There's no denying Woodbine houses Canada's most lucrative and prestigious racing scene, but the path for success in the thoroughbred game these days goes through Vancouver's Hastings Park.
On the heels of Vancouver-based jockey Mario Gutierrez riding I'll Have Another to Kentucky Derby and Preakness victories this year, a British Columbia-owned horse rode by a British Columbia jockey captured the 153rd Queen’s Plate at Woodbine on Sunday.
Justin Stein was aboard Wally and Terry Leong's Strait of Dover for a wire-to-wire trip for not only the owner’s first Queen’s Plate win, but also the 32-year-old jockey from New Westminster, B.C. maiden win in the big race.
"It has been a tremendous year for Vancouver," said Stein, who became an instant riding hit in his first year at Hastings Park back in 2004. "It was sort of like fate, almost like it was meant to be. The stars have aligned, right. Gutierrez winning the Derby and the Preakness and my horse coming into the Plate the way he did. Dominant. And, of course, we got the Vancouver rain in Toronto."
Stein makes his living at Woodbine now. This was only his fourth start in Canada’s biggest horse race, but the closest he’s come to winning was a fourth place showing aboard Ascot Bill in 2006.
Change in fortune
The Leongs, on the other hand, vowed never to enter a horse in the Plate after their first venture into the first race of Canada’s Triple Crown nine years ago when they ran Illusive Force, who banked almost $500,000 in 46 career starts.
But Illusive Force looked rather ordinary in the 2003 Plate against a field that included eventual Triple Crown winner Wando. Illusive Force finished 52 lengths behind.
There were no signs they had a champion horse in Strait of Dover, either. The dark bay colt was beaten by 24 lengths in its first race and finished fifth in its next. Then the Hastings Park season was over.
Looking for a place to continue and see if there was room for improvement in the horse, the Leongs brought Strait of Dover east to Woodbine and hoped trainer Dan Vella could turn around their fortunes with Strait of Dover. He did.
Strait of Dover finished first in his Woodbine debut, but after an inquiry was disqualified for interference in the stretch run. However, he managed to break his maiden in his final run of the season.
He began his three-year-old season with an allowance win in April and then exhibited he was a Queen's Plate contender with a dominating win in the Marine Stakes on May 12.
It turned out that Strait of Dover simply wasn't a strong performer on the dirt. The poly track at Woodbine was a different story.
"Danny talked us into it," Terry Leong said. "He said we had a chance. If we didn't have chance, if it was another 50-1 shot, we wouldn’t have entered.
"The credit goes to Danny and Justin for the ride."
Because Strait of Dover doesn't run well on a dirt track, it will be interesting to see if Vella and the Leongs enter the three-year-old in the second race in the Triple Crown, the Prince of Wales Stakes at Fort Erie on July 15. Vella was non-committal after the Queen's Plate.
In the meantime, the Leongs will return to their Canyon Farms in Kelowna, B.C., where the 2003 forest fires damaged their farm, as the latest horse racing heroes from British Columbia.
"No one in Kelowna will even know," Terry Leong said.
"We're pretty low profile," her husband Wally explained.