10/20/2006 12:00AM

Track to reduce dates

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Fort Erie Racetrack and the Horsemen's Benevolent and Protective Association of Ontario have reached an agreement to reduce racing dates for the next three years in order to maintain the track's current purse structure.

Revenue from the 1,200 slot machines in the track's adjoining casino is down 30 percent from last year. The slots bankroll 75 percent of the purse structure. To maintain the present schedule of 104 racing dates for next year, purses would have to be cut by 30 percent. Instead, a decision was made to cut the number of racing days. The purse structure will mostly remain the same.

Trainer Nick Gonzalez, who is a newly elected vice president of the HBPA, said Tuesday that the meetings in 2007, 2008, and 2009 would each consist of 84 days, starting on Kentucky Derby Day and finishing at the end of October.

When the meet starts in the spring, the lowest claiming price will be $5,000, up from $4,000 this year. The increase was made to help the owners of cheap horses recover costs incurred over the winter.

"At $5,000, we could keep the purses up at a higher level," said Gonzalez. "For a run for $4,000, we would have had to have them significantly lower. We'll evaluate it as we go through the summer. We can change it if we deem it necessary."

Gonzalez said that claiming levels of $5,000, $6,250, and $8,000 would make up 75 percent of the races. The only other claiming level would be at $12,000, which would represent 10 percent of the races. Non-claiming races would make up the balance.

Johnston making noise as rookie

In his first year as a trainer, Rob Johnston, 32, has made his presence felt here. Going into this weekend's action, Johnston has won 10 of 42 starts, a win rate of almost 24 percent. He also won 1 of 4 starts at Woodbine.

Johnston is the son of C. R. Johnston, who won the training title at Fort Erie in 1997.

Johnston worked for his father that year and later went to Ocala, Fla., to work as the manager and farm trainer for owner and breeder Bruno Schickedanz, who for eight straight years was Fort Erie's leading owner.

"I'm very happy with the season," Johnston said. "My own horses did very good - Samlex, That's So Romantic, and Gemini's Revenge. They all won. I'm going to take them to Mountaineer Park with me when the season ends."

Johnston said he plans to winter his other horses on a farm after the meet ends Oct. 31. At Mountaineer Park, Johnston will be working for Mike Newell, a Fort Erie trainer who is taking a string of runners there.