04/02/2002 1:00AM

Bailey, Willie, and bang-up racing for openers

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GRAND PRAIRIE, Texas - In time, Magna Entertainment Corp. will leave its mark on Lone Star Park, which it agreed to purchase pending regulatory approvals early last month.

In the meantime, the track appears unchanged as it prepares for its sixth year of racing, beginning Thursday night. The barns are rapidly becoming full. The simulcast handle is improving, and management is optimistic its aggressive marketing plans will lead to another banner year for the developing track.

Dallas native Jerry Bailey will ride at Lone Star on opening night. Country music legend Willie Nelson will perform after the races on Friday night. And Paulie Ayala, the reigning IBO super bantamweight champion, will display his boxing skills, sparring between races on Sunday.

And there will be racing, good racing.

Highlighted by the $500,000 Lone Star Derby - which this year will be run for the first time as a Grade 3 race - the track will offer $4.1 million in stakes. Other graded stakes, both Grade 3, include the $300,000 Texas Mile and $300,000 Lone Star Park Handicap.

Unlike in past years when the Lone Star Derby was run in early April, this year it will be run on May 11, a week after the Kentucky Derby. The move makes the race an alternative to the Kentucky Derby, rather than a prep for it.

"With there being so many preps before the Derby, we thought we would try to place it around the dates of the old Illinois Derby, when it was run after the [Kentucky] Derby," said Larry Craft, director of racing for Lone Star Park.

Additionally, the move was designed to avoid competition from Dallas area entertainment options, such as NASCAR and professional baseball, hockey, and basketball - all of which are played in Dallas in April.

Another significant change to the Lone Star meet is the elimination of Wednesday racing during April, when the track competes for horses with Oaklawn Park in Hot Springs, Ark.

"Approximately 25 to 30 percent of our horses are from Oaklawn," said Corey Johnson, president and general manager of Lone Star Park. "So we didn't want to stretch everything."

Last year, the track had room to stretch. Despite having only 1,400 stalls on site, Lone Star led North America in average starters per race, according to figures from The Jockey Club Information Systems. In 2001, an average of 9.58 starters competed per race, topping the national average of 8.18 runners.

Johnson said track management hopes to add more stalls in future years to better prepare it for the Breeders' Cup World Thoroughbred Championships, which it is tentatively scheduled to host in 2005.

Purses are down from last season, from $240,000 per day to a projected $230,000. The smaller purses are the result in part of slumping business last fall. The elimination of Wednesday racing in April will lower gross purses as well.

Johnson anticipates growth this spring, after the track experienced a record March. More than $19.4 million was wagered in March at Lone Star Park on simulcast racing from across the country, up over $1 million from last year's figure.

A new wager - the pick four - will be introduced at this meet. The bet will cover the final four races on each card.

Upon officially joining the Magna operation in the coming months, Lone Star Park should experience expansion in out-of-state simulcasting of its races. Aside from added simulcasting, little effect can be anticipated of Magna's acquisition of Lone Star Park.