11/01/2002 1:00AM

Smugglers Cove thrives after gate ills are cured

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VANCOUVER, British Columbia - From her first start as a 2-year-old in 1997 through the end of the 2000 racing season, Smugglers Cove had won a total of seven races. She could have been claimed for $2,500 in 2000, and last year she started out running in a $3,500 claiming race, which she won.

It was the first of six wins for her in 2001, and to show how lowly she was regarded, she was favored only once. Her trainer, Harold Barroby, was so frustrated with her that at one point he tried to sell her for $800, but couldn't find any takers. That's all changed now. She will likely be a solid choice when she goes for her eighth win of the current meet in a $32,000 optional claiming race at Hastings this Sunday.

Smugglers Cove has had a lot of problems with the starting gate throughout her career. In fact, Barroby had a hard time finding a rider for her when she was a 3-year-old after she dumped her jockey leaving the starting gate in one of her races.

One jockey agent was laughed at when he named his rider on Smugglers Cove when nobody else would take the mount. He had the last laugh, though, as she finished second and came back to win her next race. She has always shown an ability to run, but her antics at the starting gate have cost her a lot of races.

Barroby said that the big difference now is how she handles the gate. Two years ago he approached then head-starter Wayne Russell, who is now a steward, about trying a different approach to loading her into the starting gate.

Smugglers Cove has always been a reluctant loader and the starting gate crew would use tongs on her ears to help coerce her into the stall. After a long conversation with Russell, it was agreed to try a gentler approach to loading her. The new approach has worked out well as she has gone on to win 13 of her last 19 starts over the past two racing seasons.

"It's made a big difference in her attitude," said Barroby. "She hated the tongs and she used to hate going to the gate. She would just get so nervous that she wouldn't run to her potential. Now, she's a very happy horse and, well, just look at her record."

Barroby is on track to win his 10th training title. The all-time leading trainer at Hastings has won 45 races at the meet, 14 more than Jim Brown, who currently sits in second place. He's winning races at a decent clip, 17 percent, and that's after getting off to a very slow start.

"It's turned out to be a good year," said Barroby. "If you would have told me that I was going to win 45 races back in May, I would have said you were crazy. But things have really gone well since then."

Some purses cut during meet extension

Sunday's card was originally supposed to be the last live day of racing this year but at the request of the Horsemen's Benevolent Protective Association, Hastings management has extended the meet to Dec. 1. Racing this late in the year is uncharted territory for local racing fans and it's hard to say what the attendance and handle are likely to be. Hastings management isn't quite sure what to expect, but is projecting small declines in both, and has cut purses at the upper levels by up to 20 percent. Bottom-level purses will remain the same. Next year purses will go back to at least what they were during the main meet and possibly higher, depending on what the handle is over the next month.

Hastings management was expecting to have at least one locally based teletheater up and running by now, but has been frustrated by municipal governments that seem reluctant to give their approval without going through a long, drawn-out public process. There's not likely to be any progress until after municipal elections are held in the middle of November.