04/29/2005 12:00AM

Short sprints standard fare as meet opens

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FORT ERIE, Ontario - A new-look Fort Erie season gets under way Sunday with an eight-race program of short sprints. Half of them are at 4 1/2 furlongs and half at five furlongs.

The offseason hasn't been pretty for the local horse people. The 117-day 2004 season was originally scheduled to finish Nov. 22. But to provide ample time for a complete rebuilding of the main track, the meet was reduced to 81 days and ended Sept. 6.

A further setback occurred this spring when completion of final touches caused a two-week delay in the opening of the track for training purposes. Hence, the introduction of the 4 1/2-furlong races.

"It gives us a chance to get things going," said racing secretary Tom Gostlin. "All the horses aren't as ready as they should be for six furlongs and whatnot.

"People that were going to be waiting a week or two to run will be able to run now and get some money into their pockets," he said. "The first three weeks of racing will be like a different type of meet altogether."

Gostlin is convinced that the rebuilt track was worth the wait, and the $2.5 million cost. "Everyone is thrilled," he said. "And there's been absolutely no complaints."

Trainer Bobby Lane thinks there is no better track in North America. "We've trained on it every day since they opened it," he said. "And it rained here five days in a row. It's kind to the horses. They work quickly over it, and you don't even hear them go by."

The 108-day meet will end Oct. 31. Daily purse distribution has been pegged at $160,000, down from $181,000 last year. In 2003, it was $188,000.

The drop is blamed on the proliferation of competing slots in Fort Erie's market area of Niagara Falls, N.Y., to Buffalo, N.Y. The revenue of the track's slots is the main fuel for the purses.

A shortfall in this source of money has led the track to write more races at lower claiming levels and fewer at the allowance level.

"We're accepting the fact that we are a B-meet and we are going to be at a lower end of racing," said Gostlin.

Nevertheless, Herb McGirr Sr., the director of operations, is expecting a great season.

"We have new simulcast partners, and it will reflect a substantial increase in our handle," said McGirr, referring to Fort Erie races being simulcast to New York City OTB and XpressBet in California.

Fort Erie also will offer a stakes schedule of 15 races, worth a total of $1.4 million.

Topping the meet is the $500,000 Prince of Wales, the second leg of Canada's Triple Crown, and the $250,000 Labatt Bison City, the second leg of the triple tiara.

Racing will be held on Saturdays, Sundays, and Mondays. Tuesdays will be added beginning May 24. Five Friday cards are scheduled - July 1, and all Fridays in August.

At a glance: Fort Erie

RACING SCHEDULE: 108 days; Saturday through Oct. 31; racing Saturdays through Mondays; Tuesdays beginning May 24; Fridays July 1, Aug. 5, 12, 19, 26

HIGHLIGHTS:

July 4Labatt Bison City$250,000
July 17Prince of Wales500,000
July 24Rainbow Connection125,000

POST TIME: 1:05 p.m. Eastern

ADMISSIONS: Free

PARKING: General, free; preferred, $3Cdn or $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.

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

INTERNET: forterieracing.com