04/03/2002 12:00AM

Because of lost training, a steady diet of 4f races

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CALGARY, Alberta - The 2002 Alberta Thoroughbred season begins at Stampede Park Friday evening with a nine-race program of four-furlong sprints.

Because unseasonably cold weather compromised training schedules in March, the half-mile sprints will be the order of the day throughout opening weekend.

The 43-day meeting will be conducted four days a week, with 6 p.m. Mountain post times on Wednesdays and Fridays and 1 p.m. starts on weekends and holidays.

Next Wednesday will be dark, and racing secretary Barry McGrath hopes to fill the six-furlong races in his condition book by the following weekend.

The attractive stakes schedule includes 10 race worth $40,000 guaranteed, up from the $30,000-added for the same races last spring. The highlights are the $50,000 Herald Gold Plate on June 9, and the $100,000 Alberta Derby on June 15.

The overnight purse structure, boosted to an average of $100,000 per day last May, remains at that level. It has been instrumental in reviving interest here in the sport: McGrath said every one of 1,135 available stalls filled to start the meet.

There are some new faces, notably a 40-horse string trained by Montana invader Greg Tracy, who signaled his intentions early by entering five horses for opening night.

Leading trainer R.K. "Red" Smith, whose champion Fancy As campaigned in Southern California this winter, will be back to defend his crown. Smith reports that Fancy As is scheduled to head to Woodbine.

Richard Hamel captured his first riding crown here last spring and returns to defend that title after spending the winter at Tampa Bay Downs in Florida. He will hard pressed by the likes of Perry Winters, who won the overall Alberta title with a strong showing in at Northlands Park in Edmonton. Veterans Real Simard, Quincy Welch, Stephan Heiler, and the talented Ricky Walcott, who lost time to injury last year, are contenders for the crown.

O.A. Martinez, a regular at Turf Paradise in Phoenix the past few winters, is the new face in the jockeys' room and will be handled by agent Marcel Crowe.

Crowe, a top trainer in these parts for many years, wasted no time at entries Tuesday morning, getting Martinez aboard six mounts.