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Since last year's Labor Day finale, the Happy Handicapper has been eagerly awaiting Sunday's start of the new season at Fort Erie Race Track. But still, he's not going to rush into betting a lot of money on the opening day card.

With the Fort unveiling a new $2.5 million racing surface that's never felt a hoof fall in competition, patience and discipline should be the bettors' watchwords.

Will the "new" track favor front-runners or closers? Will the inside be better than the outside? Will the water (could it possibly rain?) make the inside goopy like it did before? Nobody knows until they start running the races again.

The H.H. is guessing that closers from the outside will be at a slight disadvantage because the banking on the turns is slightly less than it was. But that's only a guess.

While we're waiting to learn those answers, here are a few other things to think about before the Fort starts its 108th season:

It's been years since the Fort carded races at 4 1/2 furlongs, the distance of half the races on Sunday's card. Logic dictates that because there's such a short run into the turn, horses leaving the inside posts will have the edge, especially if they habitually show early speed.

But you never know. Last May 1, when all the opening day races were at 5 furlongs, horses from inner posts (1, 2 and 3) won the first three races before horses from posts 5 through 8 took the next six.

Racing secretary Tom Gostlin said he's carded a bunch of 4 1/2 furlong dashes this year to make it easier for horses who may not be in shape to go much longer. Remember, many horses haven't raced in almost eight months, and the new track just opened for training about 2 1/2 weeks ago.

The track record for 4 1/2 furlongs is 52 seconds, set in 1968 by Trade Wagon and matched in 1971 by Dawn Deluxe and Dozen Dancer. All were 2-year-olds.

Horses to watch: The H.H. gets good vibrations about four horses on Sunday's card. He likes Red Ambush in the first race, Deemed Ready in the third, Mischievous Lover in the fourth and Highland Keys in the eighth.

He's also keeping his eyes open for Sir Austin, a 6-year-old gelding trained by Dan Wills. Sir Austin won three races last May, including a $17.40 victory on opening day. He's apparently been training well, posting a sharp 5-furlong workout in 1:01 2/5 Monday. Earlier, Sir Austin worked a half-mile in 48 seconds April 14, and 5 furlongs in 1:02 April 19.

Another name that pops off the workout sheets is Alex's Love, who has posted bullet (fastest of the day at the distance) works April 19 (3 furlongs in 36) and Monday (4 furlongs in 48).

Alex's Love and Sir Austin are both entered in Monday's fourth race, so they could make for an exciting finish.

Michael Gill, the leading owner in North America last year with 487 winners and over $10.8 million in earnings, has horses on the grounds with trainer Anthony Adamo, a Kenmore native. Adamo has been training for Gill at Mountaineer Park in West Virginia.

Fort Erie jockeys are breathing easier, and maybe having an extra piece of lettuce, thanks to a 4-pound break in the weights instituted by Gostlin. The minimum weight assigned journeymen riders will be 116 pounds, up from 112 last year.

Gostlin said he was partly inspired by last year's TV documentary on the health problems of jockeys and by jockeys he knows with weight problems.

"We've got some good riders here. Would you rather ride a guy full of vim and vigor at the wire or a guy gasping for breath?" he said.

In most races for 3-year-olds and up, 3-year-olds will be assigned a base weight of 120 and older horses will start with 123. In many races there will be allowances (weight deductions) of 2 or 4 pounds for horses without recent wins. But no longer will weight deductions be available for horses entered to run $500 or $1,000 below the stated claiming price.

If a horse trained by Don MacRae goes off as the favorite, think twice before betting against it. Twenty of MacRae's 26 winners last year were favored. MacRae, who tied for second in the Fort standings with Woodbine-based Ross Armata, saddled only 66 starters, so he had a phenomenal win percentage of of .394.

MacRae is a sprint specialist. Only two of his 26 winners came around two turns. His winningest horses -- Storming on Merit and Pembroke Hall -- won three times each at 2 furlongs.

Gostlin said he will continue to card 2-furlong races this year, but not ones with "oddball" conditions (weight based on claiming price) that MacRae's pair dominated last year.

This year, the quarter-mile dashes will be straight claiming races for horses with a price tag of $12,500. There will be one for females and one for males about every three weeks.

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