07/25/2008 12:00AM

Major developments midway into meet


FORT ERIE, Ontario - This weekend brings us to the midway point in the Fort Erie meet. Here is a recap of some of the highlights of the first half:

* Heavy rain has plagued the border oval over the last three months, but surprisingly the turf course has held up well, or at least it did until it was overwhelmed by downpours last weekend. Some races finally were taken off the grass, and the large, competitive fields that usually go in turf races were greatly reduced.

* The accidental "scratch" of Golden Quill on the in-house TV screens three minutes before post time caused quite a stir on June 17. Management found the error to be an isolated incident, caused by an operator who hit the wrong button at the wrong time, and has taken steps to prevent a recurrence. Management also advised patrons that all losing wagers on the race would be refunded.

* Nick Gonzalez took over the lead in the trainer standings with 14 wins, one more than Don MacRae. Ashlee Brnjas has an impressive winning record of 10 for 25, and the top return on $2 investment of $4.79.

* Chad Beckon continues to hold a big lead among the riders with 46 wins. Following him are Chris Griffith with 26 wins, Rui Pimentel (25), Cory Clark (23), and Kris Robinson (20).

* One jockey who might have gone relatively unnoticed by the public in the first half is Dave Garcia, but he is certainly worth watching as the meet moves on. Garcia, with 16 wins from 76 mounts, has the highest win percentage (21 percent) and best ROI ($3.37) of all jockeys.

* The jockeys here have had their share of spills recently, but luckily no serious injuries have occurred. In the most recent spill, during Monday's last race, Chris Griffith's mount, Cats Are Tricky, was squeezed back near the half-mile pole, appeared to clip heels, and fell.

Griffith did an acrobatic somersault before splashing down into the slop. Cory Clark also went down as her horse, Regal Mister, tripped over the fallen runner. Both riders walked into the jocks' room under their own power with bumps and bruises.

Melanie Pinto went down twice in a week, once leaving the gate when her mount stumbled and then again on Sunday during the final race of the day. In Sunday's five-furlong sprint, her mount Jazzy Russian appeared to run up on the heels of the race favorite, Dillon Said. Jazzy Russian stumbled, and Pinto was dropped. Thankfully, Pinto, an up-and-coming apprentice rider who recently moved her tack to Fort Erie, walked away from both incidents.

Dillon Said, the odds-on choice and an easy winner in the race with Gary Cruise aboard, was disqualified and placed last by the stewards.

Cruise has filed an appeal, and trainer Ralph Biamonte, commenting on the disqualification, said: "I have spoken with the owner, Scott Loring, a very knowledgeable horseman. We have both studied the race in detail and could not find any fault with Dillon Said or with the ride of Gary Cruise. We will appeal the decision."

* The beginning of the year found the handle down, due in part to only eight races being run on each card for the early weeks of the meet. But handle is now back averaging over $1 million a day with the help of the 10-race Monday and Tuesday cards.

* The Prince of Wales Stakes attracted a large crowd, and Harlem Rocker showed the rest of the field his heels to take home the winner's share of the $500,000 purse.

* Chad Beckon guided 37-1 longshot Pronger to a third-place finish in the Prince of Wales, to the delight of the fans. Beckon continues to ride impressively, and recently nailed his first stakes win at Woodbine.

* Last fall a "Save the Track" campaign was in full swing, and although racing continued at Fort Erie, the number of race days was reduced for 2008.

* Horsemen and the town patiently await news for next year. Planning is going forward on the hotel, housing, and entertainment complex proposed for track property, and the recently released provincial government report on horse racing in Ontario gave support to this border oval.

No official response has been released yet from either the local government or provincial authorities pertaining to the 2009 season at the Fort.