TORONTO - The royal flush tie Danny Vella was wearing Sunday, only comes out for the big stakes days, a good-luck omen that never hurts in the sport he has been making a living in since 1985.
The Toronto-born trainer has had the faded fashion accessory for so long that he believes he might have worn it for his first Queen’s Plate victory with Basqueian 18 years ago.
“It’s my lucky tie, I’ve won many a stakes race with it,” Vella said after winning Plate number two Sunday at Woodbine Racetrack. “I only wear it for big races.”
Yes, Vella wasn’t going to leave anything to chance for his biggest shot at the Plate since that first win. Strait of Dover may have been the co-favourite in the 153rd edition of the Plate, but the 56-year-old trainer wasn’t going to leave anything to chance.
Not that he needed it. Strait of Dover took four steps to assume the lead and never gave it up for the remaining 11/4 miles on Woodbine’s synthetic surface.
Good horses make good trainers, were among the first words out of Vella’s mouth afterwards but as per his outfit, a little good luck never hurts either.
“In this business, man, if you can do it once, you’re lucky,” Vella said of the long gap between drinks in the opening jewel of the Canadian Triple Crown.
“I feel very, very lucky to have been able to do this twice. If it takes that long, we’ll do it again. It’s a competitive race and just that tough to win.”
It’s not as if Vella didn’t have his chances, either. In the four runnings of the Plate immediately following his first win, he had 10 starters, all with a story, none with a winning trip.
There has only been one good enough to make it to the Canadian classic since Strait of Dover came into his barn last fall, another welcome piece of fortune for a trainer who like most in his profession has had his share of highs and lows.
When Straight of Dover raced like a cheap claiming horse in his first two starts at Vancouver’s Hastings Park, the meet was ending and a change of scenery was necessary. So owners Wally and Terry Leong got a list of possible Woodbine trainers and went on the Internet to do some research.
“We saw that Dan was wonderful with young horses and that’s how we got here,” Terry Leong said.
Away from the dirt of Hastings and on to the synthetic surface at Woodbine, Strait of Dover thrived just as he did in Sunday’s wire-to-wire victory.
“When Danny got him, he said: ‘This could be a nice horse,’ ” Wally Leong said. “When he won his first race last November, he said to me: ‘I’m not letting this horse out of my sight.”
Though he may not have won the second Plate many predicted would have come much sooner until now, Vella knows his way around a good racehorse. His career started with a bang when he was hired by the late Steve Stavro’s Knob Hill Farm in 1990, a gig that didn’t last long.
Fortune smiled soon after, however, when Frank Stronach stepped in and employed the young trainer and before long he was a Plate and Sovereign Award winner as Canada’s top trainer. In 1995 he won 24 stakes wins and his career was on the fast track.
“Just getting to this race is an accomplishment,” Vella said of the Plate. “We’re dreamers in this business. If we’re not, we’re in the wrong business. That goes for owners and trainers and all the way down to the hot walkers who work so hard on the horses.
“This is what we live for and we just keep swinging.”
While nobody believes the 153rd Plate was the final running, as threatened by Woodbine CEO Nick Eaves at Thursday’s post position draw, a dark cloud mingled with the big crowd enjoying the festivities of the historic race.
With the Ontario government’s threat to remove the slot machines that have revived the business, the threat is real that the race will never be what it once was. The $1-million purse is as good as gone, if Premiere Dalton McGuinty carries through with his threat the glory days of the Plate will seem even more distant.
“It’s a very trying time for our industry,” Vella said. “We don’t know where we’re going from here.
“I don’t want to be known as the guy who won the last one. Hopefully it will all get worked out and I’ll get a chance to enjoy this some more.”
As Vella knows as well as anyone, it’s a feeling that never gets old.