10/01/2003 11:00PM

Unhappy Agosti plans early exit

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FORT ERIE, Ontario - Citing increased deterioration of the Fort Erie track surface as the reason, Tom Agosti, the leading trainer here, is looking to start his off-season racing earlier than usual.

Six weeks remain in the Fort Erie meet, but Agosti said he is prepared to abandon his quest for the top trainer title.

"Lately I've had a few get hurt," Agosti said. "It's got to the point where we have to protect them now. It's not right.

"Orient Beach got hurt the other day, and then Right Stop ran [Monday]. He came back, not lame - but the track was so bad he was in a little bit of distress. He bled. Stuff he's never done before happened - blowing."

Right Stop finished fourth and last, 18 lengths behind winner Lil Personalitee.

Right Stop, a 5-year-old gelding, is the star of Agosti's barn. He won his first stakes Sept. 6, capturing the 1 1/8-mile Wadsworth Memorial handicap at Finger Lakes. His lifetime earnings stand at $263,934.

"If we can get stalls early we might send [Right Stop] to Florida," Agosti said. "He may race at Calder. Hopefully, we can take 10 or 12 someplace else."

Other trainers also voiced concern about the condition of the Fort's surface. With stall space at a premium, open criticism of the track has usually been suppressed. It appears the lid has been lifted.

Said five-time leading trainer Layne Giliforte: "I've had horses run down now that haven't run down ever - or all year."

Giliforte predicts developments at the track will cost him horses and clients in 2004. He expressed his displeasure at Tuesday's cancellation of racing following the fourth race. The jockeys deemed the track unsafe. It was the fourth cancellation this season.

"Under no circumstances should rain make a track bad enough for cancellation, except maybe if frost is involved," said Giliforte, who lays no blame on the riders.

Chris Tuttle, third in the trainers' standings, said he feels the track has not been properly maintained. Not enough money has been spent to hire the best people for the job, he suggested.

With Fort Erie general manager Eddie Lynn at a simulcast conference in California this week, racing director Herb McGirr responded to some of the criticism.

"Formally, I have had no complaints about the track," said McGirr. "If they have problems with the track, they must be addressing it with the HBPA or some other [avenue].

"We have already put 16,000 tons of sand on it. If there are inconsistencies in respect to the racetrack, certainly we are open to listen to them."

McGirr said the jockeys were satisfied with the method employed by the track to deal with the muddy surface for safety reasons. He admitted, however, that the rolling, packing, and sealing may make the track hard and sting horses.

"I've had horsepeople tell me that they are happy," McGirr said. "They know they are not going out there and get bogged down in this and pull suspensories and such."

No plans to cut purses yet

At a packed meeting here Tuesday chaired by Nick Coukos, Horsemen's Benevolent and Protective Association executive director, the issue of less purse monies was addressed.

Coukos revealed that business at the track was down 10 percent on the live product and 12 percent on the simulcasts. And, business at the adjoining slots has dropped 23 percent.

"At this time we are not planning purse cuts," Coukos said. "We are going to re-evaluate the mix of races. If we offer more cheap races then the purse distribution is less.

"We have agreed with Nordic Gaming to maintain the same 117 dates in 2004 as we did this year," 'said Coukos, who blamed the exchange rate of American money and the newly opened Seneca Casino in Niagara Falls, N.Y. for the present woes.