08/29/2001 11:00PM

Earlier International may be ideal prep

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ETOBICOKE, Ontario - Saturday's Niagara Handicap at Woodbine, which attracted a field of nine, stands as this year's major local stepping-stone to the $1.5 million Canadian International.

That function usually is filled by the Sky Classic Handicap but with the Grade 1 Canadian International, the 1 1/2-mile turf race which generally goes on the third Sunday of October, being held this year on Sept. 30 the Niagara takes over the prep role.

Chris Evans, racing secretary and director of racing for the Woodbine Entertainment Group, said the International date was moved up to try to improve the position of the race as a prep for the World Thoroughbred Championships, which will be held this year at Belmont on Oct. 27.

"Four weeks out, it should be the perfect prep," said Evans. "If we'd gone to three weeks, that would have put it on the same Sunday as the Arc [Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe].

"Then the jockeys, owners, and trainers connected with that race can't make it here, so they strike our race off their calendars."

The International will be the day after Belmont's $750,000 Turf Classic, which also is a Grade 1 race over 1 1/2 miles of turf. But Evans notes that the races usually are only a week apart and the fields are mutually exclusive, plus the connections of Turf Classic participants can easily be on hand here the following afternoon.

The last "early" running of the International occurred in 1996 when the race went Sept. 29, four weeks in advance of the 12th Breeders' Cup here at Woodbine.

English invader Singspiel, the Canadian International winner, finished second here in the Breeders' Cup Turf.

Windsharp, who had come in late that summer from California and was making her third start at Woodbine, finished fourth in the International and fifth in the Turf while local stalwart Chief Bearhart was the International runner-up but ran 11th in the Breeders' Cup race.

Meanwhile, the date of the 2002 International could depend on the quality and quantity of this year's field.

"Right now, it looks very positive," said Evans, noting that Woodbine stakes coordinator Vicki Pappas has received 66 nominations for the International, as opposed to 52 last year.

Included on that list are Mutafaweq, Williams News, Daliapour and Caitano, the top four finishers in last year's running.

The Canadian International also is the sixth leg of the Emirates World Series Racing Championship, which offers a $1 million bonus to the owner of the leading horse based on a points system.

Fantastic Light, winner of the series in 2000, is among this year's Canadian International nominees.

Taylor lures 71 nominees

The Grade 1 E.P. Taylor Stakes, a $500,000, 1 1/4-mile turf race for fillies and mares, is the companion feature to the Canadian International and also moves to the earlier date.

This year's Taylor attracted 71 nominees, the same number as last year, including 2000 winner Fly for Avie and runner-up Lady Upstage.

Other Taylor nominees include Free Vacation, who was under consideration for both the Taylor and International last year but opted to face the boys, and finished eighth.

Free Vacation, who had entered the 2000 International off a victory in the Flaming Page over 1 1/2 miles of turf here six weeks earlier, will be seeking a second win in the Flaming Page here Saturday.

But the major local Taylor tune-up will take place here Sept. 9 in the Grade 2 Canadian, a 1 1/8-mile turf race for fillies and mares that offers a purse of $200,000.

Fly for Avie, who was retired last fall but was returned to training after losing her foal in Kentucky, is slated to make her seasonal bow in the Canadian.

No Euros expected for Atto Mile

Arkadian Hero, who had been expected to return here from England for the Sept. 9 Atto Mile after finishing a heartbreaking second last year, will not be making the trip.

Barring any last-minute changes of heart, this year's running of the Grade 1, $1 million turf race for 3-year-olds and upward will be the first without any European representation.

Seaway appears bad betting race

If you're looking for an interesting betting race, then you can rule out Sunday's Seaway Stakes..

Meadow Gem and Torrid Affair, the major players in the Seaway, will be running in an entry along with Ahead by a Century.

That leaves the Seaway with a eight-horse field but just six betting interests and show wagering is certain to be canceled.

Under the rules of racing, Meadow Gem and Torrid Affair must race as an entry since Kinghaven Farm, which owns Torrid Affair, also owns a small percentage of Meadow Gem.

Since Bob Tiller not only is the trainer but also a part owner of Meadow Gem, that filly must run coupled with the Tiller-trained Ahead by a Century, who is owned by Frank DiGiulio Jr.

A similar situation arose in the Aug. 11 Duchess, where Meadow Gem ran part of an entry with the Kinghaven-owned Poetically and Madame Red, whom Tiller trains for Norseman Racing Stable.

That entry returned $2.80 to win, keying a $5.40 exactor and $11.60 triactor in the eight-horse field. There was no show betting.

* Jockey David Clark has been fined $200 for "excessive use of his whip" during the running of last Saturday's sixth race. Clark's mount, Oye Yoye Yoye, finished second as part of a favored entry.