04/11/2005 11:00PM

Back to the basics

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Lone Star Park
Lone Star Park reopens for the first time since playing host to the Breeders' Cup.

GRAND PRAIRIE, Texas - In the pantheon of racetracks, Lone Star Park falls obviously onto the side of the clean. The track is manicured and meticulously maintained. But there, beside a parking lot, was an aging scrap of paper with two words: Breeders' Cup.

Those two words still hover in the Lone Star air. But 5 1/2 months after serving as host of the Breeders' Cup World Thoroughbred Championships, the crowning achievement in Lone Star's brief history, the track returns to being itself with the start of its ninth spring Thoroughbred season Thursday night.

"We tore down 40,000 temporary seats, and spent the winter bringing the place back together," said Jeff Greco, Lone Star's vice president and general manager. "We're back to what got us here."

Actually, there is no going back to the original landscape in which Lone Star first opened in 1997. The first wave of the track's popularity in the Dallas-Fort Worth metro area crested a few years back, though Lone Star remains a popular racetrack, especially for a venue of its size, with average daily crowds close to 8,500. Eight years ago, too, billboards advertising Louisiana casinos did not line Interstate 30, which buzzes a half-mile south of the track. Lone Star is making its own push for ontrack gaming; a bill that would bring video lottery terminals to the track was to be introduced into a state legislative committee on Wednesday.

"We think that's something that would definitely level the playing field," Greco said. "We're completely surrounded right now."

In fact, there are slot machines 200 miles away at Lone Star's regional rival, Louisiana Downs, which moved its meet last year to race head-and-head with Lone Star. But the general feeling is that Lone Star survived the initial volley. The purses here, which should average around $225,000 a day to start, compare favorably with those in the first condition book at Louisiana Downs; an open maiden race at Lone Star goes for $26,500, while the Louisiana Downs purse is $24,000. Blue-collar $5,000 claimers run for $100 more in Shreveport, La.

With his top outfits back from 2004, and the backstretch expected to soon reach full capacity of 1,500 horses, Larry Craft, Lone Star's director of racing, anticipates strength at the entry box. And that has been one of Lone Star's selling points, with field size here consistently coming in at more than nine horses per race. Those big fields will offer new betting opportunities during the 67-day season, with dime superfectas and 50-cent pick fours added to the wagering menu.

Steve Asmussen and Cole Norman, both with the maximum of 50 stalls each, will battle again for the training title, but the jockey race seems up for grabs since Eddie Martin, last spring's leading rider here, is in Kentucky.

Even without a Breeders' Cup meet - and without the annual NTRA All-Star Jockey Championship, gone after eight years - there are plenty of 2005 stakes. The Grade 3 Texas Mile is April 30, the first of four graded stakes, and there are seven multi-stakes days scheduled. The biggest of them comes May 30 - the six-stakes Lone Star Million Day.

As usual, the first race of opening night is the $50,000 Premiere Stakes for Texas-breds, featuring its annual winner, Agrivating General. Two straight years, Agrivating General has won the Premiere coming back from a layoff, but this time the break is 10 months, and the competition includes the graded stakes winner Yessirgeneralsir.

"You rest the horse and he comes back good," said Danny Pish, who trains Agrivating General. "One day it won't happen, I guess. He doesn't have to be optimally fit, because he enjoys racing."

The one-mile Premiere drew a field of eight, including Most Feared, himself a graded stakes winner in 2002. Yessirgeneralsir, who is pointing for a repeat in the Texas Mile later this month, will be favored under jockey Lonnie Meche.

Meet highlights

DATERACEPURSE
April 30Texas Mile (G3)$300,000
May 14Walmac Lone Star Derby (G3)300,000
May 30Lone Star Park Handicap (G3)300,000
May 30WinStar Distaff Handicap (G3)200,000