05/21/2002 11:00PM

Bottom lifting, top sagging

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SASKATOON, Saskatchewan - Marquis Downs, Saskatchewan's only Thoroughbred racetrack, begins its 2002 meeting Friday with a seven-race evening card.

This year's meet has a slightly new look, with Friday and Saturday nights the only scheduled race days, in order to capitalize on strong group sales in the restaurant. First post is 7:05 p.m.

Gone are the traditional Sunday and holiday afternoon cards, which historically have had low turnouts.

Marquis Downs has 32 scheduled days of racing, down from 37 days in 2001, and will run every weekend until Sept. 14, with the exception of Aug. 9-10.

While the number of days has been reduced, local jockeys, trainers, and owners will be competing for higher purses in some categories.

Bottom claimers ($2,000) ran for just $1,500 and a winner's share of $900 in 2001. This year the same class of horses will compete for the $1,320 top share of a $2,200 purse, an increase of almost 50 percent. Also, $3,200 claimers will run for $2,600 rather than $2,200 as they did last year.

This increase in purses in the claiming ranks means not only a shorter meet but also cutbacks in the stakes program.

There will be 19 stakes races, down from 28 in 2001, and stakes purses are lower. The base stakes purse will be $5,000, with a few notable exceptions.

The Prairie Lily Sales Stakes, for graduates of last year's local yearling sale, will be run Aug. 31 for a purse of $27,000 plus a fillies bonus. The Prairie Lily Yearling Sale is to be held Sept. 1.

Heritage Day, Aug. 17, will have four races worth $10,000 each for Saskatchewan-bred 2- and 3-year olds.

The Saskatchewan Derby is tabbed for Aug. 3, while the meet's first stakes, the Marquis Inaugural, will be run June 21.

The jockey colony features a few familiar faces and some not seen around these parts for some time. Returning to action are Serge Rocheleau, the leading rider here from 1995 to 2000, Andrew Scarlett, Duncan Gordon, Sheldon Chickeness, and Lester Rambaran. Of the new riders, Lane Rennaker should be a familiar name to many locals, as he was one of the top jockeys here during the 1980's.

Also returning are Rennie Latchman, Doug Jones, and possibly Mike Halabi, who was seriously hurt in 1998.