06/17/2004 12:00AM

Owner gives groom a winning gift


FORT ERIE, Ontario - It was the same old refrain that the groom, Evelyn Mercier, had heard many times before when owner Russell Wintel made his usual prerace visit to see Ashagio at the Fort Erie shed row of trainer Daryl Ezra.

"I'm sick - I'm not going to last too much longer," Wintel, 82, would say to Mercier, 22. "I'm going to leave my half of Ashagio to you in my will. You take such good care of him. I know you love him."

Ashagio, a 6-year-old gelding, was being readied for the five-furlong Expedite Plus on June 6. Wintel and Ezra, as partners, had claimed Ashagio for $7,500 last year from a winning effort on opening day. The horse went on to win seven more races and was honored as the track's horse of the year.

But the regular Ashagio didn't show up in the Expedite Plus. He was uncharacteristically flat and finished last of seven. Lucky Tec, Ashagio's barnmate who was coupled with him in the betting, won by a nose.

"I think the loss kind of hurt Russell," Ezra said. "As long as Ashagio was running well, his spirits were kept up."

The following Tuesday, Wintel was at the track in a wheelchair. With Ezra and Bill McMahon, an Ontario Racing Commission steward, as signed witnesses, Wintel willed his half of Ashagio to Mercier.

The next day, Wintel was hospitalized. At 3 a.m. on June 11, he died, and his funeral was held Monday.

On Tuesday, Ashagio ran in a starter allowance - and Mercier, an owner for just four days, registered her first victory. Ashagio won the 1 1/16-mile race wire to wire, by almost five lengths.

"As Ashagio was getting to the wire I started to cry," Ezra said. "When I went down to the horse, I found Evelyn crying. And so was Patti [jockey Patricia Trimble]. I've never seen three people win a race and all be in tears."

Jockey McClaren wins first race

Apprentice Jeff McClaren, 28, won his first race Monday. He was aboard Grin and Smile in the first race on the card.

Weight was responsible for McClaren's late entry into the profession. He has been an exercise rider, mostly at Woodbine, for nine years. Last year, McClaren rode Quarter Horses at Picov Downs in Ajax, where he ended fourth in the rider standings.

A Mississauga native, McClaren waived his apprentice weight allowance when he applied for a jockey's license. But while waiting for confirmation, his latest diet kicked in, and his weight dropped to 108 pounds. He then requested and received the allowance.