06/06/2003 12:00AM

Top trainers have winter base in common

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FORT ERIE, Ontario - The three trainers that are atop of the Fort Erie standings have one thing in common: They used Tampa Bay Downs in Florida as the base for their operations during the winter.

Layne Giliforte, who took over first place here Monday, has been competing at the Florida track for a number of years. He had 14 wins heading into Saturday's program.

John Simms, just one win behind, completed his first venture at Tampa Bay in the spring.

In third place is Tom Agosti, a Tampa Bay regular for the past three meets where he plays the claiming game aggressively. A former trainer of Standardbreds, Agosti scored four times the past racing week and now has 11 wins here.

"The surface at Tampa Bay is sand, and there is no real grab to it," said Agosti, explaining why he liked Tampa Bay runners. "If horses don't take to it, they don't do much. It's like running on a beach.

"Here, the surface is a lot harder and a lot firmer. And those runners do much better here. That's why they win."

Bruce Alexander, a high-profile trainer who has shifted here following the Tampa Bay meet, has similar beliefs.

"The surface there, even though they run fast times on it, is more laboring," said Alexander, who has 3 wins, 3 seconds, and 3 thirds at the Fort. "It's sandy and it kind of breaks away on them. It's a very kind surface, but some horses don't run their best on it."

Alexander cited two of his runners who ran impressively here.

Holy Triumph, he noted, won an allowance here on May 18 after a layoff, paying $23.50. "He had terrible form at Tampa," he said. "After running him twice, I put him away.

Then, he said, Numerian, sent off at 8-1, was beaten by a head for $25,000 on June 2. "I had run him twice down there and he had run so bad I put him away," Alexander said. "I said, 'He's not that bad a horse.' And he wasn't sore or anything.

"So, it has to be the surface."

DeSouza 4 for 4 with shippers

Trainer Norman DeSouza has shipped from Woodbine four times for this meet and four times he has carried away the top prize. Take the Mickey was the latest score, coming on Tuesday. Apprentice rider Julia Brimo was aboard.

"We tried to get a race for her at Woodbine, but the race didn't go," said DeSouza. "She was feeling so good we had to run her.

"I used Julia to keep the weight down, plus she's improved a lot, getting better and better."

Mullen a quick winner

Blair Mullen, 35, who was issued a trainer's license this spring, was victorious May 18 with the first runner he sent out. March Million ($30.30) did the job for him, winning by six lengths at the bottom claiming level.

Raised a notch to $7,500, though, March Million was a victim of bad luck in his next start, on May 31. A loose horse continually bothered him and carried him to the outside rail, and he finished fourth.