Entering the final week of the meeting, Stein stood fifth in races won with 113, fourth in money won with $6.4 million, and fifth in stakes races won with 10.

Stein also had won a stakes race on each of the previous two weekends, scoring with Fifty Proof in the Dec. 2 Sir Barton and Bear Tough Tiger in the Nov. 25 Kennedy Road.

The highlight of Stein’s season was his association with Strait of Dover, winner of the Marine Stakes and Queen’s Plate for trainer Danny Vella.