05/29/2002 11:00PM

New client helps Gonzalez rebound

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FORT ERIE, Ontario - Each winter Fort Erie-based trainer Nick Gonzalez shops for horses in Florida. Besides coming back to Canada with two horses this year he also landed a new client, Ken Hoffman. As a result, the Gonzalez barn has taken off to a fast start this year.

Gonzalez captured an optional claiming race on Woodbine's turf course Wednesday with Amazon River, owned by Hoffman. For Gonzalez, it was his 11th score of the year. Four of those were for Hoffman, a 69-year-old owner-trainer who lives in Ocala, Fla.

"I met Hoffman in Ocala, and I showed him a condition book from Canada that I happened to have with me," said Gonzalez. "The purse structure was enticing to him. And I told him the competition wasn't as tough as in Florida.

"I bought a filly, Miss Joker, from him. Shortly after I got back, I got a call from him asking if I had room for five horses. I didn't, but I told him I did. I made room and the rest is history."

Gonzalez, whose purse winnings at Woodbine and Fort Erie are near the $375,000 mark already this year, sees a bright future for Amazon River.

"He's a really nice 4-year-old who won a $100,000 turf stakes in Kentucky last year," said Gonzalez, referring to the Turf Dash at Churchill Downs last September.

Gonzalez is rebounding from a mediocre year at the Fort in which his win percentage dipped to 13. In 2000, it was 19 percent. Gonzalez blamed poorer and cheaper stock for the so-so year.

"It's no reflection on your training ability," said Gonzalez, who has four Fort Erie wins this spring.

"The horses mean everything. I've said all along that a good horse is dangerous in any man's hands. Fortunately for us, we had some good horses of our own when Hoffman sent us his."

Turf season begins

Weather permitting, the first turf race of the meet will be held Saturday. The five-furlong allowance dash is a prep for the June 11 Adena Springs Matchmaker, which is scheduled for the same distance and surface. The $60,000 Adena Springs Matchmaker drew 36 nominations.

The prep will feature the 2002 debut of J and B's Nu Image. A 6-year-old mare trained by David Schmidt, J and B's Nu Image boasts 14 wins from 29 lifetime starts.

Sealock breaks through

It took 21 rides, but last Sunday Regina Sealock scored her first win of the meet. Her backers were rewarded with a $2 win payoff of $127.20.

Sealock began the year with 599 lifetime victories and was the winningest female rider of all time in Canada. But on the opening weekend, Francine Villeneuve scored three times to pass her.

Sealock blames a late arrival to Fort Erie this spring for a lack of mounts.

"I usually get here in mid-March," she explained. "I didn't arrive until two days before entries were taken. People are obligated to use those that helped them in the mornings."

That is also what apprentice Chantal Sutherland discovered. Before this past week, she was able to get only two mounts here on the Woodbine dark days, even though she was available.

"You have to admire the loyalty of the trainers," said Sutherland, who was Woodbine's second leading rider heading into Friday.