TORONTO — The last time Fort Erie-based trainer Nick Gonzalez was in a Queen’s Plate winner’s circle, he was greeted and congratulated by Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II after winning the 2010 race with Big Red Mike.
On Sunday afternoon at Woodbine Racetrack, Gonzalez will send two colts postward with hopes of equaling that performance in the $1 million Queen’s Plate, Canada’s most famous horse race for 3-year-olds foaled in Canada.
The trainer’s two hopefuls, Midnight Aria (15-1) and River Seven (20-1), are owned by Tucci Stables, run by Carlo Tucci and his nephew Lou. The 1¼-mile race for a field of 12 will be televised on CBC (Channel 5) from 4:30 to 6 p.m.; post time is 5:38 p.m. The Queen’s Plate is the first jewel of the Canadian Triple Crown. The second leg, the Prince of Wales Stakes, will be held at Fort Erie Race Track on July 30.
The two horses’ running styles are quite different and they will likely be taking different paths in attempts to win the Gallop for the Guineas. Gonzalez is hopeful those paths don’t cross.
“When you’re running in a million-dollar race and the owners own both horses, the last thing I’m going to say to both of the riders is ‘Listen, stay out of each other’s way, boys,’ ” said the 61-year-old trainer.
“Midnight Aria tends to be a front-runner type of horse and River Seven is a stalker,” explained Lou Tucci, who last ran a horse in the Plate in 2006. “I will say it is our first legitimate shot. We’re very excited; my uncle and I have been chasing this dream for over 40 years.”
Jesse Campbell will ride Midnight Aria, who drew the rail, and Todd Kabel will have the mount on River Seven, who ended up in post 12 on the far outside. There does not seem to be much pace in the race, which would favor a front-runner like Midnight Aria.
Gonzalez hopes history will repeat itself as his 2010 winner won it on the front end.
“When we had our Big Red Mike in there, he has a similar running style to Midnight Aria, and he went wire to wire in the Plate. But it wasn’t a lonesome lead – he was pressed by eventually the horse that ran second, who never let us out of his sight,” Gonzalez said.
He doesn’t think his fellow trainers will let the son of Midnight Lute get away with soft fractions. “I don’t think they are going to let Midnight Aria get anything easy, we’re going to have to earn it,” he said.
Tucci Stables claimed Midnight Aria for just $35,000 at Gulfstream this winter after spotting him while they were looking at another filly. Coincidentally, they had owned Midnight Aria’s dam years before.
“Being superstitious like we are, we owned the mare at one time,” Carlo Tucci said. “He was just a gorgeous looking horse. We called Nick back and said we’re going to pass on the filly but we really like this horse and as soon as he saw Midnight the slip was in for him. He just came out and he was big and beautiful and very majestic looking.”
River Seven, a bay son of Johannesburg, won the Grade 3 Grey Stakes as a 2-year-old but has struggled in the first two races of his sophomore season. In the Plate Trial Stakes he stumbled at the gate and never could regain the lost ground from the bad start.
“That stumbled start kind of comprised the whole situation,” Gonzalez said. “Actually the stumble was bad, and then the second regrouping step was even worse. Todd said he still couldn’t believe he stayed on him.”
Lou Tucci warns bettors not to count out River Seven despite his experiencing the sophomore blues.
“He could be the dark horse in the field,” Tucci said. “In the Plate Trial he had that bad stumble, just a miracle that Todd Kabel didn’t fall off. This is his third race after the layoff; you know what they say about third race off the layoff, it usually is the best race. He could surprise everyone on Sunday.”
Gonzalez believes the morning line favorite, Up With the Birds (2-1), warrants attention at the windows for trainer Malcolm Pierce. The horse ran a 90 Beyer Speed Figure, “and if you’re a figure kind of a guy you have to respect that,” Gonzalez said. “Actually my wife, Martha, saw him breeze last week and said he looked awesome doing it. He’s going to be the horse to beat.”
The Stormy Atlantic colt has been off for six weeks since his impressive victory in the Marine Stakes on the polytrack at Woodbine and jockey Eurico Rosa da Silva is confident Up With the Birds will be ready to fly. “I really like my horse, he’s training well,” da Silva said. “I will let him choose the position that he wants to be in. He’s a very smart horse and a very easy horse to ride plus he’s fresh.”
Two fillies will start in the race, both seeking to become the 35th filly to win the Queen’s Plate. Five-time Sovereign Award winning trainer Mark Casse, who will start four horses in the race, loves the way his filly, Spring in the Air (10-1), is coming into the race.
“Of all four of the horses, the horse training the best so far is Spring in the Air,” Casse said. “If she could come up with the effort she gave in the” Grade 1 Alcibiades “last year, she may be our best chance.”
Who does Casse fear the most? “Nipissing, in my opinion, is the horse to beat. If you told me I could eliminate one horse, it would be her,” said Casse. Nipissing (7-2), the Woodbine Oaks winner and second choice, is the daughter of Niigon, the 2004 Queen’s Plate winner.
Jockey Steven Bahen has extra incentive to win the Plate for trainer Rachel Halden aboard Nipissing, as she is his fiancee. Bahen won the 2002 Queen’s Plate riding the 82-1 underdog T J’s Lucky Moon.
“It’s her first Plate and I want to win it for her,” Bahen said. “I’ve won one already and I know it’s a great thing to win.”
Post Time outlook: 1 - Midnight Aria; 2 - Nipissing; 3 - Spring in the Air
Gene Kershner, a Buffalo-based turf writer, is a member of the National Turf Writers and Broadcasters Association, and tweets @EquiSpace.com.