Strait Stuff - by David Schmitz

(Originally published in the July 7, 2012 issue of The Blood-Horse magazine. Feel free to share your own thoughts and opinions at the bottom of the column.)  

Wally and Terry Leong’s homebred Strait of Dover did more than just win the 153rd running of the Queen’s Plate Stakes at Woodbine June 24. The 3-year-old son of champion turf male English Channel set a track record of 2:01.99 in the 11⁄4-mile race while becoming the first British Columbia-bred to win the race.

The victory, perhaps one of the greatest accomplishments in British Columbia sports history, could hardly have been imagined last summer. Strait of Dover, named for the strait in the English Channel between England and France, was beaten 233⁄4 lengths and then by seven lengths on dirt in his first two races at Hastings Racecourse in Vancouver.

“Our trainer in Vancouver, Cindy Krasner, loved him as a 2-year-old, but Strait of Dover couldn’t get a hold of the track,” said Terry Leong, who was raised in Calgary, Alberta, and whose husband was raised in Victoria, British Columbia. “The Hastings meet ended in early October. At the time, Strait of Dover was fit and lightly raced, and it didn’t make sense to bring him home.”

Home is the Leongs’ Canyon Farms in Belle-
view Creek Canyon near Kelowna, B.C. The Leongs, who have bred and raced several other stakes winners in the farm’s name, have owned their farm for 26 years.

As for Strait of Dover, the Leongs instead decided to send him to Woodbine. “Wally had asked a friend, Dr. Ross McKague, for the names of some trainers at Woodbine and he gave him some including Dan Vella’s,” Terry Leong said. “When Wally mentioned Dan’s name to another of our friends, R.J. Bennett (owner of Flying Horse Farm), R.J. said, ‘I’ve used him before and I really like him.’ ”

Vella had other credentials. “He trained for Frank Stronach and for the Sikura family’s Hill ‘n’ Dale Farms and was good with young horses,” Leong said. “When Dan got Strait of Dover, he phoned us and said, ‘Do you have any more like him you can send? He’s a nice horse, and I think he’s going to fit in well.’ ”

Still a maiden, Strait of Dover made his first start over Woodbine’s Polytrack in November. He finished first but was disqualified and placed third. He started the next month over Polytrack and won.

“Dan was still high on him and after his first win said, ‘He’s my Queen’s Plate horse,’ ” Leong said.

Vella sent Strait of Dover to Nelson Jones Training Center near Ocala, Fla., for the winter. Following his return to Woodbine this year, Strait of Dover won an allowance race and the Marine Stakes (by 61⁄2 lengths). He was scheduled to run in the Plate Trial Stakes June 3 but showed a high white cell count before the race. Despite not running in the prep, he proved a comfortable winner—by 11⁄4 lengths—of the Queen’s Plate.

“Wally has always loved horses and racing,” his wife said. “He started as an owner and later became a breeder. He has win pictures from the 1960s. When I met him, he had a different farm, but it wasn’t hands-on like the farm is now.”

The Leongs own 12 broodmares and 45 horses overall. They bought Strait of Dover’s dam, Bahrain Star, because she is by Danzig.

“We had a Danzig mare before, and she produced stakes winner Illusive Force,” Terry Leong said.

Illusive Force was by the Leongs’ unraced stallion Yoonevano (by Seattle Slew) out of Subtle Blend. Illusive Force proved to be a good one. He won six stakes starting in 2002 and earned $447,919. He contested the 2003 Queen’s Plate and finished last.

The Leongs bought Bahrain Star in foal to Smart Strike for $27,000 at the 2002 Keeneland November breeding stock sale. She was consigned by Hill ‘n’ Dale Sales Agency, agent. The resultant foal from that mating, Starlite Strike, won the British Columbia Cup Distaff Handicap (at Hastings) and the Northlands Oaks and was graded stakes-placed at Hastings.

Bahrain Star produced four foals by Yoonevano. All four started, and all four are winless.

“We thought we could breed any Danzig mare to Yoonevano and that the foals would do well. But they didn’t. Only Subtle Well did well when bred to him,” Leong said.

The Leongs changed directions, feeling that since Bahrain Star had produced Starlite Strike from a mating to Smart Strike, the best thing to do was to send the mare back to that stallion. Unfortunately, Smart Strike’s fee at the time ($150,000) was too high.  They decided on English Channel (a son of Smart Strike) despite the fact the stallion had made all 23 of his starts on grass and Hastings does not have a turf course.

“We thought maybe they had never tried English Channel on any other surface because why would you switch him if he had done so well (on grass),” Leong said. “We were just hoping that somewhere in English Channel’s pedigree there was some way we could get a non-turf horse.”

Needless to say, they found a way.

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