05/06/2004 11:00PM

Simms starts meet with bang

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FORT ERIE, Ontario - Trainer John Simms wasn't having much luck when the Fort Erie meeting opened last Saturday.

Simms entered six runners for the first three days, and none of the races filled.

But that changed on Tuesday, which was a "go" for three of his horses, and all of them won. So Simms sat alone atop of the trainer standing at the end of week 1.

His first two winners were for owner Bruno Schickedanz, Fort Erie's leading owner for each of the the past seven years. The third was for Tom Grimes, whose Classy Flowers ($19.90) won Tuesday's feature race, an optional claimer for $50,000 run at six furlongs.

Classy Flowers, a 4-year-old filly, was making her second start for Simms. She was claimed for $16,000 at Tampa Bay on Feb. 19 out of a race at 1 1/16 miles on the turf.

"I thought the race might be a little short for her, but she's dead fit," said Simms, who had four wins at the recently concluded Tampa Bay meet. "You'll hear a bit more of her later on, when they stretch out and go on the turf."

Simms was Fort Erie's fifth-leading trainer last year. He was licensed in 1999 after taking an early retirement package from the Toronto police force.

Tuesday was the highlight of his latest vocation. It was his first three-win day.

Villeneuve also starts fast

Sharing the limelight Tuesday was jockey Francine Villeneuve, who was aboard all of the Simms's winners. And they were her only mounts of the day.

Villeneuve, who was runner-up to Martin Ramirez in the jockey standings last year, led the standings this meet with seven wins as the second week began Saturday. Ramirez was next with four.

"It's the best start I've had for years," said Villeneuve. "Thank God for the Florida horses. It's such an advantage for them to come up here after running and training there all winter."

Villeneuve rode at Tampa Bay this winter, after marrying blacksmith Bruce Anderson in November. He is now a trainer. She rode in Florida to help stay fit, winning one race in 20 mounts.

Last Monday, Anderson sent out Value of Luck, with Villeneuve aboard, and won the first race. It was only the second starter for the owner-trainer.

Horse of year makes winning debut

Fort Erie's 2003 horse of the year, Ashagio, won Monday's feature wire to wire. There was no Florida in his winter: he spent it on Daryl Ezra's three-acre Fort Erie farm.

"He gave away a lot in seasoning," said Ezra, trainer and part-owner of Ashagio, an eight-time winner last year. "We started on him in mid-March. It takes six weeks to be competitive at five furlongs. When the track opened, we were the first on the grounds."

But the race Monday was at six furlongs, and Florida-conditioned horses were in the field.

"You get lucky," said Ezra. "Ashagio is brave and he knows where the wire is.

High win-percentage Lane returns

Woodbine-based trainer Ross Armata who had 12 wins at the Fort last year, has put Bobby Lane in charge of an 18-horse division here.

Lane, 47, is returning to the track he left in 1997. He managed a teletheatre in Whitby, Ontario, in the interim.

"For seven years of my son's life I hardly ever saw him," said Lane. "He would be asleep when I left in the morning. Now he's in high school. I always intended to come back."

Lane, known for his high win percentage in the past, won with the first runner he sent to the post, Deputy Ruler, on opening day.