05/01/2007 11:00PM

Start off right at Fort Erie's new meet


ETOBICOKE, Ontario - Winter- and spring-raced horses figure to dominate during the early portion of the 110th Fort Erie meeting, which begins Saturday.

Nick Gonzalez, Fort Erie's leading trainer last year, said many horsemen are behind schedule because of poor track conditions resulting from bad weather this spring.

"Everyone who's stabled here has told me that they're a couple of works behind," said Gonzalez. "It might get a little testy here the first few days. The winter-raced horses and those who have already run at Woodbine are going to have a big edge on the local guys."

Gonzalez said Fort Erie's main track is usually fair in how it plays.

"The track has been dynamite since they resurfaced it three years ago," said Gonzalez. "There's rarely a bias.

"The only thing I've noticed is after it rains and the track starts to dry out, the inside always seems better. That's probably because the track is banked and the water drains towards the infield lake, which makes the inside a little harder for some reason."

Bud Williams, Fort Erie's Equibase chart-caller, said he sees the occasional outside bias on the main track.

"It's normally fair, but there's the odd day when the crown of the track is very good," he said.

Williams said his favorite Fort Erie jockeys are Robbie King Jr., who led the standings last year with 111 wins, and Corey Clark, who ranked second with 82 victories.

"King really judges the pace well," said Williams. "You've always got to watch him in every race. Clark is good with off-the-pace runners."

Williams said Lyle Morden and Michaela Neubauer are two well-respected trainers who are worth following.

"Morden is very consistent," said Williams. "Neubauer can get a horse ready to win off a layoff, and she brings in a lot of longshots."

The vast majority of the races in Fort Erie's first condition book are for $4,000 to $10,000 claimers. Many of them are conditioned events. The purse for $5,000 maidens is $9,000, while maiden special weight runners compete for $16,000. A $4,000 claimer for nonwinners of two has a healthy $8,000 purse.

Horses who cannot cut it at Woodbine often end up at Fort Erie, and handicappers must size up their chances when they square off against the locals. They often win as underlays, and handicappers should consider keying them on top in exotic wagers unless they're taking a drop that seems too good to be true .

King said that much of his business last year consisted of live Woodbine shippers.

"You have to give them a class edge," he said. "I'm a believer that class prevails. Early in the year they're going to have a fitness and class edge."

King said it might be wise to ignore subpar Polytrack races of Woodbine invaders and to concentrate on their dirt form.

"My feeling regarding the Polytrack is either that they like it or they don't," King said. "I've been on a bunch of horses who just didn't like it whatsoever, and I throw their Polytrack form right out."

King said he believes the preferred part of the track gradually moves from the inside to the crown as it dries out after some rainfall.

"The inside is good when the track gets wet," said King. "As it dries out, the outside progressively gets better. [The bias] works its way out, and I ride it that way."

Gonzalez said agile runners have an edge when negotiating the tight turns of Fort Erie's grass course, which is situated inside the one-mile main track.

"The turf course is seven-eighths of a mile, and you've got to have a horse who can handle those turns," he said. "I've had a couple of big, long-striding horses who didn't handle them, and it cost me a race or two. The course is a lot narrower than Woodbine's, and a lot of races are won or lost on both those turns."

Ontario horseplayers who prefer a conventional dirt and turf track, as opposed to Woodbine's Polytrack and expansive grass course, will welcome a new season of racing at Fort Erie.