11/15/2006 12:00AM

Bigger fields the goal

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Sam Houston Race Park officials are looking for a spike in field sizes during the track's 68-night meet that opens on Friday. The season will conclude on April 7, 2007, with the running of the richest race of the meet, the Grade 3, $200,000 Connally Breeders' Cup Turf.

Interest in the new season has been high, said Eric Johnston, racing secretary at Sam Houston. He said the track received requests for 1,700 stalls, up from 1,550 for the same meet a year ago. There are 1,136 stalls at Sam Houston.

"I believe that field sizes are going to be up," Johnston said. "I think we ended up for the entire meet last year at 8.83 starters per race. I think you're going to see that number within the high nines, probably close to 9.85 or 9.9, somewhere in that neighborhood."

Johnston said one reason is that there is simply a greater pool of horses to pull from compared with last season, when Hurricane Katrina shuttered nearby Fair Grounds.

"I believe that when we lost New Orleans last year, we lost a bunch of horses that came to this region," he said. "This year, when New Orleans opened back up, you've got people coming back from Chicago, people coming back from Kentucky, so it's just bringing more horses into the overall region."

Johnston said another reason he looks for field size growth is a new purse structure. Sam Houston will average $110,000 a day in purses, up from $92,000 last year. The track is racing 14 fewer dates than last meet, in part because the season is starting two weeks later. Sam Houston has also shortened a number of its race weeks, with three-day-a-week racing making up about two-thirds of the calendar in a new policy, said Johnston.

Johnston said the track had discussed the schedule with the Texas Thoroughbred Association and the local Horsemen's Benevolent and Protective Association for the past few years, "just trying to get the purses up, and this was one of their ideas. We're going to try it and see how it works, and hopefully we'll all be happy at the end of the meet."

Johnston was happy with how entries for the first card went. "We averaged 10.2 horses per race," he said, "which is very encouraging for us only being at 70 percent capacity."

Johnston, who has allotted all stalls, said there were 800 horses on the grounds as of Tuesday, with more shipping in daily. The latest arrivals will come from Remington Park, which closes Nov. 28.

Quincy Hamilton, who has won the past two riding titles here, is expected to arrive in full force following the close of Remington. He will take on a colony that includes John Jacinto and Larry Taylor, who won the recent title at Retama Park.

Danny Pish, who won the Retama training title, is back at Sam Houston. New faces in the training ranks include Randy Faulkner, here from Ohio, and Paul Pearson, one of several trainers in from Iowa.

Pish has the favorite in the featured fourth race Friday night, an optional claimer on turf that drew 10. He will send out Moody Goose, the runner-up in the $40,000 No Le Hace at Retama.

Sam Houston's $1.6 million stakes schedule, which includes the $475,000 Texas Champions Day program Dec. 2, starts Saturday night with the $45,000 Houston Chronicle.