10/03/2002 11:00PM

Retirement home in winner's circle

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FORT ERIE, Ontario - Michael Barkowski has enjoyed playing the horses most of his life. But it wasn't until two years ago that he decided to become an owner.

Beginning with this week's racing, Barkowski is in a tie for second place among Fort Erie owners with 21 wins.

"I thought it would be cheaper to just own one," said Barkowski, 53, who is retired from the insurance business.

"With slots coming in and purses increasing you could make money. I was going to do it as a hobby - two or three horses, and golf."

Barkowski was first in line when his employer, after merging with another company, offered a retirement package to those 50 and over who had 25 years' service. He had invested wisely over the years.

Through friends at Buffalo Raceway, he hooked up with Fort Erie trainer Tom Agosti and claimed Lucky Week. Pumped up, Barkowski was soon deflated when his runner didn't run a lick at Woodbine.

Two other horses he obtained that fall couldn't win for him, either. But when Agosti took the three to winter in Florida, Barkowski finally hit the scoreboard at Tampa Bay Downs.

Revitalized, Barkowski bought five more horses in Florida and started the 2001 season at Fort Erie with eight runners. In the group were 3-year-olds Native Wager and Right Stop.

By season's end, Barkowski had won 11 races at the Fort, including the Memorial Stakes with Native Wager. Right Stop finished third in the Bridgeburg Stakes.

Barkowski finished fourth among Fort Erie owners in purse money won, with $220,880.

Native Wager and Right Stop are nominated to this year's editions of the Memorial and Bridgeburg. Both stakes - the final ones of the meeting - will be run on the Oct. 14 program.

"I started this to have fun," said Barkowski. "But it's turned out to be a small business - storybook material."

Right Stop can lock up title

Right Stop has been formidable in Ontario this year. He is 3 for 3 at Woodbine and has a win and a second here in three attempts, with his off-the-board finish coming in his sole turf outing of the year.

With 2002 earnings of $125,530, Right Stop would lock up distance horse of the year honors - and perhaps even a Fort Erie horse of the year title - with a win in the Bridgeburg.

Layne Giliforte, this track's leading trainer, has designs on those same titles with Divine Luck, who has won four of his five dirt races this year.

Divine Luck, owned by John Franks, dropped a decision to Right Stop last week at Woodbine but edged Right Stop here in July. Besides nominating Divine Luck to the Bridgeburg, Giliforte also has named What a Kiss, another Franks horse.

"Right Stop is game and extremely tough," said Giliforte. "I'll run What a Kiss, who is a speed horse that beat Tails of the Crypt" in an Aug. 27 race. "He could help set things up for Divine Luck. And, I also think he's good enough to win it himself."

Neubauer on hot streak

Trainer Mycke Neubauer's stable was hot late in September.

One of her successes came with Best of the Duck, who overcame his distance limitations to win a six-furlong race at Woodbine. Best of the Duck was labeled the king of the quarter-milers at Fort Erie last year but was unable to win beyond 5 1/2 furlongs.

Neubauer won two races here on Sunday and then another Monday.