08/13/2010 2:04PM

Shirley following her dream at Fort Erie

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FORT ERIE, Ontario – Small stables, often overlooked, can make or break the overall backstretch operation.

They have to fight for a stall or two at times and their horses are usually in the claiming category. But they are willing to enter, and that makes them essential players when it comes to filling a racing card.

Luthia [Lucy] Shirley operates such a stable at Fort Erie, and has been working with horses since beginning as a Woodbine hot walker in the 1970s.

“I began walking hots for trainer Bonnie Bolton and eventually got to groom for the likes of trainers Donnie Campbell and Laurie Silvera,” said Shirley.

“They were all great teachers. Later on, I decided to try to manage my own stable and finally acquired my trainer’s license.”

Shirley’s two-horse stable recently jumped to four with the purchase of two unproven 3-year-olds.

“I am a one-woman operation and everything that happens around the barn falls on my shoulders,” said Shirley. “These four will keep me very busy, but I love what I do.”

Shirley is still in search her first win of the season.

“There have been years when things did not go as planned so I’ve had to return to grooming for a spell, just to make ends meet. The past two years were good to me, but this year has been a struggle.”

Shirley’s favorite racing memories include one as a groom and one as a trainer.

“Donnie Campbell won the Prince of Wales on the turf here at the Fort with Mass Rally in ’79 and I was the groom. That was special, and so was my first win as a trainer in 1991 with Time to Rhyme.

“When I bought him there were a few who chuckled at my decision. He had not shown much and I accepted the kidding. But he did win for me and I was in heaven while on my way to the winner’s circle. That experience started me on my way.”

Shirley moved to the Fort in the 1990s and it is now home.

Dan Taylor, blacksmith, trainer, and a senior citizen on the backstretch, believes that Shirley has a way with horses.

“I can tell you honestly,” said Taylor, “if a horse can’t win for Lucy then he can’t win for anyone.”

Emotional Passero victory

Set in Stone, trained by Nick Gonzalez and ridden by Francine Villeneuve, won the inaugural $30,000 Andy Passero Memorial Cup last Sunday.

Owned by Martha Gonzalez and MAD Stable, in which Passero was a partner, Set in Stone entered the winner’s circle to a very large and emotional crowd.

Andy Passero died in a 2009 traffic accident while returning to his Fort Erie home following a race night at Woodbine. Besides his interest in horses, Passero was a staunch member of the Fort Erie business community and a leading factor in youth sports activities.

◗ The 4 p.m. Tuesday starting time in August has revitalized local fans. On-site handle has increased and a large crowd has enjoyed “Toonie Tuesdays” where food items and beer go for two bucks.