04/27/2006 11:00PM

Villeneuve, Richards back in the saddle

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FORT ERIE, Ontario - After lengthy absences, two of the most successful Canadian female riders of all time are back in the saddle again.

Francine Villeneuve was injured last July 31 at Fort Erie, when her not so aptly named mount, Good Luck Strikes, broke down.

Second in the rider standings at the time, Villeneuve missed the remaining three months of the meet.

"I had a dislocated and fractured shoulder," she said. "It took quite a while healing. I don't have my complete range [of motion], but it's functional. That's the main thing."

Villeneuve, 41, is the all-time leading female rider in Canada in wins with 881. She was the recipient of the 2004 Avelino Gomez Memorial Award for significant contributions to her profession.

Villeneuve has three mounts Sunday.

Maree Richards, 39, is returning to ride after a much longer break than Villeneuve. It was 9 1/2 years ago that she became pregnant, after which she had a baby girl, and retired. Her husband is rider Martin Ramirez.

Richards started out in horseracing as a groom in 1981. Two years later, at 16, she was galloping horses at Kinghaven Farms for trainer John Tammaro.

When she retired, Richards had racked up 416 wins. In her return last Sunday, which was at Woodbine, she finished last on her sole mount.

"The track was really bad; they canceled later," said Richards. "I felt good and strong. My horse wanted to go farther."

Richards has kept in shape by galloping horses for the past four years. Her agent is Paul Souter, an ex-jockey who finished second three times in the Fort Erie rider standings.

Souter won the 1982 Queen's Plate aboard Son of Briartic. This is his first crack at being an agent. He has already hustled six mounts for Richards, three on Saturday and three on Sunday.

MacRae: 'We'll come out firing'

Red-hot trainer Don MacRae has some 20 runners in his barn here. MacRae boasts a hefty 2006 win rate of 50 percent as of Wednesday.

MacRae, a Fort Erie regular has sent out 32 runners and 16 returned with the gold. The wins were at Mountaineer and Charles Town.

MacRae had but eight victories at this meet a year ago, winning at a rate slightly below 20 percent. That's decent for most, but not for high-percentage MacRae.

"Last year when the purses dropped here, I was leery in dropping horses down," he said. "I just didn't want to give horses away. I won't make that mistake again. We'll come out firing this year."

New track announcer

Daryl Wells Jr. will no longer be the track announcer. He will now head an expanded publicity department as well as look after simulcasting and offtrack betting.

"I wanted to try something else," said Wells. "It was 29 years up there in the booth."

Taking over the microphone is Daryl Ezra, 41, a successful trainer who has had two of his runners honored as Fort Erie's horse of the year - Ashagio and Lucky Tec. Ezra is a member of the advisory committee for the Horsemen's Benevolent and Protective Association.

Ezra called races from 1987 to 1992, mostly at Standardbred tracks. In 1995, he got a trainer's license.

"I bring to the table the uniqueness of being an owner, trainer, exercise rider, a groom, a hot-walker, and chart caller," Ezra said. "I won a call-a-race contest when I was 16. The passion has always been there."