05/19/2004 11:00PM

Woodbine may host Fort races

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FORT ERIE, Ontario - A little longer life may be in store for the 2004 Fort Erie meet, which is scheduled to end earlier than usual on Labor Day, Sept. 6.

Prompted by Nick Coukos, executive director of the Horsemen's Benevolent and Protective Association of Ontario, discussions have been taking place regarding the possibility of Woodbine hosting a Fort Erie program of racing on Mondays in the fall.

The Fort Erie meet was originally set for 117 days, but the final 36 days were canceled to ensure ample time for a major reconstruction of the dirt track.

The Woodbine plan would have to overcome some obstacles to go into effect.

"It's going to take a pretty thorough financial review before we make a decision," said Hugh Mitchell, Woodbine's senior vice president of racing. "We are plugged into a five-day week - [there are] some overtime issues. We will lose some simulcast product, some wagering revenue."

Fort Erie's racing director, Herb McGirr, said: "We are really interested in being the facilitator. Woodbine would incur the most cost, so they should get the most revenue."

There is some concern over whether enough horsemen would stick around after Labor Day to fill a weekly program. A few of the regular Fort Erie trainers have already stabled some of their runners at other tracks in hopes of securing stalls there for the fall.

Coukos is very optimistic. "I'm calling a meeting soon to get the members' endorsement and to buy into the venture as well," he said. "Preliminary numbers say there is sensibility to it all. At this point of time it looks extremely positive to go forward with the plan."

Woodbine's stalls are filled, so the HBPA is expected to fund the shipping of runners to and from Toronto.

Mitchell said Woodbine's decision would be announced in early June.

Fort has first million-dollar day of 2004

The Fort's handle took a leap during the past week.

On Monday, with $1,050,607 wagered, the track reached its first million-dollar day in 2004, up from $784,712 the previous Monday. On Tuesday, $971,789 was bet.

"It's an indication that our simulcast partners, on Mondays and Tuesdays, continue to be supportive of our racing," McGirr said.

Rare Friends targets Canada Day Stakes

Rare Friends, who last Saturday scored by six lengths over Ashagio, the Fort's 2003 horse of the meet, will be back July 1 for the $100,000 Canada Day Stakes, said his trainer and part-owner, Bob Tiller.

The Canadian champion 2-year-old in 2001, Rare Friends played second fiddle to stablemate Forever Grand last year. Forever Grand won four stakes during the year and was runner-up in the Sovereign Award voting for best older horse or gelding.

"Rare Friends had his share of problems," Tiller said. "He had only four starts last year. But I think he can wind up better than Forever Grand. He's sounder."

Ashagio's trainer, Daryl Ezra, could hardly disagree.

"I had to give antibiotics to my horse after the race," said Ezra. "He caught a cold when Rare Friends blew by him in the stretch."