12/29/2004 1:00AM

Giliforte bolsters presence in U.S.

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Trainer Layne Giliforte is serious about expanding his stable's reach. He traveled 1,200 miles from his Fort Erie base in Canada this fall to set up a 12-horse division at Delta Downs in Vinton, La. He also has a string of 18 horses at Tampa Bay Downs in Florida and next month will set up a two-horse division at Oaklawn Park to test the waters in Hot Springs, Ark.

None of this will impact operations in Canada. Giliforte, a six-time title winner at Fort Erie, said he even has plans to move a greater number of horses into Woodbine in Toronto when that meet opens in May.

"I'm never opposed to traveling and trying to branch out and get bigger and better," said Giliforte, 36. "I have a lot of family support. So without doing too much that I can't handle, I want to expand in different directions and just get some more exposure. I'd love to get more strength in the States."

Giliforte has the clients to support his cause. He came to Delta this fall on behalf of Eugene and Laura Melnyk, prominent owners whose best horses have included Speightstown, Strong Hope, Archers Bay, Harmony Lodge, and Graeme Hall.

"Phil Hronec is the farm manager, and he sort of picked a couple of places, and this place was at the top of the list for the type of horses that I have," said Giliforte. "This just fit perfectly into the schedule and into the plan."

Giliforte, who has nine horses at Delta for the Melnyks, first set up a division in the United States six years ago at Tampa Bay Downs. He had a large number of horses for John Franks, who also stabled with Giliforte in Canada.

"Mr. Franks liked to go to Tampa," said Giliforte. "That was his building block toward Canada and toward summer racing. I had a fantastic winter there last winter and ended up second in the standings there, and it was just a nice kind of breakthrough season in the States."

But there was one sad point during the meet, Giliforte said. Franks died Dec. 31, 2003. The horses Giliforte trained for him were later dispersed at an auction at Evangeline Downs.

"When Mr. Franks passed away I was very sentimental, so I went in January [to Ocala] and bought a yearling of his as soon as the dispersals started," said Giliforte. "In February in Lexington I bought three of his broodmares, and all three of them were in foal to his stallions. Then in March, I came to Evangeline and I bought six out of that sale of Mr. Franks.

"The going in different directions, a lot of it has to do with the impact he made on me. In the short time I got to train for him, he kind of opened up a lot of new avenues and different things I'd like to do, between the breeding and buying the yearlings and trying to expand into the States."

Giliforte has about 40 horses in training, with a dozen based at a training center near Fort Erie that he owns with his brother Lance.

Aside from racing at Delta and Tampa, Giliforte has also ventured to Sam Houston and two weeks ago won a $35,000 claiming race there with Hasty Kiss, who next year will be bred to Peaks and Valleys. Giliforte, who is a native of Buffalo, N.Y., said his stable is made up of claiming and allowance horses. He saddled his first winner at Fort Erie in 1993, and entering Wednesday had won 71 races and $1.3 million in purses in 2004.

In a preview of what 2005 will be like for him, Giliforte spent December dividing his time between Delta, Sam Houston, Tampa, and Canada.

"Having family support and excellent assistants with great staff helps tremendously," he said. "And I have a young family, too, so there's extra incentive and drive."

Miss Confusion reigns in Prime Rewards

Miss Confusion, who has placed in stakes in her last two starts, looks like the one to beat in the $40,000 Prime Rewards on Friday. The one-mile race is restricted to fillies and mares who have never won a stakes.

Miss Confusion came close last out, when she was third, beaten 1 1/2 lengths, in the $75,000 Treasure Chest at Delta on Dec. 4. Before that race she was third in the track's $50,000 Golden Triangle. Ricky Faul has the mount for trainer Frank Leggio.

Others of note in the race include Mini Brush, winner of a two-other-than allowance at Arlington Park in June, and Crypto Em, who romped by 5 1/4 lengths last out in a statebred allowance at Fair Grounds.

First post Friday and Saturday is 2:15 p.m. Central.

Jockey Gray recovering from surgery

Jockey Christina Gray came out of a six-hour back surgery on Tuesday in good order, and was resting in the intensive care unit at Memorial Hospital in Lake Charles, La., on Wednesday.

Gray was injured when she was thrown from her mount in a two-horse spill at Delta on Dec. 17. She underwent surgery to repair a fractured vertebra, said her mother, Judy Schrock.

"She's in a lot of pain, but she's on the road to recovery," said Schrock. "It went very well. She's going to have to stay here at least a month until she's ready to travel. She'll stay with us - we live in upstate New York - however long it takes [to rehab]. Three months is the minimum. She said she wants to go back to riding."

Gray was scheduled to have surgery on Monday, but it was put off until Tuesday afternoon. She has no insurance other than a Delta policy which Schrock believes covers expenses up to $100,000. Gray, 34, is not a member of the Jockeys' Guild.

The procedure on Tuesday was tricky, as surgeons had to access Gray's spine through her chest. The process called for collapsing one of her lungs, said Schrock.