TORONTO — The Queen’s Plate trophy is going to take a little trip down the Queen Elizabeth Way to Fort Erie.
On Sunday afternoon before a big crowd at Woodbine Racetrack, Midnight Aria went gate-to-wire to win the 154th edition of the $1 million Queen’s Plate for Fort Erie-based trainer Nick Gonzalez. The victory in Canada’s most famous race was the second in four years for Gonzalez, who won the 2010 race with Big Red Mike. The victory was also the first for owner Tucci Stables in the Queen’s Plate.
Midnight Aria held off post-time favorite Up With the Birds at the wire by a half-length to win the 1¼-mile race in 2:04.72 through the driving rain that fell most of the afternoon. Midnight Aria returned to his backers $35.20 to win, $13 to place and $8 to show. Up With the Birds returned $3.90 to place and $2.80 to show and Dynamic Sky paid $4.40 for his third-place finish for trainer Mark Casse, who is 0 for 17 with his career Plate starters.
The victory in the first leg of Canada’s Triple Crown sets the stage for the hometown Gonzalez to secure the second jewel, the Prince of Wales Stakes, which will be run on the dirt at Fort Erie Race Track during a twilight card July 30.
Gonzalez has never won Fort Erie’s biggest race and is looking forward to bringing the son of Midnight Lute to the Fort.
“You don’t think anything could top a moment like this but you know my roots and my ties to Fort Erie and we’ve won on the dirt and the mud before. We’re going to make sure he’s all right tomorrow, but you know it would be a dream to win at Fort Erie,” Gonzalez said.
Gonzalez credits the ride by Jesse Campbell, who won his first Plate in addition to his first $1 million race. “Things were pretty realistic for us the whole way,” Gonzalez said. “Jesse decided to make his move at the three-eighths pole when he took three or four on him. I think that was the decisive move right there.”
Campbell earned the biggest win of his 18-year career by making the perfect move at the right time.
“I wanted to press the button at the three-eighths pole, which is going to sound like it’s too soon,” Campbell said. “But that’s this horse. I wanted some separation turning for home. I didn’t care about opening up and getting beat at the wire. That’s the way I wanted it and it worked. The closer he can see that wire he’s going to fight for it, and he did.”
For Tucci Stables, which claimed Midnight Aria for a mere $35,000 at Gulfstream Park, it was a culmination of 40 years of waiting to win its first Queen’s Plate and the $600,000 first-prize purse. The managers, principal Lou Tucci and his uncle Carlo, spotted Midnight Aria last winter and were amazed by the horse’s size and presence. “He just came out and he was big and beautiful and very majestic looking,” said Carlo Tucci on Thursday at the post draw.
Lone speed can be dangerous in any race and Midnight Aria cemented that this old handicapping angle is alive and well. Owner Lou Tucci was ecstatic that the game plan held up. “We had a hope that he could hold onto the lead and go all the way and Jesse gave him a great ride,” said Tucci.
Gonzalez told The News earlier in the week that the one horse he feared was the Malcolm Pierce-trained Up With the Birds and he was prophetic as the favorite was closing hard in the late going on his front-running colt. “The last 70 yards was adventurous but the horse persevered and proved he is a true stayer,” beamed Gonzalez after the race.
Up With the Birds jockey Eurico Rosa da Silva lamented that his horse could not catch the leader.
“Everything opened up for me but Midnight Aria just got away from me. 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,” said da Silva.
It’s been a good spring and early summer for the sire Midnight Lute, whose son Mylute finished a strong fifth in the Kentucky Derby and finished third in the Preakness. Midnight Lute was a two-time Breeders’ Cup Sprint champion who was bred to go long, but a breathing issue limited him to shorter distances.
Gonzalez knew all along that Midnight Lute could get the classic mile-and-a-quarter distance of the Queen’s Plate. “Midnight Lute was bred to run all day; he had that breathing problem,” Gonzalez said. “You have to take your hat off to Bob Baffert. He managed him properly with that breathing problem. His second crop of 3-year-olds is dynamite. He’s going to turn out to be a really good sire.”
For Gonzalez, who executed the perfect game plan Sunday afternoon in Toronto, he’s sure to have a different pace scenario to contend with at the border oval in 3½ weeks. Regardless of what happens next, he’ll enjoy a leisurely ride with his wife and assistant trainer, Martha, down the QEW, with the Queen’s Plate trophy in tow.
Gene Kershner, a Buffalo-based turf writer, is a member of the National Turf Writers and Broadcasters Association, and tweets @EquiSpace.