With the future of the race very much in doubt and light rain falling from above, New Westminister, B.C. jockey Justin Stein ran the race of his life to capture the 153rd, and possibly last, Queen’s Plate.
Stein grabbed the reins of Strait of Dover to lead the 14-horse field from the beginning and held on for a 1 1/4-length victory in a polytrack-record time of 2:01.99 at Woodbine Racetrack on Sunday. It was the jockey’s first Plate win and also the first for Kelowna owners Terry and Wally Leong.
Placing in second was Irish Mission and Dixie Strike took third place. Rounding out the finish were Colleen's Sailor, Ultimate Destiny, River Rush, Making Amends, Classic Bryce, Washington Dash, Golden Ridge, Wilcox, Macho Whiskey, Peyton and Big Creek.
“I loved this horse all along,” said Stein. “He’s shown me, and I have said it time and time again, that he is a racehorse. He wants to get out here and he wants to win.”
“I didn’t have to be on the lead with him today but no one else wanted to go and we were going pretty easy so I just let him roll on up there. I have faith in this horse and he just galloped around there like a champ.”
Stein’s victory aboard the dark bay colt once again put Vancouver’s Hastings Park racetrack back in the spotlight. Although he now races out of Woodbine, he followed the success of another former Hastings Park jockey Mario Gutierrez who rode I’ll Have Another to Kentucky Derby and Preakness victories earlier this year.
“It has been a tremendous year for Vancouver,” said Stein who was soaked from head to toe as heavy rain poured down seconds after crossing the finish line. “It was sort of like fate, almost like it was meant to be. The stars have aligned.”
“Gutierrez winning the Derby and the Preakness and my horse coming into the Plate the way he did – dominant – and myself being there."
To show his comical side and sense of humour Stein added, “And of course we got the Vancouver rain in Toronto.”
Jockey Justin Stein gives the thumbs after riding Strait of Dover to victory. The New Westminister native picked up his first Queen's Plate win
Trainer Dan Vella picked up his second Queen’s Plate having previously won in 1994 with Basqueian. The Toronto native admitted the strategy was not to lead the race at the start but in the end Strait of Dover just ran away from the pack.
“We talked about it with Justin and we analyzed the race and we thought it was a possibility we would end up on the front end. We really didn’t want that. You’re doing the work for everyone else, but if you’re there, you’re there.
“Justin is just a great rider with a lot of confidence. He knew once he was out there he had to try and slow it down. He is a great horse and it was a great ride.”
Strait of Dover did not fare well in its first two races last year in Vancouver on a dirt track, but since it was bred for turf the Leongs decided to move the horse to track that had turf and a polytrack. The ideal choice was Woodbine and Strait of Dover was placed it in the care of Vella.
The trainer had an instant impact as it won its first race in Toronto last November but was later disqualified for interference and relegated to third place. In seven starts at Woodbine it has four wins including another dominating victory in the Marine Stakes on May 12 and has a total of $765,000 in earnings. That last win set the stage for the Queen’s Plate as Vella was confident in the abilities of the thoroughbred.
The Leongs were hesitant to return to the big race after suffering a big disappointment in 2003 of their last and only previous entrant, Illusive Force, finished 52 lengths behind the winner. But it was Vella who convinced the Leongs to enter Strait of Dover in the Queen’s Plate and the rest, as the saying goes, is history.
Vella and the Leongs have not decided if the Strait of Dover will run in the second race of the Canadian Triple Crown – the Prince of Wales Stakes at Fort Erie on July 15 – because of the three-year-old’s poor record on dirt tracks.
Race in Jeopardy
Earlier in the week, Nick Eaves, the president and chief operating officer of Woodbine Entertainment Group, made a surprising and bold statement saying that this year’s edition of the historic race may be the last.
The comment stems from the Ontario government plans to end a slot machine revenue-sharing program at racetracks in the province. The program slated to end in March 2013 currently gives racetracks $345 million annually and is split with breeders and horse owners.
“It has been in the back of my mind,” Stein said. "I hope it's not the last Queen's Plate ever run.
“It's something that's out of my hands and I hope and pray everyday there will be racing here for a long time to come.”Aman Dhanoa is a Toronto sports beat reporter covering games live and bringing Digital Journal insights from within the locker room.This article was originally published on Oye! Times