04/20/2003 11:00PM

Big days, Friday nights


INGLEWOOD, Calif. - Hollywood Park will continue its trend of grouping major stakes races into one-day festivals on weekends and holidays in an effort to build interest in the 65-day spring-summer meet, which begins Wednesday.

While the plan leaves some weekend programs with only modest feature races, track president Rick Baedeker is hoping the multi-stakes approach will appeal to a national audience of bettors.

Last year during its spring-summer meet, Hollywood Park offered five programs that included three or more stakes races. This year, the number grows to six such programs with the launch of the Los Angeles Times/Jim Murray Day May 10. The program will feature the $400,000 Jim Murray Memorial Handicap, the $200,000 Los Angeles Times Handicap (formerly the Los Angeles Times), and the $150,000 Mervyn LeRoy Handicap. The purses for the Murray and Los Angeles Times handicaps have been increased from last year. The Murray was worth $80,000 last year and the Los Angeles was worth $107,000.

The first multi-stakes day is Saturday, the fourth running of the California Gold Rush for statebreds, with six stakes races worth $150,000 or more.

Later in the spring, the major days include the Memorial Day program May 26, which features the Shoemaker Mile and Gamely Handicap, and June 14, the day of the Californian and the Whittingham Handicap.

In July, the major days are a July 5 program that features the $750,000 American Oaks and the Triple Bend Handicap, and July 13, a card that includes the $750,000 Hollywood Gold Cup and $400,000 Swaps Stakes.

The purse for the American Oaks at 1 1/4 miles on turf has been increased by $250,000. The American Oaks was inaugurated last year, when it drew 14 3-year-old fillies.

"I think developing programs like the American Oaks and other multi-stakes days is the right place to put our promotional interest," said Baedeker.

Of the 13 Fridays during the meet, 11 will be run during evenings. The exceptions are May 2, the day of the Kentucky Oaks at Churchill Downs, and July 4. Those Fridays will start at 1:20 p.m., the same first post time as most race days.

Because of questions concerning the track surface, the participation of some owners and trainers at the meet is unclear. Last July, the main track at Hollywood Park was criticized by some trainers for being too hard. This year, several leading stables will be based at Santa Anita and only ship across town for races.

The racing surface has been a subject of several meetings in the last few months between Hollywood Park management and a committee from the California Thoroughbred Trainers. Earlier this year, the trainers persuaded Hollywood Park to add more water to the track, which Baedeker insists will continue to be done.

"The one specific thing we're doing, other than keeping a lot of water on it, is matching the depth of cushion at Santa Anita to keep the surface more uniform," Baedeker said. "The bottom seems to have benefited from significant rainfall. Last year, we had four inches all season. We don't expect that problem this year. Last year, we had problems with it we haven't experienced before."