11/21/2003 1:00AM

Racing in 2004 starts April 17


ETOBICOKE, Ontario - The 2003 Woodbine meeting is winding down, with closing day set for next Sunday.

But there's already major news about the 2004 meeting, which now is scheduled to begin on Saturday, April 17.

The Woodbine Entertainment Group's original racing dates application was for a 167-day meeting beginning April 3 and concluding Nov. 28. The backstretch was to open for training on Feb. 15.

But concerns arose that an extensive winter construction program, including the complete retrofitting of seven barns, could not be completed by mid-February, which led Woodbine to consider beginning the meeting April 24 and opening the backstretch on March 1. By having a five-day-a-week racing schedule take effect immediately, the number of racing dates would be the same.

The Horsemen's Benevolent and Protective Association, in discussions with Woodbine, hammered out the compromise of starting racing on April 17. The March 1 opening for the backstretch will remain in effect.

Under the revised dates application, which must be approved by the Ontario Racing Commission, Woodbine would race on Saturdays and Sundays for the first two weeks, add Fridays beginning April 30, and then launch into the full schedule. The meeting, which still would be 167 days in length, would end Dec. 12.

Queen's Plate, Woodbine Oaks issues

One area that would be impacted by the compacted meeting is the stakes schedule, particularly the relatively early marquee events such as the Queen's Plate and Woodbine Oaks.

Hugh Mitchell, Woodbine's senior vice president of racing, said the Queen's Plate will be run on June 20, which is only two days earlier than this year's running. The date for the 2004 Oaks is June 6, in keeping with its position two weeks before the Plate.

But whereas the Plate was run in the 14th week of the meeting this year, and the Oaks in the 12th week, the 2004 Plate would be run in the 10th week and the Oaks in the seventh week.

Reade Baker, who has prospects for both the Plate and the Oaks, is one trainer who believes the 2004 dates for the Plate and Oaks are incompatible with the late opening of the backstretch.

"It's going to force everybody in Canada to have a horse for one of those races to train in the States," said Baker. "I don't know how you could train for the Plate or the Oaks if you open here March 1."

Baker is planning on heading south for the winter, and other trainers here routinely winter in Florida or already had planned to do so this year.

But trainers with Plate or Oaks prospects who by choice or necessity will be wintering their horses in Ontario, may find themselves at enormous disadvantages.

Mitchell, while acknowledging that the timing of the Plate and Oaks may not be ideal, suggests that moving the races might be a more unattractive alternative.

"It won't be easy," said Mitchell, "but given all the considerations, you've got to be careful about making too many significant changes to your stakes program on an interim basis, while you're doing this renovation."

Chris Evans, Woodbine's director of racing, said there are no plans to eliminate any stakes races, but that some juggling of the schedule would be inevitable.

Push for larger fields

Woodbine management, convinced that a decrease in average field size here this year is a major cause of a declining live handle, is attacking the situation on several fronts.

Evans said the average field size this year was 8.1 horses, down from 8.3 last year, which equates to about two starters per card and more than 300 over the course of the meeting.

"This business all gets down to field size, pool size, and takeout," said Mitchell. "Our focus will be with our horsepeople, working on all three elements."

Woodbine management thinks it can help improve field size by returning to the 48-hour entry box, after operating on a 72-hour entry basis for the last five years.

Scratch time, which has been 9 a.m. two days preceding race day, will be eliminated. Horses will be entered to race, with the number of programmed also-eligibles yet to be determined.

"I think drawing three days out increases the number of scratched horses," said Evans, who believes trainers have tended to handicap their races before scratch time and might opt to scratch because of one or two particularly tough rivals.

"I think the closer you get to race day, the closer you get to having more horses in the race."

Mitchell agrees that the move back to 48-hour entries should be a boost to field size, and offers another benefit of the move.

"I wonder how it can't help," said Mitchell. "If a horse has got a temperature or goes off its feed, you've got one more day to decide whether to enter."

Premium on stalls

Woodbine also is looking to get more starts out of its ontrack equine population, and has conducted a study of the 197 trainers who had stalls here this year.

The study, based on a formula in which starts per stall are multiplied by earnings per stall, produces a "grade" for each trainer. The bottom 25 percent of the trainers on the list have received letters warning they could face cutbacks in their stall allocations next year.

There were 2,115 stalls here this year, and the demand for stalls always outstrips the supply.