02/22/2007 1:00AM

Big purses, new track bring 'em in


Will Rogers Downs in Claremore, Okla., is poised for significant growth when it opens its 42-day mixed meet for Thoroughbreds and Quarter Horses on Saturday. The track's simulcast network has grown dramatically since the same meet a year ago, and response to its richer racing program and renovated racing surface has led to an oversubscribed stable area.

This all comes just a year after Will Rogers reopened its doors - it had last raced in 2001 - following the sale of the track to Cherokee Nation Enterprises. The new owners have put $4 million in improvements into the 238-acre plant since purchasing it in 2004. Will Rogers is home to 250 electronic gaming machines, which have helped put average daily purses at $107,000, with $80,000 of that amount divided among the eight daily races for Thoroughbreds.

"We're excited and ready to get going," said Kelly Cathey, track operations manager for Will Rogers, which is located 22 miles northeast of Tulsa.

Cathey said Will Rogers sent its races to 58 simulcast sites last year, and this year the track's races will go to more than 300 sites. The new lineup includes sites in Canada, Florida, Illinois, New Hampshire, and South America.

In another area of growth, there were applications for 2,500 horses for the 570 stalls at Will Rogers. "We had triple the stall applications from a year ago," Cathey said.

Among the noted trainers set to compete are Martin Lozano, who won the title last year, and Roger Engel, Joe Lucas, and Joe Offolter.

"A lot of these guys are Oklahoma trainers who have been training elsewhere, like Texas, and they want to stay home and run," said Cathey.

Will Rogers became more appealing to some horsemen after it rebuilt the base of its one-mile oval since last meet. The track had been dormant for four years before its reopening in 2005, and some horsemen expressed concern over inconsistencies in the surface. Will Rogers brought on Dennis Moore, track superintendent at Hollywood Park, as a consultant on the project, which was completed in early February.

The number of jockeys at the meet has grown from 16 to 29, said Cathey. Nena Matz is back to defend her title in a colony that also includes Alex Birzer, Kevin Cogburn, Curtis Kimes, and Benny Landeros.

Will Rogers will run seven stakes for mixed breed horses this meet, each worth $25,000. There are also discussions of adding a day of races restricted to Oklahoma-bred Thoroughbreds this meet, Cathey said.

* Annieville, runner-up in an optional claimer last out, and Shari Bank, a statebred stakes winner in her last start, are the top contenders in the featured eighth race, a $20,000 allowance, on Saturday.