04/12/2004 11:00PM

Bring on the Cup

Reed Palmer Photography
Lone Star's paddock (above) will now accommodate 14 horses, and the apron has 1,500 box seats.

GRAND PRAIRIE, Texas - This is the year they have been waiting for at Lone Star Park. Since the track opened in 1997, its goal has been to host the Breeders' Cup. It will finally happen this year, during a special fall meet, when Lone Star holds the championship series on Oct. 30.

But already there are signs throughout the facility that the Breeders' Cup World Thoroughbred Championships is coming. Patrons turning out for Lone Star's spring opener on Thursday night will see 1,500 new box seats on the apron, an expanded paddock and winner's circle, extensive landscaping, and a new 8,000-square-foot room for groups on the second floor called Champions.

The changes are part of $8 million in improvements being made to Lone Star in preparation for the Breeders' Cup. The first phase is $6 million in permanent improvements, which include the customer amenities as well as the new barns and dormitories that were built last year. Half of the cost of these permanent improvements is being paid for by the city of Grand Prairie.

Another $2 million in temporary improvements, including seating, tents, mutuel windows, and televisions, will be made after the close of the 63-date spring meet on July 11. Those improvements are financed by a rebate on the track's state parimutuel tax for 2004.

With the Breeders' Cup on the horizon, Lone Star has lots of momentum to build on going into its spring meet Thursday.

"There's definitely pep in everybody's step," said Corey Johnsen, president of Lone Star.

The Breeders' Cup, said Johnsen "puts Texas racing on the map, and I think it puts Lone Star Park on the map forever. We will have hosted our sport's championship day. It's something we've worked for ever since we had plans on the drawing board in the early 1990's."

The permanent improvements have progressed well over the off-season. As of Monday, the paddock, which has been expanded so 14 horses can be paraded in front of the public, was all but complete. A final row of rubberized brick was being put down, and it extends from the paddock through the tunnel and into the winner's circle, brightening the whole area. The stadium-like seats on the apron are another part of the effort to make the track more attractive.

"We made a conscious decision that we wanted to upgrade the experience for our general admission patron, and I think you'll see that our apron seating is second to none," said Johnsen.

"I'm really excited about the improvements. I knew they would substantially add to our fans' experience, but it's better than I anticipated."

With the addition of a fall meet to support the Breeders' Cup, significant changes have been made to the stakes schedule. The Grade 3, $250,000 Walmac Lone Star Derby has been moved from May to Oct. 29.

The annual Jockey Championship has been moved from June to Oct. 28, and it has been opened up to international riders.

"What we tried to do was look at the overall year, and we felt that we could maximize the exposure and the results of the event if we moved it to the fall and made it part of the Breeders' Cup week," said Johnsen.

Although the Jockey Championship will be later in the year, Johnsen said fundraisers for its cause, the Disabled Jockeys Endowment Fund, will be held during the spring meet. Some will be tied to Lone Star Million Day on May 31.

That program will once again feature seven stakes worth a total of $1 million, topped by the Grade 3, $300,000 Lone Star Park Handicap and the Grade 3, $200,000 WinStar Distaff. Such races may take on even more significance this year, as they present an opportunity for a horse to get acquainted with Lone Star before the Breeders' Cup.

In all, 22 stakes worth a combined $2.65 million will be decided during the spring meet. The schedule will begin with the first race Thursday, when top Texas-breds Desert Darby and Agrivating General meet in the $50,000 Premiere Stakes.

Purses at the meet will average about $210,000 a day, the same level at which the track closed last year. As for the wagering format, Lone Star has added a second pick four to its menu. It will start with the second race. First post Thursday is 6:35 p.m. Central.