04/11/2014 11:20AM

Ron Gierkink's Woodbine handicapping notebook April 12

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Saturday, April 12 preview

Opening day of the 133-day meet attracted 87 entries on a 10-race card dominated by shorter sprints, along with one seven-furlong race, a $25,000 starter allowance.

Winter-raced horses and runners who trained in Florida over the winter often dominate during the early portion of the meet, because of the fitness edge they possess over those who stayed north of the border. This past winter was particularly cold in Ontario, and an ice storm hindered turnout at many farms, but not many days of training were missed after horses shipped back into Woodbine in February.

A total of 23 of Saturday’s entrants wintered in Florida.

Gulfstream shippers always fare well at this time of year, although many are overbet. During the first month of the 2013 meet, horses exiting a Gulfstream race posted a record of 10 wins, 8 seconds,  and 10 thirds, from 62 starts.

Keeneland runners more than held their own during that same time, going 8-7-5 from 27 starts. Fair Grounds runners were 3-3-1, from just 11 starts. Parx and Charles Town also produced live shippers here, with a handful of starters.

Tampa invaders made a subpar showing over the first month of the 2013 meet, but at least one longshot from there connects here every spring, usually in a low-level claimer.

There are several new wrinkles in the Ontario-sired program this year. The $20,000 and $40,000 nonwinners of three claimers have been combined with nonwinners of three Ontario-sired allowances. In these races, the Ontario-sired  horses do not run with a claiming tag, and are eligible for a new 40 percent purse bonus that most Ontario-sired runners will earn when they place in the top five positions in open company.

The first such combo race is today’s fourth, a $40,000 dash going five furlongs for fillies and mares. Only one non-Ontario-sired runner was entered, 6-year-old Holy Academy, who has been sidelined since July 6. Even though she’s meeting older opposition, her 3-year-old stablemate, Regal Conqueror should be favored off her good sprint form, which includes a restricted stakes score. Regal Conqueror wintered at the Nelson Jones Farms and Training Center in Ocala , Fla., along with the other Darwin Banach-trained entrants here this weekend.

Banach was tied for third in the standings after the first month of the 2013 meet, with 6 wins from 14 starters, even though he wintered in Ontario that year. He was 3 for 4 on opening weekend, and another strong beginning to the meet seems probable for him.

Perennial leading trainer Mark Casse topped the standings after the first month last year, even though he doesn’t have a preponderance of short-distance experts in his far-flung operation. Don’t expect him to dominate right off the bat, but you can expect Patrick Husbands to ride numerous winners for him at this stand. Husbands missed about half of the 2013 meet after breaking his ankle in the spring, yet still managed to tie for fourth in the standings.

Bob Tiller “went off” on opening weekend last year, when he led all trainers with 4 wins from 7 starters. After being surpassed by Casse shortly thereafter, he remained in second throughout the rest of the meet, mainly due to the strength of his Ontario-sired stock.

Luis Contreras, Woodbine’s leading rider from 2011-13, could have a productive afternoon. In the curtain raiser, he will pilot the favored dropper High Tee, who met much tougher when ninth in a January turf race at Gulfstream than what she’s facing in this $8,000 claimer. High Tee shouldn’t have any problem finding the mark if she’s anywhere near right.

Banach’s go- to rider, Eurico Rosa Da Silva, has the call on three morning-line favorites: Regal Conqueror, Sky High Class in the sixth,  and Sandys Hurricane in the seventh. The seventh is a pivotal race, as it links the two pick fours on the card. It completes the first one, which is guaranteed at $100,000, and begins the second one, which has no guarantee. I like Sandys Hurricane, even though she was a vet scratch from a recent maiden special at Tampa.

The popular Chantal Sutherland-Kruze is back on the local scene after riding in Southern California the past few years. She inherits the mount on favored Bear’s Reality in the finale from Emma-Jayne Wilson, who’s riding Asserting Bear in the Grade 1 Blue Grass at Keeneland on Saturday. Both “bears” are trained by Reade Baker. Wilson and Baker were the leading jockey/trainer combo here last year, with 28 victories from 123 starters.