04/02/2007 12:00AM

Biggest fields in America race here

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OPELOUSAS, La. - Every racetrack strives to have big fields, and Evangeline Downs is succeeding.

Buoyed last year by a 30 percent increase in all-sources handle and the highest average number of starters per race (9.9) in the country, this southern Louisiana track begins its meeting Wednesday night.

The 89-day stand runs through the traditional Labor Day closing and offers $150,000 in daily purses, a figure the track's executive director of racing, David Yount, expects to build on as the meeting progresses.

"It's a starting point," said Yount. "Our slots continue to do strong business. Another one of our offtrack betting parlors will be going on-line with video poker in June, and our simlucasting continues to do well. We hope to move forward with our purses as the meeting progresses.

"We hope to build on our success of last season, and only hope to move forward."

The 18 stakes this meet are worth $1.78 million. The centerpiece once again is Louisiana Legends Night, a card of 11 races restricted to Louisiana-breds on June 30. Each race is named for prominent Louisiana horsemen.

The Evangeline Mile's purse has been increased from $150,000 to $200,000, and it's the meet's richest race. It will be run on Aug. 11.

Perennial top trainer Keith Bourgeois returns to defend his title but is expected to get serious competition this year from Gary Patrick, the leading trainer in Indiana last year. Patrick has approximately 50 horses split between the backstretch here and the old Evangeline Downs, which now serves as a training center. Other trainers expected to make an impact are Andy Leggio, Eddie Johnston, Howard Alonzo, and Shane Wilson.

The jockey colony appears strong with returning leading rider Kirk LeBlanc set to battle Tracy Hebert, the runaway winner at the recently concluded Delta Downs meeting, and four-time riding champ Gerard Melancon.

Wednesday's opening-day card drew 112 entries for the 10-race program. In the featured ninth race, Sienna Sunrise could be a slight favorite off a game win in optional allowance company at Delta Downs.