This 154th running of the CAN$1-million Queen's Plate was wet. The rain gushed so hard that race announcer Dan Loiselle couldn't see the field for the $150,000 Singspiel Stakes, two races before the Plate and did a lot of guessing before Forte Dei Marmi came dashing out of the mist. It was so wet that people in the large crowd wrapped themselves in plastic and endured water running off the ends of their noses. Reporters dodged leaks in the press box.
But for veteran trainer Nick Gonzalez, the rains at Woodbine were just fine, thank you, as he won his second Plate in four years. Both wins came with horses that sprinted to the lead and found the finish wire for the 1 1/4-mile race before anybody could catch them. And the rain didn't dampen the spirits of bettors, who poured CAN$9,739,879 through the windows, an all-sources record for Plate day.
“We've got the Polytrack here, but actually, if it had rained on a dirt track, we would have been ecstatic,” Gonzalez said.
Midnight Aria had won in the slop at Gulfstream in February. Still, he thinks the rain helped him on the synthetic as well. Usually when a lot of rain falls on the surface, it favors speed.
Gonzalez won the Plate in 2010 with Big Red Mike and this time it was with Midnight Aria, overlooked at odds of 16-1. The big, easy-going son of Midnight Lute won by a half length, holding off a desperate charge from fleet-footed favorite Up With the Birds, bet down to 8-5. The Sam-Son Farm colt finished 7 1/2 lengths ahead of Dynamic Sky, winner of the Plate Trial, with Joel Rosario aboard.
Spring In The Air, one of two fillies in the race, finished fourth at odds of almost 11-1, while Nipissing, second favorite at 5-1, was eighth. Up With the Birds' stablemate, His Race to Win, finished sixth.
Eurico Rosa da Silva, rider of Up With The Birds, said he had a dream trip, coming from the back of the field and looming quickly up on the far outside with a furious brush of speed.
“Everything opened up for me, but another horse [Midnight Aria] got away from me,” he said. “In this rain, with his speed, I was really scared of the speed. I moved my horse early to try and get a little closer, but we could not get there.”
Rosario said he didn't think they were going that fast (the leader took the field to the quarter in 24.63 seconds), but found to his dismay that the pacesetter kept on going.
“Every time we came to him, he had another gear,” said Rosario.
Truth is, Midnight Aria ran comfortably on an uncontested lead and quickened the pace in the second quarter (:48.58), then stole off further at the three-eighths pole. It was the winning move: Up With The Birds couldn't overcome it.
Winning rider Jesse Campbell was close to tears after the race.
“I'm going to cry,” he admitted on his way back to the winner's circle.
He's had a rough couple of weeks, being dumped off horses twice – once coming out of the tunnel onto the track, and once right out of the starting gate.
“I've been working 18 years for this,” he said, his voice cracking.
A native of Wisconsin,Campbell had been riding in Chicago, but with a toughening economic environment, he looked further afield. He settled on Woodbine and moved to ride here full time two years ago.
”I've liked this place since I got here,” he said. “I got here two weeks before my wife, and I told her to hurry up and get here because I fell in love with the place. I saw the opportunities.”
Midnight Aria is the first claimer to win the Queen's Plate since Bompago in 1983. Gonzalez claimed the horse in Florida in January for $35,000, for owners Lou Tucci and his uncle Carlo of Toronto. They are an intrepid twosome who are aggressive and enthusiastic claimers during their years in the business. They've made some excellent claims in their day, producing stakes winners Jungle Wave and One for Rose (claimed for $40,000, she won $1.3-million), but the Plate was beyond their ken.
“I don't think words can explain how you really feel,” Carlo said. “You only see the one horse, then you go blind and you yell and scream. That's all you can do.”
Gonzalez said he and the Tuccis were looking for Canadian-bred 3-year-olds in Florida at Gulfstream to bring back to Canada. Ironically enough, the Tuccis had claimed Shebandowana, the dam of Midnight Aria years ago – and she was a plug at the track.
“They gave her away, for a pittance,” Gonzalez said. But that didn't stop them from plunking down $35,000 for her grand-looking son in Florida.
“The racing gods kind of look down on you and feel sorry for you for making a bad decision. They did that day, but when Midnight Aria came over that afternoon at Gulfstream, we had the claim slip made out and he was a big, good looking horse. There was never any doubt. We just put that claim slip in and luckily there were no other claims for him. “
What they got was a colt with good composure and a good brain. Nothing fazed him. Nothing fazes the Gonzalez team as well. Nick's wife, Martha, is in charge of the string at Woodbine, while Nick handles a large second string at Fort Erie racetrack.
Four years ago, Gonzalez celebrated his Plate win by heading back to the barn on a hot, sweltering day, much like this: “Got the congratulatories from all our fellow trainers and all our friends, and then I just got in the car, drove three quarters of the way back to Fort Erie, stopped at McDonalds, got something to eat, and started training the horses at Fort Erie the next day.”
It will be much the same this time, but Gonzalez admits that he looks forward to the second jewel of the Canadian Triple Crown, the Prince of Wales, at his home track, Fort Erie, on Tuesday, July 30.
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