11/05/2003 1:00AM

Later, longer meet proposed

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ETOBICOKE, Ontario - Woodbine hopes to push back the start of its 2004 Thoroughbred meeting to April 24, three weeks later than originally scheduled, and extend the meeting by two weeks to Dec. 12.

The 2003 meeting began March 29 and will wind up Nov. 30.

Under the proposed application, which would have to be approved by the Ontario Racing Commission, the total number of race dates would remain unchanged at 167.

The later start would allow the opening of the Woodbine stable area to be pushed back from Feb. 15 to March 1, to accommodate the completion of backstretch renovations.

Hugh Mitchell, Woodbine's senior vice president for racing, said that the track was discussing the matter with the local Horsemen's Benevolent and Protective Association.

"It's due in large part to the fact that we've got some extremely expensive barn renovations planned, for Barns 3 to 8. We've also made a commitment to sprinklering all the barns within three years."

The barn upgrades, which began last winter, were undertaken by Woodbine following the fire that destroyed two barns and claimed the lives of 32 horses in August 2002.

Extensive remodeling and expansion of the race office also is scheduled for the off-season.

"Winter projects are always subject to weather conditions," said Mitchell. "We're wrestling with our ability to open, as to our original race-date request.

"The last thing we wanted to do was to be in a situation where we can't open. We'd rather deal with it now, than later, and that's what we're trying to do."

If the application is approved, then Woodbine will launch directly into a five-day-a-week schedule. The track's recent practice has been to open with a three-day-a-week schedule, Friday through Sunday, with Wednesdays and then Thursdays later being added in separate stages.

The stakes schedule would be affected under the new dates proposal, and Woodbine's board of directors will be meeting to discuss the ramifications of the condensed season.

In particular, local preparation time for the Queen's Plate and Labatt Woodbine Oaks could be seen as inadequate if both are run on their regular June dates, and Woodbine may have to consider holding those events later.