TORONTO, April 16 – Reigning Queen’s Plate champion Strait of Dover, on the shelf since suffering a soft-tissue injury in July while training for the Breeders’ Stakes, is back in training at Woodbine Racetrack.
The Canyon Farms’ homebred, ridden confidently by Justin Stein, made every pole a winning one while taking the $1-million Queen’s Plate, Canada’s most famous horse race, in record time.
"Strait of Dover is doing great," said trainer Dan Vella. "He’s been back in training about 40 days now. He hasn’t breezed yet, we’re not at that stage, as he’s been out of training for quite awhile."
Strait of Dover, who breezed seven furlongs over the training turf on July 22 in 1:28, was preparing for the third jewel of the Canadian Triple Crown, the Breeders’ Stakes, when the injury occurred.
"The day that he injured himself, he took a bad step on the training turf course," recalled Vella. "It was a sensational work, we were getting ready for the Breeders’ Stakes and I think he would have been real tough in that race."
Bred in B.C., the dark bay son of English Channel-Bahrain Star was winless in two starts at Hastings in Vancouver before being shipped to Woodbine.
Since arriving at Woodbine, Strait of Dover had never had a horse finish in front of him (he was disqualified for interference and placed third in his Woodbine debut) in five Polytrack starts, including the Plate, first jewel of the Triple Crown.
Strait of Dover, fresh off a 6 1/2-length romp in the Marine Stakes, was unstoppable on Plate day.
Sent postward as the 7-2 second choice to Plate Trial winner River Rush, Strait of Dover went immediately to the front and never looked back, taking the field of 14 through splits of :23.85, :47.74, 1:12.31 and 1:37.07 en route to a 1 1/4-length score over filly Irish Mission in 2:01.99.
Vella recalls being briefly concerned with the quick pace in the Plate.
"Of course you’re worried," laughed Vella. "I looked at the horse, and I was comfortable with how he was going, but when I looked at the clock I was kind of worried. It was mixed emotions, but you don’t really have that much time to think about it.
"Our plan wasn’t to go to the front, but to put him where he was comfortable and he was obviously comfortable doing that and Justin knew it and took advantage of it. It was a pretty impressive win."
Vella is hopeful he can have Strait of Dover in peak form for Woodbine’s fall turf series.
"He seems to be 110 per cent right now," said Vella. "I don’t have a race picked out and it will probably be another 20 or 30 days before he breezes. We’re taking our time and will focus on a late summer or fall campaign."
Strait of Dover, who was on a jogging machine in February, began jogging at Woodbine in March, and has now worked his way up to galloping as Vella takes his time with a horse he believes can win at the highest level.
"He’s a special horse. A horse that can sprint like he did as a two-year-old and three-year-old and then go a mile and a quarter and run a half in :47 and keep going and do all the work, he’s a pretty special animal," said Vella. "We don’t know how good he is yet, but hopefully he stays healthy and we can figure that out. I hope we’ll pick up in July or August right where we left off."
While the barn waits on Strait of Dover, Vella is hopeful he may have another Plate contender in Sweet Little Man, a Don Amos homebred by 2006 Belmont Stakes winner, Jazil.
"We’ve kept him Plate eligible and he’s doing very well," said Vella. "If he can prove his way there, we’d like to take him in that direction. He’s a pretty nice horse."
Sweet Little Man finished fourth in his debut, a tough maiden special weight won by eventual Grade 3 Swale Stakes winner, Clearly Now. After finishing second and third in his next two starts, while racing in top company, Sweet Little Man broke his maiden in his final juvenile start, covering seven furlongs in 1:23.64.
Vella is realistic about the colt’s chances of following in the footsteps of his more accomplished stable mate.
"It might be a tough year to be in the Queen’s Plate with all these real nice Canadian-breds (Uncaptured, Dynamic Sky) that Mark Casse has," said Vella. "It’s (the Plate) on our mind, but he’ll have to prove his way there."
The barn will also be pleased to have Grade 3 Seagram Cup Stakes champ Alpha Bettor and versatile Grade 2 Play the King winner Big Band Sound back on the track.
"They’re both back in training and doing really well," said Vella. "We’ve got a few nice ones to work with and we’d like to win as many races as we can and do well for our owners. The goal, at the end of the day, is to make it enjoyable for the owners and make a few bucks for everybody."
And, as Vella can attest, there’s no better way to keep an owner happy than to win the Queen’s Plate.