04/13/2005 11:00PM

New twists to sussing out winners

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ETOBICOKE, Ontario - Woodbine Entertainment Group officials are hoping that a $400 payment to horses finishing sixth or worse will help create larger field sizes at Woodbine this year.

Woodbine has been plagued with small fields in recent years, a trend that ended last September after the Fort Erie meeting concluded prematurely because of extensive track renovations. Woodbine carded numerous low-level claiming events throughout the fall, which resulted in larger fields and a surplus in the purse account.

Chris Evans, Woodbine Entertainment's vice president of Thoroughbred racing, figures the initiative will cost the purse account upward of $2.5 million, if an average field size of nine runners is achieved. The average field size was 8.6 runners in 2004.

Evans said the $400 will help to defray the cost of running a horse.

"It will help pay for the cost of medication, Lasix, the jockey's fee, the pony fee, and sometimes the cost of shipping in from the farm or Fort Erie," Evans said. "Pretty much everybody I've heard from on this has been positive."

Evans believes this program will increase field size more effectively than raising purses.

"We could double the size of purses across the board, and I don't think it will increase field size," Evans said. "With the situation we have now, people can afford to wait for the perfect spot, which doesn't help our field size."

The innovation figures to create more diverse fields, in which the pretenders will outnumber the contenders with regularity. Horseplayers may be less inclined to hit the "all" button, because many races will contain overmatched horses, and trainers might be seeking a paid workout for some of their runners returning from a layoff.

Handicapping Woodbine will also be more complicated this year because of some tinkering that has been done with several of the maiden and conditioned categories.

Woodbine offered unusual optional maiden and conditioned claimers in 2004, which didn't go over well with many horsemen.

Evans said some trainers were reluctant to enter these races because they had few clues as to how tough the fields would come up. He cited a Canadian Triple Crown contender, Burst of Fire, and a precocious stakes winner, San Diego Blowout, as two horses who raided theses races in search of easy pickings, in spite of the cheaper purses offered.

Instead of abandoning these races, Evans said he decided to modify them this year. In the nonwinners-of-two and nonwinners-of-three events, he deleted the optional claiming clause and excluded winners of a first-place purse of $34,200 in their last two starts.

"We took away the optional claiming portion, because very few horses ran for the price," Evans said. "We put in a restriction so that it's harder for a good horse to drop into them. We were accused with writing these races for the big owners and breeders, but that's not why we did it. We did it for owners with horses who couldn't compete at the major levels and didn't want to put them in with a claiming price. We wanted these horses to have a place to compete without having to go to another track, such as Fort Erie."

The new restriction isn't what Evans initially drafted. His first proposal called for the exclusion of horses who finished first or second in their last two starts in a race worth $57,000, which is contradictory to an Ontario Racing Commission rule that states, "No horse shall be penalized, nor shall it be barred from any race, for having placed second or lower in any race."

Evans said he is going to lobby to have that rule changed, with the intention of allowing him to utilize his initial plan next year.

There are now two maiden special weight categories at Woodbine. The "A" level has a purse of $60,000, while the "B" level is worth $30,700. Last fall, maiden special sprints carried a purse of $57,000, and $25,000 optional maiden-claiming sprints were worth $26,500.

Shippers can have early fitness edge

Winter- or spring-raced horses from the United States successfully flaunted their fitness edge during the first month of the 2004 Woodbine meeting, a trend that will likely continue here this spring.

Shippers from Gulfstream, Aqueduct, Tampa, Philadelphia Park, Charles Town and Oaklawn were the most effective. Gulfstream produced the most winners, 13, to go along with 11 seconds and 6 thirds from 58 starters.

Fair Grounds invaders fared surprisingly poorly, posting 0 wins, 2 seconds and 2 thirds from 18 starters.