04/14/2005 11:00PM

King makes comeback after 9 years


ETOBICOKE, Ontario - Robert King Jr. had the world by the tail back in 1983 and 1984, when he won Sovereign Awards as Canada's outstanding rider and led the country in races won.

But when King returned to the jockeys' room at Woodbine this spring, it will have been more than nine years since he last rode in a horse race.

"It's not going to be easy; I know that going in," said King, who will turn 41 next month and has 1,095 career winners. "Especially starting in the spring, when everyone's hungry."

But, it's not as if King needed any particular reacquaintance with the racing game.

After shifting his tack to Vancouver in 1995, King rode at Hastings for two years before struggles with weight caused him to take a year off from the racetrack in 1996.

"I started out there that spring but when I jumped on the scale I said 'This is not working,' " said King.

King stayed involved with horses on the jumping side and returned to Hastings early in 1997 with the goal of becoming a trainer. He obtained his license that July. Ralph and Linda Bodine, who race as Orange Blossom Stable, gave King his first horses and agreed with his suggestion to move to Woodbine in 2000.

King and the Bodines had some good times here, especially with their best runner, the multiple stakes-winning mare Devastating. But when production slowed down over the past two seasons the Bodines decided to return their racing operation to British Columbia, where their farm is located.

"Last fall, I had just a couple of horses left, who I owned myself, and I sold them," said King.

"I had decided I wanted to try and come back, as a jockey, if I could lose weight properly. If I couldn't do it the right way, I wasn't going to do it."

King, who breezed many of his own horses during his training years, had stayed in shape through his hobby of mountain-bike racing.

That demanding exercise actually had its drawbacks, however.

"I built up too much muscle," said King. "I had to lean up that muscle."

King, who spent most of the winter visiting with family in his hometown of Ottawa, used yoga exercises as a means to reduce and was back at the track in mid-March.

"I have a newfound appreciation of what trainers are going through," said King, who has hooked up with jockey agent Pat Parente. "I think it's made me a better horseman, and I think it will make me a better rider."

Parente was the agent last year for Chantal Sutherland, Canada's champion apprentice rider in 2001 and 2002.

Sutherland, who rode at the Gulfstream meeting, has decided to try her luck on the New York circuit.

Renovations on back burner

There are few physical changes in evidence on the backstretch this year. Although sprinkler systems were completed in the remaining barns scheduled for the service, there was no retrofitting of existing structures.

Last winter, seven barns underwent comprehensive changes.

"It's all about priorities, competing for the capital budget," said David Willmot, president and chief executive officer of the Woodbine Entertainment Group, adding that the company's major financial focus currently is on major renovations to Mohawk Raceway, its Standardbred property approximately 25 miles west of here.

There is a major development on the horizon, however, as Woodbine plans to construct two large detention barns, one for Thoroughbreds and one for Standardbreds. The timeframe and location have not been finalized but the commitment has been made.

"It will be a very expensive proposition, but we're planning on that," said Willmot.

Tenant close to signing deal

On the frontside, construction is progressing on a $5 million elevator/stair tower that will improve access between the paddock and walking ring from the upper floors. The project also fulfills a safety commitment.

But the face of the frontside could change radically in the not-so-distant future.

Woodbine has been interested in developing its excess lands, particularly with an entertainment-themed type of project that would complement its current operations.

Willmot, while declining to provide details, said a tentative agreement has been reached with a partner who would occupy a 25-acre parcel close to the grandstand. An announcement should be forthcoming before the end of this year.

New jobs for racing officials

Woodbine's Thoroughbred racing operation has seen several personnel changes over the off-season.

Alison Read, who was the paddock judge, now is the head clocker.

Fenton Platts, who was the horse identifier, moves into the paddock judge slot. Gaye Lynch is the new horse identifier.

Hugh Mitchell, senior vice president of horse racing, left early this month for a position at Western Fair Raceway in London, Ontario.

Al Dymon, general manager, operations, retired at the beginning of April.

Earlier draw for Wednesday cards

Woodbine's race office has made some procedural changes this year, the most important being a Sunday draw for Wednesday racing, which begins May 4. Last year, all draws were on a 48-hour basis.

Woodbine also has decided to follow the lead of several major racetracks and will draw some of its showcase events on a 72-hour basis.

The list includes the Labatt Woodbine Oaks, Queen's Plate, Atto Mile, and the Pattison Canadian International, E.P. Taylor, and Nearctic.