09/04/2004 12:00AM

Look for Villeneuve to take the plunge


FORT ERIE, Ontario - A shortened 81-day Fort Erie meet comes to an end Monday with a pair of 1 1/16-mile turf stakes on a 12-race program.

The Centre Stage Anne is for fillies and mares while the Puss N Boots is for male runners. Both carry a purse of $40,000, and both require three previous starts at the meet for eligibility.

The Puss N Boots is one of the Fort's most popular races. The stakes was named after Puss N Boots, a runner who in 1961 gained notoriety when he took a sudden left-hand turn in a race at Fort Erie while well in front nearing the wire. The horse went through an opening in the hedge on the turf course and ended up in one of the three infield lakes.

A bizarre rescue operation followed where handlers plunged into the water to retrieve the swimming animal. Even a rowboat was used. The incident was splashed in newspapers all over the continent.

In the 1996 edition of the Puss N Boots, owner Robert Elkins celebrated the win by his Dancing With Beans by diving fully clothed into the same infield lake. A tradition was born. Each year since, some member of the winning team has taken the plunge, usually the jockey.

Francine Villeneuve, the winningest woman jockey in Canadian history, may be doing the honors Monday. She has the mount for the probable race favorite, A Nice Splash. Bruce Alexander, who sports a win percentage of 38 at the Fort, trains A Nice Splash.

A Nice Splash, 4 years old, has won his last three races, and in his last start, Aug. 21, he was just .20 off the 6 1/2-furlong track record, which has stood since 1968. He earned a Beyer Speed Figure of 94.

A Nice Splash will break from post 4 in the field of 11.

The Centre Stage Anne appears to be wide open. It has drawn eight runners, none of whom are coming off a win.

Should the race remain on the grass, then Anthonia and Simply Precious may be the ones to beat. Both have won on turf this year.

Anthonia, trained by Denise Kennedy, captured the $58,000 Golden Horseshoe here Aug. 8. It was her lone lifetime turf effort, and came over a spongy surface. Five horses in Monday's field finished behind her. Kennedy believes that Anthonia will improve significantly.

"Anthonia was running a little guarded," said Kennedy. "She lost a shoe. I think she's much better on the grass than she showed."