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IT'S NOT OFTEN you get to see a "Fort Erie horse" prepping for the Queen's Plate, so when the Happy Handicapper heard about Key Timing the other day, he got up early and scooted over the border.

His own timing couldn't have been more key. He got to the Fort just in time to meet trainer Mike Luider leading the 3-year-old bay gelding to his morning exercise.

If Key Timing, a definite long shot (he was rated at 50-1 by program handicapper Jim Bannon last month), should pop up and win Canada's most famous race July 8, it's going to make one heck of a tale.

It's also going to make the folks at the celebrated Kinghaven Farms a bit chagrined.

Until recently, Key Timing was a member of Team Kinghaven, the big Roger Attfield-trained stable whose stars include With Approval, last year's Plate winner, and Izvestia, this year's Plate favorite.

The son of sire Mr. Leader out of a Mr. Prospector-sired mare named Platinum Princess, Key Timing was born in April 1987 at the Kinghaven nursery of the Willmot family at King City, Ont.

On paper, this is very nice breeding. Mr. Leader has sired some 65 stakes winners, including Ruhlmann, Martial Law and Wise Times. Mr. Prospector has sired champions such as Conquistador Cielo, Gulch, Forty Niner and Afleet.

But a quick look at Key Timing's past performances shows that the colt has not lived up to the potential of his pedigree.

He started his career last August and lost three maiden races at Woodbine by an average of a little more than 8 lengths. He finally won a race, a $32,000 claiming event at a mile, on a sloppy track one Thursday night last November. He finished third in his next start and then, in his final 2-year-old race on Greenwood's closing night, he ran second by 2 3/4 lengths to Slew of Angels, at the time a major Plate hope of rival Sam-Son Farm.

Key Timing wintered with the Kinghaven cavalry at Payson Park in Florida, snapped off three sparkling spring workouts at Kentucky's Keeneland, and returned to Toronto in mid-April.

But as a 3-year-old, Key Timing continued his close-but-no-cigar career, finishing second, fourth and fourth in allowance races by an average of 4 1/2 lengths.

After his May 20 disappointment -- a 2 3/4 -length loss over 1 1/1 6 miles at Woodbine -- Kinghaven apparently decided to cut him from the team, which already included Izvestia and six other Plate candidates.

About three weeks ago, Kinghaven sold Key Timing for an undisclosed price to Don Denard's Red Diamond Farm of Alberta.

As Luider explained, Red Diamond's trainer, an old friend named Brad Smythe, wanted to point Key Timing to the Western Canada Derby series later in the year. In the meantime, Smythe asked Luider to take care of the horse and run him in a 1 1/1 6-mile allowance race at Woodbine last Saturday.

After three workouts at Fort Erie, including a handy 7-furlong trip in 1:27 2/5 on the previous Sunday, Key Timing went to Woodbine and beat four rivals, winning by a half-length in 1:44 4/5 . Suddenly, the Queen's Plate became a logical next step.

The time broke no records, but it was only two seconds slower than the fastest time at the distance in the past three years. For avid readers of the Daily Racing Form, this translates into a speed rating of "90" over a track with a variant of "13." The win was worth $14,400 and brought Key Timing's bankroll up to $45,794. In 10 starts he has two wins, two seconds and two thirds.

As Racing Form chart caller Arnie Porter described it, Key Timing "advanced along the rail to vie for command around the clubhouse turn, stayed inside pressing the issue in early stretch, dueled in mid-stretch, and prevailed under alternate handling."

Although the field was small, the opposition in Saturday's race included some nice horses.

As Luider said, "We figured two or three behind him were going to be in the Plate."

The beaten favorite was Vice Majesty, a Vice Regent colt with a two-race winning streak. Second choice was Sam-Son's Secret 'n Classy, a son of Secretariat who had finished third to Izvestia in a stakes race last month. The field also included Halo's Honey, a son of Sunny's Halo who had been second in two stakes.

Luider said the final decision about whether to race in the Plate is up to the owner. But he said he is "90 percent sure" that Key Timing will run in the big race.

"I don't know an owner who doesn't want to run in the Plate," he said. "It's not every day you get to lead one over in the Q.P."

Don Seymour, who has been the regular rider on Key Timing, also rides Izvestia and is not likely to switch mounts. Luider said he probably will invite Irwin Driedger, his regular jockey when he runs horses at Woodbine, to ride.

Luider admits he has had little experience preparing horses for races of 1 1/4 miles, the Plate distance. But, as he quipped, "I've watched the masters."

He said he plans no more prep races and will bring the horse up to the Plate on workouts alone.

Success in the Plate would, of course, be a big plus for Luider's career.

Although Luider has been near the top of the Fort Erie standings for the past few years, most of his success has come with cheaper horses.

If this year's Plate purse matches last year's, first place would be worth about $250,000.

That would be more than double the $106,927 that Luider's horses earned at Fort Erie last year when he posted a 24-26-18 record with 250 starters.

No wonder Luider called Key Timing "the nicest face in my barn."

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