TORONTO - Justin Stein couldn't have picked a better time to register his first career Queen's Plate win.
The native of New Westminster, B.C., took Strait of Dover to the lead from the start, then cruised to a 1 1/4-length victory in the $1-million race, the future of which remains very uncertain.
"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 hope and pray there will be racing here for a long time to come.''
On Thursday, Nick Eaves, the president and chief operating officer of Woodbine Entertainment Group, announced this year's race could be the last if the Ontario government doesn't change its plan to scrap a slot machine revenue-sharing program at provincial tracks. Earlier this year, Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty announced he was axing a revenue-sharing agreement with racetracks that gives them $345 million annually to split with horse owners and breeders.
McGuinty said the revenue-sharing program will be cancelled by March 2013.
Trainer Dan Vella earned his second career Plate victory — he won in '94 with Basqueian — and the 56-year-old Toronto native has his fingers crossed he won't go down as the last conditioner to win the historic race, which is North America's oldest continuously run stakes event.
"It's a very trying time for our industry, we don't know where we're going from here,'' he said. "It (Queen's Plate) is a Canadian tradition and a lot of people make their living doing this.
"I don't know if I want to be known as the guy to win the last one but I guess someone had to. Hopefully we'll all be here and everything will get worked out and we'll enjoy this some more.''
If this indeed was the final Queen's Plate, Strait of Dover made sure it was a memorable one.
The dark bay captured the opening leg of the Triple Crown very impressively, finishing the 1 1/4-mile race in a polytrack-record time of 2:01.99 in a light rain at Woodbine Racetrack. The victory was the fourth straight on Woodbine's polytrack since owners Wally and Terry Leong decided to move their horse from Hastings Park in Vancouver to Toronto.
"Within the first eighth of a mile I was watching to kind of see how the race was going to unfold and everybody was non-commital, they all took hold right away,'' Stein said. "My horse was going easy and I knew I was allowed to go to the lead, the trainer told me I was more than welcome to go to the lead and not to feel worried about that.
"I have a lot of confidence in the horse . . . he took command of the race. He's a true champion, he wanted to win the race.''
Actually, Stein guided Strait of Dover to victory in his first race on the polytrack last November but was relegated to third after being disqualified. Still, Strait of Dover hasn't finished out of the money since arriving at Woodbine and overall has four wins in seven career starts with over $765,000 in earnings.
"The polytrack imitates the turf course quite a bit and I think in the end he's really bred for the turf," Vella said. "Someday we'll try it but right now he's making a good living where he is.''
Fillies Irish Mission and Dixie Strike were second and third, respectively, in the 14-horse field. The remainder, in order of finish, included: Colleen's Sailor; Ultimate Destiny; River Rush; Making Amends; Classic Bryce; Washington Dash; Golden Ridge; Wilcox; Macho Whiskey; Peyton; and Big Creek.
Strait of Dover paid $9.60, $5.80 and $4.30. Irish Mission returned $8.40 and $6.20 while Dixie Strike paid $5.50.
Strait of Dover's victorious run Sunday again put Hastings Park in the racing spotlight. Earlier, Mario Gutierrez, a former jockey at the track, made headlines around the world after guiding I'll Have Another to victory in the Kentucky Derby and Preakness before the horse was forced to retire due to injury prior to running the Belmont with the U.S. Triple Crown on the line.
Fittingly, Stein, Strait of Dover and the horse's connections celebrated afterwards in the winner's circle while being soaked in a heavy rain.
"It has been a tremendous year for Vancouver," Stein said. "It was sort of like fate, it was almost like it was meant to be and the stars had aligned.
"And, of course, we got the Vancouver rain here in Toronto.''
The son of English Channel came into the Plate off a commanding 6 1/2-length win in the Marine Stakes on May 12. He was forced to miss the Plate Trial on June 3 due to sickness.
"We were debating whether to run or not," Vella said. "Six weeks is a bit long but if you're going to go into a race with a horse like this that tries this hard he has to be perfect and he wasn't quite perfect so we had to wait.
"We didn't have a choice.
Still, Strait of Dover became the first horse to win the Marine and Plate in the same year since Wando did so in 2003 en route to becoming the last horse to capture the Canadian Triple Crown.
But Vella remained very non-commital about whether Strait of Dover would run in the $500,000 Prince of Wales Stakes next month, the second jewel of the Canadian Triple Crown. And with good reason.
The horse has historically struggled on dirt surfaces, posting fifth- and sixth-place finishes in his first two career starts at Hastings Park. And the track at Fort Erie also has a dirt surface.
''Certainly that is part of our decision," Vella said. "That's a tough one for us.
"He doesn't train as well on the dirt sometimes but we may have to try him over the course or try a few different things. We'll have to see.''