04/28/2004 11:00PM

Strong card starts shortened season

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FORT ERIE, Ontario - A surprisingly strong program of nine five-furlong races, with 85 horses entered on the card, launches Fort Erie's 2004 season Saturday.

There was concern that the track might experience a horse shortage. Fort Erie had cut its normal schedule of about 115 racing days to just 81 for 2004, and the consensus was that some outfits could be looking to race elsewhere.

Because this one-mile track is scheduled to be rebuilt, the end of the season, planned for Nov. 22, was moved to Labor Day, Sept. 6.

"We had stall applications for 1,900 horses," said Herb McGirr Sr., Fort Erie's director of racing. "Nobody expected that with just 81 days of racing. We have allotted 1,304 stalls and have 900-plus horses on the grounds. We expect many to arrive when Tampa Bay closes this week."

McGirr said the "flip side" is that Fort Erie is facing a much more competitive environment, with slots having gone into operation in nearby New York locations. The 1,200 slots introduced at Fort Erie in 1999 helped the purse structure to average $188,000 daily last year. This year, it will be $170,000.

According to Nick Coukos, executive director of the Horsemen's Benevolent and Protective Association of Ontario, slots revenue is down 13 percent during the first three months of 2004. Simulcast wagering during the off-season, however, was consistent with last year's totals.

There will be $2.1 million up for grabs in the 24-race stakes schedule. The centerpiece is the $500,000 Prince of Wales on July 18, the second jewel in Canada's Triple Crown for Canadian-bred 3-year-olds.

The $250,000 Labatt Bison City Stakes, the second leg of Canada's series for 3-year-old fillies, goes July 4.

Half of the Fort Erie stakes will be "in-house," with specified previous starts at the meeting required for eligibility. The Fort had abandoned the practice last year, but has brought it back by popular demand.

These events will have purses of $40,000 but will not offer black type. In addition, each race offers bonuses of up to $20,000 courtesy of the Canadian Thoroughbred Horse Society.

Saturday's feature, an optional claimer, marks the return of Frankiefourfingers from an absence of 18 months.

Based at Fort Erie, Frankiefourfingers won the Clarendon at Woodbine in 2002 in his first lifetime start.

"We had him sold to Team Valor after the race," said Ed Freeman, the trainer and part-owner. "But he failed the vet. I ran him in the Juvenile Stakes here, but he was a little short and finished second. In his third start, he chipped a knee."

Freeman said Frankiefourfingers had no interest in racing last year and wouldn't train, but now seems to be in good order. Freeman took the horse to California for the winter and said he was able to get him fit, mostly through swimming at the San Luis Rey Downs training center.