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TRAINER USING SPRINT FOR LONG-DISTANCE HORSE FEELS CHARGES SHOULD BE REVERSED

Fort Erie Race Track patrons who lost money on Houston Ryder in Sept. 19's sixth race probably were happy to learn that jockey Francine Villeneuve -- who moved hardly a muscle while guiding the gelding to a fifth-and-last-place finish -- was slapped with a 45-day suspension for what the stewards termed an "unsatisfactory ride."

And players who had nothing to do with the longest shot (7-1) in the five-horse field are still patting themselves on the back for having the perspicacity to avoid Houston Ryder, even though the chestnut came from the barn of top trainer Ralph Biamonte.

But upon further review of the situation, both groups might come away with a bit of sympathy for Villeneuve's predicament and more than a little curiosity about Biamonte's placement of the horse. If ever there was a case of a horse that was not suited to win a race, this is it.

For years, Houston Ryder has been known to Fort Erie fans as a "marathon" specialist who loves going long distances, especially on the grass track.

In 1993, the fans voted Houston Ryder, owned by Wayne Anderson, as the Fort's turf horse of the year. Two years later, he was honored as best long-distance horse as well as best male turf horse.

The old guy fell on hard times (blanked in nine starts) last year and might have been put out to pasture. But in the middle of the summer the 10-year-old's name started to appear on the workout reports.

On Aug. 15, Biamonte began Houston Ryder's campaign at Mountaineer Park in West Virginia, where he finished fourth over a muddy track. On Sept. 16, he raced at Finger Lakes, where he won his 98th career start by taking a 1 1/1 6th-mile race by almost 6 lengths.

Then the weird stuff started.

The next morning -- Wednesday, Sept. 17 -- Biamonte entered Houston Ryder for the upcoming Friday race at Fort Erie, a "starter allowance" on the dirt going 6 1/2 furlongs.

Six-and-one-half furlongs? According to the Daily Racing Form, Houston Ryder had raced that sprint distance only once before in his life, and finished out of the money doing it. With his slow-starting, late-running style, Houston Ryder barely warms up in 6 1/2 furlongs.

So why did Biamonte enter the horse to run at an unsuitable distance with only three days' rest?

Biamonte said there were several reasons, all aimed at getting Houston Ryder fit enough to run in a long race, most likely the 2-mile, 70-yard "Tour De Fort" on Oct. 6.

"That race at Finger Lakes was real easy. Just like a workout," Biamonte explained, when asked about the short span between starts.

As to the sprint distance of the Friday dash, he said, "I wanted to get a race over the (Fort Erie) track."

Biamonte also conceded that another advantage of entering the unsuited race on Friday was that "if it didn't go, I would get a date."

By that he meant that if too few horses entered, the race would be canceled but the horses who did enter might get preference later, if they tried to get into a race where more than the maximum of 12 horses were entered.

Entering a non-filling race in an attempt to "get a date" down the road is not an uncommon practice. When races overfill, the ones who have been waiting the longest (as measured from their "dates" of latest attempts to enter) get preference.

Biamonte said that when he dropped Houston Ryder's entry slip in for the Friday sprint, the status board in the race office indicated that no other horses had been entered. But eventually, six horses were entered and, after one turned out to be ineligible, five went to the starting gate.

Biamonte said he originally named jockey Tyrone Harding to ride Houston Ryder. But since Harding was scheduled to ride at Woodbine, the stewards assigned Villeneuve instead.

Biamonte had no argument with that choice. Villeneuve, 33, has been one of the Fort's top jockeys for several years and last year she received the "Outstanding Jockey" award at the annual banquet. This year she is No. 3 in the rider standing, within striking distance of Doug Gibbons and Chris Griffith.

Asked about his pre-race instructions, Biamonte said he told Villeneuve to "go for the money, but don't go beating him up."

Villeneuve certainly didn't inflict any pain. If she used her whip, it was not caught by the video cameras.

Houston Ryder broke last and stayed there. He crossed the finish line about 15 1/4 lengths behind the winner, just missing fourth place by a nose. According to the Racing Form chart, he "raced evenly and was just starting to find his best stride in the late stages."

"I felt the horse was not competitive," Villeneuve said. "He felt like a flat horse. . . . No amount of beating was going to get him on the board."

The next day, Villeneuve was called in by the stewards, who reviewed the video tape and soon after announced the 45-day suspension, the longest punishment of the season.

"We discussed it and we felt it was an appropriate penalty," chief steward Nelson Hamm said.

Biamonte called the suspension "unbelievable" and said, "I thought she rode him nicely."

"It's unfair," said Villeneuve, who has appealed the suspension -- the longest of her career -- to the Ontario Racing Commission. No date has been set for her hearing and she may continue riding in the meantime.

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