09/09/2011 1:09PM

Fort Erie: Villenueve happy to take infield plunge

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FORT ERIE, Ontario – The photograph in last Tuesday’s Niagara Falls Review newspaper was a keeper. Pictured in the frame was a leaping Francine Villeneuve, airborne the day before on her way towards a swim in the Fort Erie infield lake.

That was not the first time Villeneuve had followed the time-honoured tradition of the Puss n Boots Cup race. In 1996, she came from dead last to win with the longshot Dancing for Beans, and then took the required plunge in the lake.

“It is all fun,” said Villeneuve, 46.“I welcomed the opportunity to get another chance to win the Puss n Boots with Kettle Rapids this year and take leap into the lake. Thankfully, he made my job easy.”

Kettle Rapids also won last year’s Puss n Boots.

The Puss n Boots, named after a runner that in 1961 left the track for a swim in the lake, was one of three winning races last week for Villeneuve, inching her closer to her 1,000th career win.

Villeneuve’s current total is 985 wins.

“My sights are still set on achieving the 1,000 mark,” said Villeneuve, “and if not this year then next season for sure.”

There is still a month and a half of racing to go at the Fort and a couple of more weeks like the last could bring her very near to reaching her goal.

Villeneuve’s career spans more than 20 years and is full of special highlights. Highly respected by her fellow riders, and particularly her female compatriots, she received the prestigious Avelino Gomez award in 2004, an award given in recognition of her significant contributions to Canadian racing. She is the only female winner of the award on a list that includes the very best of Canadian riders, past and present.

Villeneuve’s career also includes a Breeders’ Cup mount in 1991 when she rode Wilderness Song to a seventh-place finish in the Distaff, a race won by Dance Smartly, the mighty Canadian Horse of the Year and Eclipse Award winner.

“Wilderness Song was one of the best that I have ever ridden,” said Villeneuve. “I put her right up there with the Arkansas Derby winner, Concern. I was luckily enough to ride and finish second in the Rebel Stakes at Hot Springs, Arkansas with Concern. In the fall of that year he went on to win the Breeders’ Cup Classic.”

Villeneuve still has a refreshing attitude when it comes to riding.

“I welcome the chance to climb aboard every time out,” she said. “It is nice to be doing something that you love to do.”

◗ Trainer Alec Fehr sent out the 4-year-old runner Grittani to set a track record in last Monday’s first race, a 4 1/2-furlong dash. Gritanni, ridden by Terry Husbands, proved clearly best winning by three lengths in a time of 50.84 seconds. Sent off as the favorite, Grittani paid $4.70 to win.