Four years ago, when he was the farm trainer for Frank Stronach at Adena Springs South near Ocala, Fla., Danny Vella had the satisfaction of seeing former pupils Perfect Stingand Macho Uno
win Breeders' Cup races. At this year's Breeders' Cup World Thoroughbred Championships, Vella is seeking an even bigger thrill--training a winner of his own.
Vella, who left Florida to train for Stronach at Woodbine a few years back, parted ways with the Magna Entertainment magnate, and opened a public stable in his native Ontario last March. One of his 23 stalls is occupied by Knights Templar, a contender in the Alberto VO5 Juvenile Fillies (gr. I) who will fetch a nice mutuel price should she get to the wire first. She is an accomplished runner north of the border, a two-time stakes winner who was most impressive at 8 1/2 furlongs in her last outing, a sensational 13 1/4-length victory in the Mazarine Breeders' Cup (gr. III).
"Looking at the (speed) numbers, it seems to me I'm going in there no worse than third-best," said Vella. "The two New York fillies (Adieu and Folklore) are a step above on paper and they're nice fillies, but I'm not sure if they're superior."
Vella has experience on racing's biggest day. He sent out Dargai to a seventh-place finish in the 1990 Sprint, had Honky Tonk Tune in the 1994 Juvenile Fillies, and ran fourth with Cash Deposit in the 1996 Juvenile. After training at the racetrack, he decided a farm job would be a settling experience for his family, which includes two children, so he took the Adena Springs job until the kids were grown, then headed back to the track when Stronach asked him to take over a string at Woodbine.
"It was a mutual decision to part ways as we were going in two different directions," Vella said. "I'm doing OK now as a public trainer. It's been a rebuilding year, but things are going well."
Ironically, Vella owns a piece of Knights Templar with Adena Springs farm manager Dan Hall, Adena Springs South farm manager Mark Roberts, and Jack Brothers, who sells stallion seasons and more for the Adena operation. The other half of Knights Templar is owned by Florida breeders Krista and Ed Seltzer.
"Dan, Mark, Jack, and I have invested in a few broodmares and bought and sold a few weanlings and yearlings and raced the odd horse for the about 12 years now," Vella said. "We're trying to upgrade our quality of horses and broodmares, and so we bought this filly because we liked her pedigree (Exploit--Religiosity, by Irish Tower). We figured if we could get her a little black type, we could keep her as a nice broodmare, and it's worked out well.
"We always knew she was a nice filly. She got in trouble in a stake her second start, and then after her second in an allowance, I started training her more aggressively and she responded to it, turned things around, and went to a new level. She won a sprint stake and jumped up again. She's been getting better all summer. Her last work going into the Mazarine was top caliber, and she ran to that work and has stayed that good since."
Vella realizes he's going up against more-recognized fillies in the Breeders' Cup, but he maintains a cautious optimism. "It's a long way from Woodbine to New York, and I don't mean in miles," he noted. "It's a tough jump from here to there, and if she hadn't run as well as she did I probably wouldn't have tried this, but she ran so well I just have to. This is exciting, and being a part-owner, it makes it even more exciting."