04/07/2008 11:00PM

Bigger fields likely at new meet


Following a 10th anniversary meet in 2007 in which rain put a damper on business, Lone Star Park in Grand Prairie, Texas, reopens Thursday for its 11th season with officials hopeful for a brighter meet.

There is reason for guarded optimism, knowing it seems unlikely the track could be hit with as much precipitation as it was during its 2007 meet, when over 27 inches of rain fell, resulting in 60 races being moved from turf to dirt and contributing to the 527 scratches during the meeting.

The multitude of scratches resulted in field size dropping to an all-time low of 8.5 starters per race, and in turn made the Lone Star product less appealing to offtrack bettors, contributing to offtrack handle on Lone Star races plunging from $1.5 million in 2006 to $1.2 million to last year.

Yet through it all, ontrack business remained strong, with attendance and handle rising slightly.

No matter what Mother Nature has in store this year, track officials are hoping for a boost in field size, particularly during the latter part of April and into May. That is when Lone Star will face little direct competition for horses, because Louisiana Downs in Shreveport, La., is opening two weeks later than last year, on Preakness Day, May 17, and will race only on weekends through June 1.

Racing secretary Larry Craft and his staff anticipate having to work to obtain entries over the first part of the meet, with some of the track's 1,500 stalls not yet filled because meets at Oaklawn Park and Sunland Park are still ongoing. Craft and his staff are now housed in a new backstretch building, part of a $1.7 million capital improvement backstretch project.

Lone Star's stakes program, anchored by five Grade 3 races, is similar to last year's, with the most notable change being a $100,000 purse hike to the May 10 Lone Star Derby.

"At $400,000, we wanted to make it one of the biggest Grade 3 races out there," said track president and general manager Drew Shubeck.

Memorial Day, as usual, with be loaded with stakes action, with six stakes on tap, led by the Grade 3 Lone Star Handicap - the other $400,000 stakes of the meet - the Grade 3 Dallas Turf Cup, and the Grade 3 Ouija Board Distaff.

The stakes kick off immediately Thursday, with the $50,000 Premiere Stakes. Goosey Moose, Rain on Monday, and Sandburr headline the race, run at a mile on the main track, a surface that received some off-season additions of pine bark and sand to its composition.

Jockeys Cliff Berry, Quincy Hamilton, Richard Eramia, and Eddie Martin Jr. have some of the best mounts on the opening-night card and should be prominent in the rider standings.

Opening week is geared around promotion. Thursday night offers a bobblehead giveaway of trainer Steve Asmussen, a resident of nearby Arlington and a nine-time leading trainer at Lone Star.

Concerts by country music stars Garry Allan and Miranda Lambert support the Friday and Saturday racing programs.

Bettors will also have something exciting for 2008 - a pick five wager on the final races on the card, which will have a takeout of only 12 percent and can be bolstered by carryovers.