03/22/2002 12:00AM

Coupled entries dropped in big races

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ETOBICOKE, Ontario - New racing rules pressed for by the Woodbine Entertainment Group were passed by the Ontario Racing Commission last month and go into effect with the start of racing Saturday.

The first involves the elimination of entries in stakes races worth $1 million or more. All starters in $1 million races will run as separate betting interests.

While that is a small step, affecting just three races - the Queen's Plate, Atto Mile, and Canadian International - it is a step in the right direction, according to Hugh Mitchell, senior vice president, racing of the Ontario Jockey Club.

"It's being done on an experimental basis," said Mitchell. "We would like to have seen that cap reduced from $1 million to say $100,000, just like the Standardbred side."

The racing commission recently approved that amendment to its Standardbred regulations.

"Our notion is that from a betting perspective, it just is a much more appealing product when they're allowed to be uncoupled," Mitchell said. "Our proposal to the racing commission for the rule change was done out of demand by our customers."

The other new ORC rule initiated by Woodbine involves instances when racing faces the threat of cancellation because track or weather conditions.

On bad-weather days in the past, if management had not already decided to cancel the card, the jockeys would meet and decide whether to race.

Under the new regulation, a meeting would be held among the stewards, Woodbine management, an HBPA representative, and the jockeys.

"If required, the stewards shall conduct a secret ballot of the jockeys programmed to ride that day who are present, to determine if racing should be canceled," the rule reads. "If the vote of the jockeys determines that 50 percent vote against racing, the card will be canceled. Notwithstanding the vote, the jockeys who cancel their mount will not be subject to any penalties."

Management retains the right to cancel the races because of track or weather conditions without consultation.

"We had a few concerns ourselves," said Ed Hall, supervisor of Thoroughbred racing for the racing commission. "Over the last few years we found out by telephone, like everybody else, that the races were canceled. As regulators, we felt we should be present when the decision was made."

Irwin Driedger, secretary general of the Jockeys' Benefit Association of Canada, understands how the new rule might make Woodbine and the ORC feel more comfortable, but he believes that there will be little difference in the way the jockeys approach potential cancellations.

"It's not a big deal," said Driedger. "We've done a secret ballot before, when there have been mixed feelings about it. It's always depended on the situation.

"If you only run one race, then we would basically poll the riders who rode that race. And if everybody said it was really bad, then the riders that didn't ride would take their word for it.

"You can't ask somebody's opinion on something when they haven't been out there. Even now, they're basically going to go on the same principle."

Training track closed

The training track was closed Friday because the surface was deemed unusable as a result of plunging temperatures. It was only the third time that workouts have been canceled since the training track opened Feb. 17.

The main track also was closed for a second straight day, while the old tote board, which is being replaced by two giant video display boards, was being dismantled

Jockeys, agents comings and goings

Spring brings the normal changes in the musical-chairs world of jockeys and their agents.

Constant Montpellier, who enjoyed a career year in 2001, partly because he was the regular rider of Canadian Horse of the Year Win City, is now being represented by Kelly Regan, who replaces Kerri Beauclaire.

Gerry Olguin, who went out on his own last September after being represented by Regan, now is affiliated with Beauclaire.

John Calleja, whose clients last year were jockeys Jim McKnight and Jeff Burningham, is reunited with jockey Rui Pimentel, who hopes to get back on track at Woodbine after moving his tack to Fort Erie last year.

Calleja also is representing journeyman Simon Husbands and apprentice Julia Brimo.

McKnight's mounts are being booked by Alec Wick, who previously represented Na Somsanith.

Burningham, a Sovereign Award apprentice finalist last year in a campaign compromised by suspensions, has moved to Suffolk Downs.

Somsanith's new agent is Gary Kemplen, who last year was working for Gary Boulanger. Although Boulanger won eight stakes, including the Queen's Plate here last year, he currently is riding in Florida and does not plan to return.

Dennis Erwin has quit training horses and is acting as jockey agent for Lisa Platts. Brian Ross, former trainer and more recently assistant to trainer Mike Doyle, has taken over Ray Sabourin's book.

Trainer updates

Bernard Girault, who retired from training three years ago to devote his full attention to developing and marketing a new type of exercise saddle, is back training here with three horses.

Tom Bowden, after a short-term separation, has returned to his position as private trainer for the Colebrook Farm of John Brnjas, and has 30 horses here.

Charlene Smith, who had set aside her training license and merged her stable with trainer Ron Burke's last year, has seven horses of her own this season.

Trainers whose outfits will have a different look include John Alec Fehr, who has taken over Steve Stavro's Knob Hill Stable horses, and Reade Baker, who will be training 10 horses for Stronach Stable.

Tino Attard, who has been training a string for the Stronach outfit in New York, is no longer part of the mix here but his son, Kevin, will be training the Team Stronach division at Fort Erie.