11/12/2003 1:00AM

Handle takes a hit at shortened meet


FORT ERIE, Ontario - After three successive years of healthy gains, the handle at Fort Erie Race Track took a tumble in 2003.

Originally scheduled for 117 days, the meet lost four days through weather-related cancelations. Also, the card on Sept. 30 was canceled after the fourth race.

All-sources wagering dropped 11.7 percent, to $87,483,748 from last year's $99,049,657. The daily average was $775,192, compared to $853,856 last year.

Mutuel manager Chad Gates said the ontrack wagering decreased by 12.3 percent. Among other reasons, Gates blamed bad weather, the struggling North American economy, and competition from the new Seneca Casino in Niagara Falls, N.Y., for the decline.

The total purse distribution of $21,684,900 was up $1,056,400, an increase of 5.1 percent. Slots, introduced in 2000, have fueled purses.

The 2004 season also is scheduled to run 117 days, but will start a week later than this year. The opener is May 1 and the meet will run through Nov. 22.

Martin Ramirez, with 122 wins, captured the riding title for the second consecutive year. Francine Villeneuve was next with 88.

The trainers' title for the sixth straight year went to Layne Giliforte. With 56 wins, Giliforte outgunned second-leading trainer Tom Agosti by six wins.

Bruno Schickedanz, with 22 wins, was the leading owner for the seventh consecutive year and for the eighth time in nine years.

Storming on Merit won nine of 10 starts here, all at two furlongs.