04/27/2006 12:00AM

Lower claiming levels get priority

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FORT ERIE, Ontario - The response at the entry box for Saturday's opening day of the 2006 Fort Erie meeting moved the track's racing secretary, Tom Gostlin, to predict a banner season.

"We could have carded two more races," said Gostlin. "I think we have the right format for this track."

Faced with declining revenue from the 1,200 slot machines at the track, which provides about 75 percent of the purse money, Fort Erie has revamped its racing classifications. The number of higher claiming and allowance races has been reduced.

"We're concentrating on claiming races for $10,000 and under, to $4,000," said Gostlin. "We have increased purses a lot for them. I think we're comparable to almost any track, purse-wise, when it comes to these levels, and better than most."

Bottom-level $4,000 claimers will run for a purse of $10,000, up from $8,000 last year. At the $5,000 level it will be $11,000, up from $9,000, and $10,000 claimers will run for $14,500. Last year, $12,500 claimers ran for only $13,000.

Increased casino competition and the decreased value of the American dollar in relation to the Canadian dollar are the major culprits in the downswing, said the track's director of operations, Herb McGirr Jr. In 2003, daily purse distribution was $188,000. Last year it was below $130,000, and it is pegged for $120,000 this year.

In the three-year period to the end of 2005, "our slots revenue has been down 54.83 percent," said McGirr. "I'm pleased to say that we haven't lost much ground over last year.

"It appears that things have leveled off. We're happy with our simulcast business, here and at our OTB's. As a total it's up about 4.5 percent."

The 104-day meet begins with just a Saturday and Sunday card for the first weekend. For the following two weeks, racing will be held three days, on Saturday, Sunday, and Monday. From May 23 through Oct. 31, Tuesdays will be added.

Saturday's eight-race card is made up of seven 4 1/2-furlong races and one at five furlongs.

As usual, the $500,000 Prince of Wales, the second jewel of Canada's Triple Crown for Canadian-bred 3-year-olds, will be the centerpiece of the meet. It goes on July 16.

The $250,000 Bison City, the second leg of the triple crown for Canadian-bred 3-year-old fillies, is scheduled for July 2.

The $125,000 Rainbow Connection, an Ontario-sired stakes for fillies and mares over five furlongs of turf, will be held July 23.

The other two stakes on the Fort's calendar are the Daryl Wells Sr. Memorial (July 2) and the Ernie Samuel (July 16). Both are worth $75,000, down from $100,000 last year.

At a glance: Fort Erie

RACING SCHEDULE: 104 days; Saturday through Oct. 31. Racing Saturdays through Mondays; Tuesdays beginning May 23

HIGHLIGHTS: $500,000 Prince of Wales, July 16; $250,000 Labatt Bison City, July 2; $125,000 Rainbow Connection, July 23

POST TIME: 1:05 p.m. Eastern

ADMISSIONS: Free

PARKING: Free

SLOTS: 1,200 machines. Open 9 a.m. to 3 a.m. Monday through Thursday; open continuously from 9 a.m. Friday through 3 a.m. Sunday

LOCATION: 230 Catherine Street, Fort Erie, Ont. Across the Niagara River from Buffalo, N.Y.; approximately 90 miles from Toronto, Ont.

PHONE: (905) 871-3200; (800) 295-3770

INTERNET: forterieracing.com