04/06/2009 11:00PM

Aiming to make good first impression


Since opening in 1997, Lone Star Park has been the showcase track for the state of Texas. It has attracted the largest crowds, offered the state's best purses, and put Texas racing on the world stage by hosting the Breeders' Cup in 2004.

So when Lone Star Park at Grand Prairie opens for its 13th spring/summer meet Thursday, expectations are that it may once again provide a needed boost to a troubled Texas racing industry that has been hurt by expanded gambling competition in nearby states and from storm damage to Sam Houston Race Park.

As in past years, Lone Star is pulling out all the entertainment stops for the opening week of its 65-day Thoroughbred season. After the Premiere Stakes highlights the opening night card, performances from the Randy Rogers Band and the Beach Boys will take place Friday and Saturday before being capped off by a Family Fun Day on Easter Sunday.

Beyond the short term, what the future holds for Lone Star Park is uncertain after its parent company, Magna Entertainment, filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection this spring. Although Lone Star was not included in the Chapter 11 filing, the lease under which Magna operates the track was included in a $195 million bid from MI Developments - a subsidiary of Magna International - along with other Magna assets and tracks and debt.

This bid could result in Lone Star being sold to MI Developments or to another buyer as part of Magna's bankruptcy plan, said G.W. Hail, the track's vice president and assistant general manager.

Hail said the bid and bankruptcy proceedings would have no effect on racing and the experience of fans visiting or betting on Lone Star races.

"Our focus is on live racing and to provide the best product offering we have," he said.

During the meet, which continues through July 26, track officials across the state and horsemen's groups will seek to persuade the Texas legislature to pass a bill calling for a state-wide vote for a constitutional amendment to allow video lottery terminals at Texas racetracks. Past attempts for expanded gambling or offtrack betting have failed.

On the racing front there is reason for optimism. The Lone Star stakes schedule will have 32 stakes, including five Grade 3 races, worth a total of $3.55 million.

The meet highlight remains Lone Star Million Day - Texas's richest day of Thoroughbred racing, to be run on Memorial Day, May 25 - featuring the Grade 3, $400,000 Lone Star Park Handicap, the Grade 3, $200,000 Dallas Turf Cup Handicap, and the Grade 3, $200,000 Ouija Board Distaff.

The stakes action starts immediately Thursday with the Premiere Stakes going as the first on the card. It drew a field of 12, and with two-time winner Sandburr retired earlier this year, the race appears wide open.

Ablaze With Spirit, from the Steve Asmussen barn, may start as a mild favorite following a pair of competitive efforts on turf in optional claiming races at Fair Grounds. He should relish the return to Texas-bred company in the Premiere. Last year as a 3-year-old he won the Jim's Orbit Stakes at Sam Houston.

Crook's Stinger, Dreamsandvisions, Eye Wonder and Upstream head the opposition.

Bobby Walker Jr., Dom Simington, Carlos Gonzalez, Eguard Tejara, and Eddie Martin Jr. head a rider colony that could deepen following the close of Oaklawn Park on Saturday.

Lone Star regulars Asmussen, Bret Calhoun, and Jack Bruner should compete for leading trainer.

Meanwhile, Jeff Bonde, a newcomer to Lone Star, will join the backstretch this year with a 19-horse stable. His stable's presence may partially fill the void of two trainers who did not return with horses to Lone Star this year - Cody Autrey and Donnie Von Hemel.

Houston: Quarter Horse meet on tap

After remodeling following damage from Hurricane Ike, Sam Houston Park will resume racing May 1 with a Quarter Horse meet.

The track's roof and barn areas, which were damaged in the storm and necessitated the track canceling its Thoroughbred meet this past winter, have been repaired and a new state-of-the-art tote board with video has been installed that will allow the track larger field capabilities, up from 12 to 14.

The meet runs through Aug. 29.