04/27/2009 11:00PM

122-day meet begins; Ohio Derby not dead yet

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NORTH RANDALL, Ohio - The 122-day Thistledown meet begins Thursday and director of racing Bill Couch is confident that field size will be solid this meet. Couch said he received 1,573 stall applications, the most in years, for the 1,265 stalls he has available.

"I had to reduce the number of stalls of some of the bigger outfits because I lost the use of four barns this winter," Couch said of several older barns that have been taken out of service.

Ohio's premier race, the Grade 2, $300,000 Ohio Derby had been dropped from the schedule this year in an attempt to increase the daily average purse distribution, which is now $52,000. But after prompting by members of the Ohio State Racing Commission to bring the race back, negotiations are under way that could reinstate the race for later this season at a reduced purse level, according to industry officials.

Without the Ohio Derby, the stakes schedule consists of 17 Ohio-bred stakes with purses totaling $1.1 million. Thistledown will host the Best of Ohio, five Ohio-bred stakes worth $325,000 on Oct. 3. Another high point of the meet will come July 4, when the $100,000 Cleveland Gold Cup for Ohio-bred 3-year-olds is carded.

Thistledown is owned by Magna Entertainment, which is operating under Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection, and Thistledown is one of the assets Magna has listed for sale.

Last year's leading trainer, Jeff Radosevich, is back with 41 horses. He will also have 25 horses at Presque Isle Downs, which is a one-hour drive from here and begins its meet May 8. Jamie Ness, the leading trainer at Tampa Bay Downs, will have 25 horses at both tracks, and is expected to have a strong meet here. Other trainers who will be split between Thistledown and Presque Isle are Rodney Faulkner and his father, Joe, and Tim Hamm and Burton Sipp.

The riding colony will include last year's Thistledown champion, Louis Stokes. Other past title holders who will ride at the meet are Weldon Cloninger Jr., Scott Spieth, Luis Gonzalez, and Jeffrey Skerrett.

Alfredo Clemente Jr., who began his riding career here 15 years ago and has ridden with success elsewhere, will return to Thistledown, as will Wade Rini, son of local trainer Tony Rini.

Tommy Meyers, who at more than 60 years old is the dean of Ohio riders, will also participate at the meet. Like the trainers, many riders will be doing double duty at Presque Isle.