12/03/2004 1:00AM

Mixed reviews for optional claimers

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ETOBICOKE, Ontario - Woodbine's optional claiming races in the maiden and conditioned categories have been the subject of much backstretch discussion since being introduced this spring.

The claiming prices for the maiden, nonwinners-of-two, and nonwinners-of-three optional claiming races were tinkered with throughout the season.

After starting out with $50,000 and $25,000 prices, the races were offered at the $32,000 range before eventually settling back in at the $25,000 level.

"The races were intended as an option for horses who couldn't compete at the allowance level, but their owners and trainers didn't want to lose them for a claiming price," said Chris Evans, Woodbine's director of racing.

Evans also noted that the optional claiming races offered significantly lower purses than their traditional counterparts, which should have discouraged horses from running in an easy spot and possibly sacrificing one of their allowance conditions.

The theory, however, did not quite pass muster in practice.

"Fairly valuable horses, even stakes-quality horses, have been taking advantage of the races when the race fit their schedule," said Evans. "That seemed to scare some trainers about entering; they weren't sure what the competition was going to be."

The statistics support the anecdotal evidence.

Just 41 percent of the maiden optional claiming races have filled, while 37 percent of the nonwinners-of-two and nonwinners-of-three attracted usable fields.

Evans said the overall "fill" rate on races offered in the condition book ranges from 70 to 80 percent.

The maiden optional claimers have attracted an average field size of 8.1 horses, with the nonwinners-of-two and nonwinners-of-three checking in at 7.4.

The overall average field size here this year stands at 8.5, an improvement on last year's 8.2 and the corresponding number of 8.3 in 2002.

"I can't say they were highly successful," said Evans, of the new races. "Nevertheless, there is a segment of the industry that appreciates these kind of races.

"At this point, we plan on continuing with them," he said. "We might vary the price, or the conditions. We're open to new ideas. That's part of our mandate, thinking of how to improve things, particularly regarding field size."

Ontario-sired allowance races for nonwinners-of-three were introduced this summer and are expected to be part of next year's program.

"The turf races went real well, but the dirt was not as successful," said Evans, who does not yet have statistics for the category. "Overall, they were acceptable."

Backstretch plans have yet to be unveiled

The Woodbine Entertainment Group will not announce its plans for work on the backstretch here this winter until at least mid-December, according to Hugh Mitchell, senior vice president of racing.

Mitchell said a board of directors meeting is scheduled for Dec. 13, and an additional meeting of the capital committee may be required before a plan is unveiled.

Meanwhile, Woodbine horsemen have been asked to vacate the backstretch by 4 p.m. on Dec. 15. The final day of the meet is Dec. 12.

The backstretch will reopen March 1, and the 2005 meeting is slated to get under way on April 16.

Heyahohowdy retired at age 5

Heyahohowdy, owned by Glenn Harvey's Kelynack Racing Stable and trained by Abraham Katryan, has joined the rather lengthy list of locally based mares who are retiring to the breeding shed.

A 5-year-old Ontario-bred by Domasca Dan out of the Bold Executive mare Executive Diamond, Heyahohowdy was a winner of five stakes, all on the turf, during her three years at the races. Her overall record of 7 wins, 6 seconds, and 3 thirds from 25 starts was good for a bankroll of $626,633.

Heyahohowdy's third-place finish in the Canadian Handicap here Sept. 19 was her first placing in a graded stakes, and ensured that this would be her last season of competition.

"That was the icing on the cake," said Katryan. "I don't think we could have improved her very much with another year. She has a lot of problems; she runs on heart alone."

Heyahohowdy will join the broodmare band on the nearby Kelynack farm. She will soon be joined there by former local performer Mysterious Affair, a multiple stakes winner of more than $1 million who was purchased privately by Harvey last spring and is in foal to Fusaichi Pegasus.

I'm a Riper preps for Kingarvie

I'm a Riper, a comfortable winner of his first start here Nov. 17, worked five furlongs in 1:01.40 here Friday morning in preparation for next Sunday's $125,000 Kingarvie Stakes.

Dino Luciani was aboard for the drill over the fast main track and has picked up the mount for the Kingarvie, a 1 1/16-mile race for Ontario-sired 2-year-olds.

I'm a Riper, who is trained and co-owned by Paul Buttigieg, made his successful debut in an Ontario-sired maiden special at six furlongs here Nov. 17.

The Kingarvie is one of the closing-day co-features along with the $125,000 Valedictory Handicap.

* The Toronto Thoroughbred Racing Club will hold its final meeting of the year here Wednesday, beginning at 8 p.m. in the second-floor International Room.

* The 10th and final race at Woodbine on Friday was cancelled because of poor track conditions.