09/24/2002 11:00PM

Bienvenidos and a host of worries

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PHOENIX - Turf Paradise on Friday will begin its 169-day meet that runs through May 18, but there remains controversy about the licensing of the current ownership, as embattled former track owner Jerry Sims, who sold his majority interest in the track's managing general partnership to his brother, Los Angeles real estate investor Ronald Simms, continues his lawsuit against the state in an attempt to regain his license.

The struggle to obtain slot machines at Turf Paradise continues, too, in the form of a ballot initiative for November's general election. There are fears that the proposition's defeat, and passage of one of the other two Indian-gambling measures on the ballot could spell trouble for Turf Paradise. A recent setback in federal court over proliferation of slots hasn't helped.

Bienvenidos opener

The $21,000 Bienvenidos Stakes for 3-year-olds and up starts the season. The mile race has lured a field of nine.

The horse to beat is Southern California shipper Milk Wood. A 7-year-old, Milk Wood has a touch of class but fell on hard times last summer and fall. He wasn't seen from November 2001 until his Aug. 18 return at Del Mar, when he moved well down in class and won in a gallop.

He was claimed that day for $20,000 by Molly Pearson and if he runs to his Del Mar form (98 Beyer) the rest are running for second.

His main opposition figures to come from Seventeen Candles, C. D. Haj, and Kolob. Seventeen Candles has earned three straight stakes placings at Yavapai, all behind horse-of-the-meet Gusto Forzado. C. D. Haj was third to Gusto Forzado in the Mile Hi on Aug. 27, a couple lengths behind Seventeen Candles, but has fine speed and the rail. Kolob dueled early with C. D. Haj in the Mile Hi then faltered to sixth, but he's better than that and could show it here.

Stakes on tap

There will be 45 black-type stakes, valued at more than $2 million this meet. Thoroughbred stakes are highlighted by Feb. 1 Super Saturday trio of the $150,000 Turf Paradise Breeders' Cup, $100,000 Turf Paradise Derby, and $75,000 Arizona Oaks. Another same-day trio of stakes will be March 8, featuring $100,000 Phoenix Gold Cup, $50,000 Cactus Wren, and $35,000 Black Mountain Handicap.

Quarter Horse stakes are highlighted by the $60,000, Grade 3 MBNA America West/Southwest Challenge Championship, $15,000-added AQRA-Turf Paradise Open Derby, and $17,500-added Open Futurity.

Turf Paradise also offers 92 days of dark-day simulcasting, generally on Wednesdays and Thursdays.