05/28/2003 11:00PM

Giliforte closes in on trainer lead. Ho-hum.

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FORT ERIE, Ontario - Layne Giliforte, Fort Erie's leading trainer each of the past five years, is settling into stride for another title run.

In the past racing week, Giliforte saddled five winners from 11 starts to move within one win of the leader, John Simms. Giliforte began the year slowly, winning just five races in the first four weeks.

A 35-year-old native of Buffalo, N.Y., Giliforte said he is not concerned about winning a sixth title.

"I have a different outlook coming in this year," said Giliforte. "I've got better horses and they don't get to run as often."

Giliforte believes a trainer must play the claiming game seriously to rack up big numbers.

Giliforte has a big stable, 65 horses, and high-profile clients, such as John Franks and Eugene Melnyk.

"This is the best group of runners I've ever had by far," said Giliforte. "I think I'll be in quite a few stakes this year."

Solitary Dancer, owned by Franks and trained by Giliforte, finished second in the Grade 3, $173,550 Connaught Cup at Woodbine last Saturday. The 7-year-old went off at odds of 16-1.

This Saturday, Giliforte is off to Woodbine again. He has entered Franks's Sonofawac in the $162,600 Plate Trial.

Giliforte is not likely to have a horse in the June 15 Bridgeburg, the first stakes of the Fort Erie meet. Divine Luck, who would have been a candidate for the race, has an injury and is out for the season.

Divine Luck, 6, won 5 of 11 starts last year, earning $169,200. He finished third in the Grade 3 Woodbine Slots Cup last November, only three-quarters of a length behind the winner, Parose.

Clark's seven-win week

Last week, Cory Clark was aboard all five of Giliforte's winners. She had two other winners last week, giving her 11 wins for the meet. She is one win behind Chris Griffith, who is in a tie for fourth place in the standings.

Giliforte uses both Clark and Griffith at Fort Erie, begging the question: Which of them is his No. 1?

"They're equal," said Giliforte. "And they have always been treated as equals. Cory won more races for me last year than Chris did, but it was by circumstances. They're 50-50."

Griffith was aboard three of the barn's first five winners this meet and Clark was on two.

Clark's seven wins last week was surpassed only by Martin Ramirez's eight. Ramirez's efforts vaulted him to first place in the standings, three ahead of second-place Neil Poznansky, who cooled off a little with only two wins in the same period. Ramirez is the defending champion.

Powell is dry now and back for more

Gina Powell is back at the Fort for her third season as a trainer. The star of her four-horse stable is Get Down Wolfie, who won the Puss N Boots Stakes here on Labor Day. Powell is noted for the leap she took into one of the track's infield lakes following the victory presentation.

The Puss N Boots is named after a well-known runner in the 1960's who detoured through the hedge of the Fort's turf course and plunged into one of the lakes when he had been heading for what seemed to be a certain triumph. It has become a tradition, in recent years, for someone from the winning group to take a similar dip.

Powell, who also owns Get Down Wolfie, surprised everyone by shedding to a bikini. She joined jockey Tyler Gaskin for a big splash.

"I should be racing in two or three weeks," said Powell, who has four runners this year. "The brutal weather delayed my training by four to five weeks. Wolfie is working like a monster. I think he'll be better than ever."