04/24/2003 12:00AM

Poor weather, 4-day week result in 8-race cards


FORT ERIE, Ontario - Fort Erie opens Saturday with an eight-race program that drew 72 entries. The 117-day meet runs through Nov. 11.

For the first time, the meet will start with a four-day racing week, Saturday through Tuesday. In the past, the meet began with a three-day week, Saturday through Monday, with Tuesdays added after one month.

The only exception to the Saturday-Tuesday schedule this year is a Friday program on the Fourth of July. Eliminated from last year are cards that were held on alternating Wednesdays during midsummer.

The four-day week and this year's inclement weather has played a part in the track's decision to go with just eight races daily instead of its customary nine or 10. Racing secretary Tom Gostlin said frozen tracks had interrupted training.

"We'll see how much of a setback this weather is giving us," said Gostlin. "We don't want to end up with 10 races that have light fields and are not competitive. We would rather have eight and go with competitive fields, give them something to bet on."

A record $2,015,000 will be up for grabs in 21 scheduled stakes races, highlighted by the $500,000 Prince of Wales Stakes, the second leg of the Canadian Triple Crown. The Prince of Wales will be run July 20, along with its usual supporting features, the Benburb and the Border Cup.

The $250,000 Labatt Bison City, the second leg of the Canadian filly triple crown, will go July 1. The Centre Stage Anne and Parnitha stakes will be on the same card.

There also will be a stakes tripleheader July 19, featuring the $125,000 Rainbow Connection, the Lauries Dancer and the Blazing Sevens.

A significant change this year is the elimination of the "in-house" stakes program. No longer will it be necessary for a horse to have had two starts at the meeting in order to qualify for certain stakes.

Also, the Canadian-bred requirement has been lifted for four stakes - the Lauries Dancer, Cool Reception, Golden Horseshoe, and Peninsula - and the minimum purse for a stakes at Fort Erie has been raised to $60,000 from $55,000.

Four sales stakes sponsored by the Ontario division of the Canadian Thoroughbred Horse Society have been upped from $60,000 to $75,000. The Hindmarsh and the Addison will be run June 29, and the two divisions of the Juvenile are set for Oct. 20 and 21.

The Bridgeburg Stakes, run in October last year, will be paired with the Adena Springs Matchmaker on June 15 this year. They are Fort Erie's first stakes of the year.

Fort Erie purses have soared since 1999, fueled by increasing revenues from 1,200 slots that went into action that year. In 1998, the daily purse structure was $50,000. Last year, the average was $188,000.

No general purse increase has been announced for this season. Officials are waiting to assess the impact on business of the new Seneca Casino in Niagara Falls, N.Y., which opened this year.

"The competition from the Seneca Casino has had an impact on revenue and attendance in this past quarter [ending in March]," said Jim Cronin of the Ontario Lottery and Gaming Corporation, which operates and manages the slots at the Fort Erie track.

Since the opening of the Fort's slots in 1999, the facility has averaged more than 4,600 patrons daily.


RACING SCHEDULE: Saturday, April 26 through Tuesday, Nov. 11. Saturdays through Tuesdays plus Friday, July 4 (117 days)

POST TIME: 1:05 p.m.

MEET HIGHLIGHTS: $500,000 Prince of Wales, July 20; $250,000 Labatt Bison City, July 1; $125,000 Rainbow Connection, July 19


PARKING: Free general; preferred $3 Cdn ($2 U.S.)

SLOTS: 1,200 machines. Open 9 a.m. to 3 a.m. Monday through Thursday; open continuously from Friday 9 a.m. through Sunday 3 a.m.

LOCATION: 230 Catherine Street, Fort Erie, Ont. Across Niagara River from Buffalo, N.Y.; approximately 90 miles from Toronto, Ont.

PHONE: (905) 871-3200; (800) 295-3770

INTERNET: forterieracing.com