06/25/2012 11:41AM

Woodbine: Strait of Dover uncertain for second leg of Canadian Triple Crown

Michael Burns
Strait of Dover leads from gate to wire while setting a track record in Sunday’s $1 million Queen’s Plate.

ETOBICOKE, Ontario – Strait of Dover became the first British Columbia-bred winner of the Queen’s Plate on Sunday, registering an impressive wire-to-wire victory under regular rider Justin Stein.

But will Strait of Dover even attempt to become the second British Columbia-bred winner of the Prince of Wales, following in the long-ago footsteps of Rushton’s Corsair in 1974?

The Prince of Wales, the 1 3/16-mile race that is the second leg of the Canadian Triple Crown, will be run over Fort Erie’s dirt surface July 15.

“I don’t see much dirt in his future,” said Danny Vella, who trains the homebred Strait of Dover for the British Columbia-based Canyon Farm of Wally and Terry Leong. “I’ll have to talk to the owners, at great length, because it’s such an important decision, whether to go to Fort Erie.

“He’s gallops on the training track here sometimes, and he breezed on the dirt this winter in Ocala. My gut feeling tells me he doesn’t handle it very well.”

Strait of Dover had been shipped to Vella last fall by the Leongs after failing to impress in his first two races over the five-furlong Hastings dirt surface.

“In his first race, he broke slow, and in his second race, he ducked into the rail from the one hole,” Wally Leong said in the wake of Strait of Dover’s Queen’s Plate tour de force. “He’d been training pretty much all summer, and the meet there was going to be over soon. With his grass breeding I thought ‘Let’s go to Woodbine and try the grass and the Polytrack there.

“My good friends Dr. Ross McKague and Russ Bennett suggested I send him to Danny.”

Strait of Dover has yet to try the grass, but he has crossed the finish line first in each of his five starts on Polytrack, although he was disqualified on the first occasion.

Sent to Florida for the winter, with an eye toward the Queen’s Plate, Strait of Dover returned to win a first-level allowance at seven furlongs and the 1 1/16-mile Marine Stakes here May 12.

His progress to the Queen’s Plate was not entirely smooth, however, as Strait of Dover was scheduled to run in the 1 1/8-mile Plate Trial on June 3 but was not entered after a blood test revealed a low white cell count.

“The horse was doing so good that we thought about running, but my gut was telling me not to,” Vella said. “You don’t run a horse of his caliber, unless he’s 100 percent.’

Strait of Dover missed just two days of training and the six weeks off heading into the Queen’s Plate evidently had little impact as his performance yielded a career-best Beyer Speed Figure of 95.

And, if a trip to Fort Erie is not in the cards, then Strait of Dover could be looking at another six-week gap to the $500,000 Breeders’ Stakes.

The Breeders’, the 1 1/2-mile turf race that is the final leg of Canada’s Triple Crown, will be run here Aug. 5.

In the meantime, Vella will savor his second Queen’s Plate victory, the first having come with Basqueian in 1994.

“The last time, it was maybe more exciting, because I was young,” the 56-year-old Vella said. “This time, I knew how tough it is to do it. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime thing for most people.”

Career highlight for owner, jockey

Sunday’s victory was a career highlight for the Leongs, who had come east for the Queen’s Plate with Illusive Force in 2003 only to watch that colt finish a distant last behind eventual Triple Crown winner Wando.

Other multiple stakes winners campaigned by Canyon Farm in recent years have included Lord Samarai, Lord Shogun, Starlit Strike, and Stratoplan.

This year, the Leongs have had a quiet time at the current Hastings meeting with their 10-odd horses conditioned by Strait of Dover’s original trainer, Cindy Krasner.

As of Monday morning, however, Canyon Farm was sitting third in the Woodbine owner standings in money won courtesy of the $725,160 banked by Strait of Dover.

The Queen’s Plate also was far and away the biggest victory in the career of the 32-year-old Stein, whose previous monetary high came with Stormy Lord in last year’s $250,000 PTHA President’s Cup at Parx Racing.

The Queen’s Plate success also represents a symbolic milestone as Stein, who had moved his tack here from Hastings in fall 2005, arguably has been performing at the highest level in his career here this season.

“I give a lot of credit to my agent, Neal Wilson,” said Stein, whose pair of stakes wins with Strait of Dover and Gypsy Ring already has matched his total for the 2011 meeting. “He’s hard-working and dedicated.

“We’ve just been fortunate, too. That’s how it is in this business. We’ve had the right horses, in the right spots.”

Stein also allows that circumstances of his own making could be contributing to his success.

“I think I’ve changed my style a little bit,” Stein said. “I’m a little more comfortable, a little more willing to let the horse do what it wants to do.

“Maybe I’m a little hungrier, too – maybe I want it more. I can’t really put my finger on it.”

Handle down for Queen’s Plate Day

A total of $8,437,639 was bet on the 12-race program, a 4 percent decrease from the $8,768,145 bet last year.

Wagering on the 14-horse Queen’s Plate itself was $2,380,994, down 22 percent from 2011. There were 17 horses in the Queen’s Plate last year and the handle was $2,893,357.

All figures are according to Equibase as provided by Daily Racing Form charts.

Woodbine management estimated the attendance for this year’s Queen’s Plate at 29,000, despite an uncertain weather forecast.

A walking-ring area with an accent on fashion, with food trucks and strolling entertainment including young ladies sporting boa constrictors, was deemed to have been successful in attracting a younger demographic.