04/02/2008 11:00PM

Keys to early-meet Woodbine winners

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ETOBICOKE, Ontario - This year's brutal winter of numerous snowstorms and near-record snowfall was the bane of nearly everyone in the greater Toronto area, except for skiing enthusiasts.

In spite of the adverse weather, training conditions at Woodbine have been surprisingly good. Trainers say they've missed only a few days of training since the backstretch opened Feb. 11. The training track opened shortly thereafter, and horses began working on the Polytrack main surface March 16. A whopping 279 horses worked over the two tracks March 22.

Both the training track and the Polytrack were in good shape on most days, according to trainer Steve Attard, who credited Woodbine's director of Thoroughbred racing surfaces, Irwin Driedger.

"Everything's been great here so far," Attard said. "Irwin Driedger did a helluva job with the training track, and the Polytrack has been great, too. I missed just one day of training, which was when both tracks were closed. I had my big horses training in Ocala [Fla.], and they missed more training down there than I did here, because of rainstorms."

Trainer Dave Cotey also raved about the condition of the training track, which is a one-mile dirt oval.

"This is the best I've seen the training track," Cotey said. "When they run into problems with it, it is usually when the rain starts - then, it's a mess. They opened up the [Polytrack] at just the right time. We only missed two or three days, off the top. My horses should be ready."

Cotey predicted that local horsemen will hold their own with the abundance of five-furlong sprints that are traditionally carded during the early weeks of the meeting.

"You can only get a horse so fit to go five-eighths of a mile," Cotey said. "I think up to five-eighths, a lot of the people here will be ready, and will have as good a chance as the winter-raced horses, which is the case every year."

Attard said the edge should go to winter-raced runners in longer sprints, until the local horses get going.

"I think the winter-raced horses will have a one-race advantage before locals catch up," Attard said. "Obviously, winter-raced horses have more of an edge when the races are three-quarters than five-eighths."

Attard believes the Woodbine-trained runners who fire big first-time out will require a short break before returning to action in order to avoid a regression.

"If they run really hard the first time, you'll probably have to give them a little time to recoup," Attard said. "You shouldn't run them back in a week or 10 days."

Shippers from Gulfstream and Fair Grounds fared well during the first month of the 2007 Woodbine meeting. Runners from Gulfstream had a record of 5-5-4 from 29 starters, and Fair Grounds invaders had 4 wins and 2 seconds from 19 starters.

Tampa invaders had a record of 2-2-6 from 21 starters, and Aqueduct shippers had 1 runner-up placing from 7 starters.

Tracks with fewer than 10 starters that sent in some sharp shippers included Philadelphia, Mountaineer, and Turfway.

Woodbine regulars Mark Casse, Josie Carroll, Mark Frostad, and Malcolm Pierce all had a division at the Fair Grounds this winter, so shippers from that New Orleans oval should be live here this spring.