04/04/2012 11:16AM

Woodbine season will stretch two weeks deeper into December

Michael Burns
Horses excercise on the main track Wednesday in anticipation of Woodbine's 2012 opener Friday afternoon.

ETOBICOKE, Ontario – Following one of the warmest Toronto winters on record, live racing returns to Woodbine on Friday with a challenging 10-race card of mostly five-furlong sprints.

The political climate, however, has been anything but mild due to the Ontario government’s recent decision to end the slots-at-racetracks program by March 31, 2013. The provincial government is reworking the gaming environment to try to make it more profitable, to help address a budget deficit. Three money-losing racetrack slots operations, including the one at Fort Erie, are scheduled to close this April 30. How all this will affect Woodbine’s large racino is unknown at this point.

The 167-day meet is scheduled to conclude Dec. 16, which is two weeks later than usual because of some modifications to the schedule. Racing will be conducted on a Friday-through-Sunday schedule until May, when Wednesday night cards will be added. Thursday racing commences in June, but Thursdays have been dropped from July 19 to Sept. 6.

“We’re trying to maximize our field sizes,” said racing secretary Steve Lym. “We felt that Thursdays in August didn’t tend to fill as well as they do later in the year. Our plan for this year is to try to separate our meets, and go a little cheaper in the spring and fall, when Fort Erie isn’t open. By shifting our dates to a little later in the year, we thought it might be a better business model for us.”

Post time on weekends and some Fridays is 1 p.m. Eastern. Post time for all Thursdays and the Fridays from May 25 to Sept. 28 is 2 p.m. All Wednesday racing begins at 6:45 p.m.

The 153rd running of the Queen’s Plate will be the first $1 million race of the meet, on June 24. That card also has four other stakes, most notably the Grade 2, $250,000 King Edward, which was previously run the day before the Plate.

“The Queen’s Plate is our biggest day, and we want to build on what we already have,” said Lym. “The King Edward is a pretty good race on its own, and it would be better on Plate Day.”

The Plate, run over Polytrack, is the first leg of the Canadian Triple Crown, which concludes with the $500,000 Breeders’ Stakes on the grass here Aug. 5. The second leg of the unique series, the $500,000 Prince of Wales Stakes, will be run on the dirt at Fort Erie July 15.

Fillies have fared well in the Plate in recent years, even when there was just a two-week gap between it and the Woodbine Oaks. For the third year in a row, there will be a three-week gap between the two Canadian classics, with the $500,000 Oaks scheduled for June 3.

Among the prospects for this year’s Plate and Oaks are winterbook favorite Dixie Strike and the accomplished grass runner Hard Not to Like. Inglorious won both races convincingly in 2011.

For the fifth consecutive year, Woodbine will host six Breeders’ Cup Challenge Series Win and You’re In turf stakes, which guarantee the winner a berth in the corresponding BC race.

The $1.5 million Canadian International heads the richest Thoroughbred program in the country on Oct. 14. The card also features the $1 million E.P. Taylor Stakes and the $500,000 Nearctic Stakes. These three Grade 1 turf races are all Win and You’re In events.

The Grade 3 Durham Cup, a $150,000 Polytrack stakes, has been added to this year’s International card.

The $1 million Woodbine Mile has evolved into a productive prep for the BC Mile, and the winner will gain entry into that race as part of the program. The Grade 1 Woodbine Mile heads a sensational Sept. 16 card that also includes the Grade 1, $500,000 Northern Dancer Turf, and the Grade 2, $300,000 Canadian Stakes.

“Turallure was impressive in winning the [2011 Woodbine Mile], before losing by a nose to 2010 Woodbine Mile winner Court Vision in the Breeders’ Cup Mile,” said Lym.

The Grade 3 Ontario Derby, a nine-furlong Polytrack route worth $150,000, has been added to the Woodbine Mile card.

“It will be one of the last spots for a Breeders’ Cup horse to run against straight 3-year-olds,” said Lym. “Maybe it will benefit from being on that day and become a premier race.”

The other two Win and You’re In contests, the Summer and the Natalma, are both 2-year-old stakes scheduled for Sept. 15. They are worth $250,000 apiece and offer Grade 2 status, with the Natalma being restricted to fillies.

Pluck, the 2010 Summer winner, returned to capture the BC Juvenile Turf. The Natalma yielded the last two winners of the BC Juvenile Fillies Turf, More Than Real and Stephanie’s Kitten.

Total purses for the meet are $83 million, and the average daily purse distribution is approximately $497,000.

Luis Contreras and Mark Casse, last year’s leading rider and trainer, are back to defend their respective titles. Contreras rode the Casse-trained Prospective to victory in the Grade 2 Tampa Bay Derby on March 10.

Gypsy Ring, a Sovereign Award finalist for last year’s champion sprinter, is among the seven entrants in the opening day feature, the $100,000 Debut Stakes. The fast-working Paso Doble is the 124-pound highweight in the five-furlong dash for Ontario-sired runners.