05/11/2012 2:32PM

Fort Erie: Opening weekend business brisk


FORT ERIE, Ontario – Opening weekend at Fort Erie began with a Kentucky Derby Day crowd that kept the tellers and concessions busy all day.

“In the past, we opened on the same day as the Derby,” said Rick Cowan, chief executive officer of Fort Erie, “but this year we tried something different by having our opening day on Sunday instead.

“It turned out great as the large Derby crowd of Saturday was primed and ready for Sunday’s live racing. We were pleased at the response from both a financial and customer standpoint.”

Sunday’s ontrack handle was $100,076, up by 25 percent over last year.

Speed was the name of the game on Sunday as front-runners were prominent throughout. Closers had little chance on the speed-biased surface and many handicappers made notes on off-the-pace runners who tried unsuccessfully, recognizing their potential value downstream.

Fort Erie clocker Bill McGirr summed up the track bias: “You had to be on or near the lead right from the break to have any chance at all of winning,” he said. “There were a few that tried to rally, but the bias and the abbreviated distances did them in.”

The jockey colony has more than 25 riders listed and the decent-sized fields on Sunday gave most of them a chance to compete.

Regina Sealock, Kirk Johnson, and Martin Ramirez visited the winner’s circle twice. Johnson, who finished second to Chris Griffith for the riding title in 2011, has made it known that he will be going all out to capture the honors this season.

“I am determined to be leading rider this year,” said Johnson, “and win as many as I can.”

Johnson rode in nine of the 10 races on Sunday and had three thirds in addition to his two wins.

Impressive maiden winner

Jeffrey Armin, owned by Frank Cirillo and trained by Martin Ðrexler, won his maiden in a five-furlong special weight event with a sparkling effort, scoring by 14 lengths in 57.16 seconds. The 4-year-old gelding took the early lead and then widened under a hand ride.

Claimed for $12,500 last fall, this one-time expensive sales purchase ($110,000), had eight tries on the Woodbine Polytrack with little success.

However, this spring following some black-letter works on the Woodbine dirt training track, the decision was made to try the Fort, which has a dirt surface that many consider to be among the best in North America.

* Next week, a three-day sportsmen’s outdoor show will be held on site from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Booths will offer a variety of products to racing fans. All aspects of outdoor activities will be covered.