09/15/2006 12:00AM

Woodbine: A model to study


ETOBICOKE, Ontario - In 2001, a Canadian dollar was worth only 62 cents in the United States, and many American horsemen stopped thinking of Canadian purses as being competitive with those at top-tier American tracks. As of this past Friday, however, the Canadian dollar is now a little more than 89 cents American, so Sunday's $1 million (Canadian) Woodine Mile will be worth $894,453.70 at current conversion rates.

Canadian racing is looking strong and attractive again, perhaps North American racing's best-kept secret, and not just because of the stronger dollar. The year that the Canadian dollar sunk to 62 cents was also the first full year of slot machines at Canadian tracks, and the revenue from those machines over the last five years has sent Woodbine and its purses to new heights. On Sunday's Woodbine Mile card, a first-level allowance race for fillies at 1 1/16 miles on the dirt is worth $69,100 Canadian, which is still $61,500 American at 89 cents on the dollar, and a $73,500 second-level allowance converts to $65,415. Those purses are nearly $20,000 richer than their highest American equivalents this weekend at Belmont, Delaware, or Fairplex. Last weekend, open 2-year-old maiden races at Woodbine were worth $60,000 Canadian, which at nearly $54,000 American are richer than maiden juvenile races at Saratoga or Del Mar.

More than the purses dazzle at Woodbine. Unlike many American racinos, where shabby and unimproved racing is hidden out back and is nothing but a pretext for slots, Woodbine's racing facilities have been upgraded and are on a par with the casino portion of the building, where there are 1,700 slot machines on a separate 56,000 square-foot floor. Both the racing and slots areas sparkle, and you can't walk 10 feet without running into a customer-service representative. It's a model that American track operators on the verge of getting slots should study and follow.

Woodbine is doing a few other things worth following. A new system of radio transmitters in saddlecloths is being used to post the leaders during the running of a race and has the potential to be far superior to the manual posting by American placing judges that always seems to be 100 yards behind the action. The track is also experimenting with fractional betting, offering both superfectas and pick fours in 20-cent increments.

The main talk of the track these days is the biggest experiment, the new synthetic racing surface. Polytrack made its Canadian debut on Aug. 30, following a construction stretch during which racing moved to the inner dirt track usually used for harness racing. Woodbine now has three concentric tracks: the seven-furlong dirt track for Standardbreds, a one-mile Polytrack surface for Thoroughbreds, and the gigantic 1 1/2-mile E.P. Taylor turf course circling them both.

Serious handicappers are treading lightly as form establishes itself over the new surface, but Woodine officials say that business is steady. It is too early to draw any conclusions about the surface, but there have been a few surprises, especially for those who claim the surface is either accident-proof or monotonously unbiased.

There have already been a few racing and training breakdowns, though horsemen seem generally pleased with the change. There also has been far more variation in both the speed and possibly the bias of the surface than many players expected, as the track appears to play differently depending on heat and moisture

levels. Track officials are most looking forward to an end to winter cancellations and hazardous thaws when the weather turns colder in the months ahead.

As for the Woodbine Mile, previously known as the Atto Mile, it is routinely referred to as a Grade 1 race, but that is technically true only in local currency: Canada withdrew from the American Graded Stakes program in the late 1990's, and some of its self-appointed Grade 1 races are strictly provincial affairs that stack up better with American Grade 3's or Venezuelan Grade 1's. The Mile, however, is right there with the top stateside preps for the Breeders' Cup Mile, such as the Grade 1 Shadwell at Keeneland or the Grade 2 Kelso at Belmont.

Remarkable News is the 5-2 favorite on the morning line off his victory in the Fourstardave last time out. He beat subsequent Baruch winner Ashkal Way that day but

benefited from an easy lead and a dismal performance from heavily favored Artie Schiller, who was subsequently retired. So Remarkable News might be worth taking a shot against in a very competitive and eclectic field.

The 13 entrants were bred in eight different countries: There are four American-breds, two Irish-breds, two British-breds, and one starter each from Canada, France, Italy, New Zealand, and Venezuela. The trainers are a stellar group including Neil Drysdale, Bobby Frankel, Ron McAnally, Graham Motion, Aidan O'Brien, Angel Penna Jr. It's a very nice field shooting for what, even at 89 cents on the American dollar, is a very nice pot.