03/21/2002 12:00AM

Limit for owners bothers some horsemen

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ETOBICOKE, Ontario - A new Woodbine Entertainment Group rule limiting a horse owner to three trainers at Woodbine has drawn criticism from the Horsemen's Benevolent and Protective Association of Ontario.

There was no limit on the number of trainers an owner could employ at Woodbine until this year. Several prominent owners, including Stronach Stable and Eugene Melnyk, have been affected by the change.

Nick Coukos, the Executive Director of HBPA, is unhappy with the way the rule was instituted. "It was implemented in late February, just a month before the racing season," Coukos said.

An earlier announcement, Coukos said, would have given trainers "some time to put their ducks in order, so that they could try to replace an owner they were going to lose. I requested that they give us a six-month grace period before implementing the rule, but they decided to forge forward."

Coukos said he has had several complaints about the rule, primarily from trainers who have been affected by it. He said the HBPA as an organization is currently neither for nor against the rule, and that the matter will be taken to the board for a vote.

Hugh Mitchell, WEG's senior vice president of racing, said the rule is based on stabling limitations at Woodbine. A trainer is allowed to have a maximum of 45 stalls, while owners can have no more than 40 stalls.

"The rule is an effort to protect the integrity of the stall-application process," Mitchell said. "We're limiting an owner to three trainers rather than having a situation where an owner might use trainer access as a means to manipulate the system."

Stall applications for the Woodbine meet were far greater than the number of stalls on the backstretch.

"We had over 3,500 requests for stalls this year," Mitchell said, "and we can only accommodate just over 2,000. We certainly had much more demand than we can supply, and we had to think about how we can best utilize them to make sure that we have full, competitive fields.

Bruno Schickedanz, perennially among the leading owners in Ontario, has employed as many as four Woodbine trainers at once in the past, but isn't overly concerned with the new rule. "I don't see it affecting my operation to a large extent," he said.

Mitchell said stall allocations are based on a "fairly extensive" analysis of the requests.

"They're based on starts-per-stall, on money won per stall, and on a trainer's win percentage," Mitchell explained. "Then, you factor in some other softer issues, such as the number of years in the business and the quality of the horses, which may not be reflected in the empirical data. You also look for a mix of 2-year-olds and maidens versus aged and stakes horses. Having barns full of 2-year-olds doesn't make a lot of sense when you're running a racing operation for the purpose of gambling.

"We try to be fair and reasonable," he went on, "but at the end of the day, we look for people who are competitive and are working hard to stay competitive. As we look towards improving the quality of our product, we're looking at more opportunities to sell it across North America. The more competitive and the better the caliber of our racing, the more competitive we'll be in the marketplace."

Coukos said the current one-year contract between WEG and the Woodbine horsemen expires on Saturday, and that negotiations are currently underway for a new one.

AT A GLANCE

WOODBINE

RACING SCHEDULE: Saturday, March 23 through Sunday, Dec. 1. Fridays through Sundays plus Wednesdays beginning May 1; Thursdays beginning June 6; holiday Mondays May 20, July 1, Aug. 5, Sept. 2, Oct. 14. No racing Thursdays July 4, Aug. 8, Sept. 5, Oct. 17 (168 days total)

MEET HIGHLIGHTS: $500,000 Labatt Woodbine Oaks, June 8; $ 1 million Queen's Plate, June 23; $500,000 Breeders' Stakes, Aug. 10; $1 million Atto Mile, Sept. 8; $1.5 million Canadian International, Sept. 29; $750,000 E.P. Taylor Stakes, Sept. 29

POST TIME: 12:55 p.m. except Wednesdays, 6:45 p.m.

ADMISSIONS: Free general; $4 Finish Line Bar; $5 Champions

PARKING: Free general; $8 valet

SLOTS: Daily, 11 a.m. to 3 a.m. New hours effective April 1: open 9 a.m. to 3 a.m. Monday through Thursday then open continuously from Friday, 9 a.m. until Monday, 3 a.m. (1700 machines)

LOCATION: Highway 27 and Rexdale Boulevard, Etobicoke, Ont.

ADDRESS: 6303 Q Street, Omaha, NE, 68117

PHONE: (416) 675-6110

INTERNET: woodbineentertainment.com