04/28/2010 11:00PM

Meet opens with a feeling of hope

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FORT ERIE, Ontario - Fort Erie's 113th season begins Saturday, and optimism is high as the 78-day racing schedule gets under way.

The Fort Erie Live Racing Consortium has leased the track from Nordic Gaming under a three-year agreement, and several new members of management are in place. Jim Thibert, chief executive officer of the Consortium, announced that a purse structure of $7.8 million will provide an average of $100,000 a day.

"We want the Fort Erie community to recognize that the track is the town's most valued tourist attraction and that their support and involvement throughout the year will be a key factor in its success as we build toward the future," Thibert said.

John Whitson, former vice president of racing at Woodbine, has come out of retirement and will be the new racing secretary at Fort Erie.

Saturday's eight-race card had 77 entries.

"Things went quite well," Whitson said. "I am looking forward to working with the horsemen with the aim of putting together competitive fields throughout the year.

"My race office team is top-notch, and they have made and will certainly make my job much easier."

Whitson said he is looking at some changes to the racing program.

"We will have a number of 2-year-olds on the grounds, and our plan is to have races scheduled for these youngsters beginning in June, possibly starting with two-furlong dashes as they do at many tracks," he said. "Also, there are many horsemen that would love to see more turf races, and our aim is to increase the number of grass races on the schedule.

"At the moment, a serious review is under way by our new maintenance manager, Brian Jabelman, and his wealth of experience in caring for tracks throughout North America will certainly benefit and upgrade our turf course. One thing for sure, the turf always attracts large, competitive fields."

Following the opening two-day weekend, racing will be conducted Sunday through Tuesday, concluding Oct 26.

The $500,000 Prince of Wales, the second leg of the Canadian Triple Crown, highlights the meeting and is scheduled for July 25. Also on the card will be the Daryl Wells Memorial and the Ernie Samuel Memorial, both with purses of $50,000.

The only other stakes here will be the June 6 Rainbow Connection, which offers a purse of $125,000.

The series of nine $30,000 restricted Cup races begin July 18 and will continue through to the final weekend of racing.

The jockey colony will be headed by Rui Pimentel, who led the standings throughout 2009 and won the riding title going away.

An addition to the jocks' room this year - but not a new face - will be Francine Villeneuve, winner of the Avelino Gomez Memorial Award in 2004 and all-time leading female rider in Canada with 934 wins. Villeneuve put away her tack in 2006 after winning 51 races that season.

Nick Gonzalez, leading trainer in 2009, will again have a full stable and is expected to set the pace for training honors.

Lyle Morden, perennial high percentage trainer at the border oval, has expanded his stable and should be a force in 2010.