07/13/2001 12:00AM

Cal Cup gets more grass


INGLEWOOD, Calif. - The first major changes to the California Cup program in four years will take place this fall when two of the three races for claimers are switched from dirt to turf.

The $50,000 Starter Handicap has been reduced in distance from 1 1/2 miles to 1 1/4 miles, while the $50,000 Distaff Starter Handicap will remain at 1 1/8 miles but switch surfaces. The races are run for 3-year-olds and up who have started for a claiming price of $40,000 or less in the current year.

The conditions of the Starter Sprint Handicap, run over 5 1/2 furlongs for $32,000 claimers or less, was not altered. The Starter Sprint Handicap was added in 1997, the last major alteration to the 11-year-old program.

The changes were announced when the stakes schedule for the Oak Tree at Santa Anita meeting was released on Thursday. The California Cup program, which features 10 races for state-breds, will be held on Nov. 3, the first time it has not been run in October since 1996.

Small field sizes were a key factor in the changes, according to Doug Burge, the general manager of the California Thoroughbred Breeders Association, which administers the California Cup program.

In recent years, the starter handicaps have not drawn large fields. The Distaff Starter Handicap, which was not run in 1997, has drawn fields of eight and seven in the last two years. The Starter Handicap has had six-horse fields for the last four years.

The California Cup was originally scheduled for Oct. 20, but was pushed back to its November date earlier this year. It will now be held on the final weekend of the Oak Tree meeting, a week after the Breeders' Cup at Belmont Park.

"One of the options that became available was the turf, because the Cal Cup comes at the end of the meeting," Burge said. "We had a starter series up north last year that was strictly on the grass, a four-leg series that progressed in claiming eligibility. We found we did very well in terms of entries. We thought we'd try it here."

State-breds in Del Mar stakes spotlight early

There are seven stakes worth $775,000 for California-breds at the Del Mar meeting that opens Wednesday, including three in the first seven days of the season. The $125,000 CTBA Stakes for 2-year-old fillies over 5 1/2 furlongs is the principal race Friday.

Next Sunday, the unbeaten Lighten Up Tiny makes her stakes debut in the $100,000 Fleet Treat Stakes over seven furlongs.

Lighten Up Tiny, trained by Bob Baffert for Jack and Florence Arnold, won a division of the Maiden Stakes on California Gold Rush Day in April and a first-condition allowance race for California-breds on May 30.

The $125,000 Graduation Stakes is the open counterpart to the CTBA Stakes. Run over 5 1/2 furlongs on July 25, the Graduation Stakes is expected to feature Officer, who won by six lengths in his career debut on July 6 for Baffert and Ahmed Salman's The Thoroughbred Corp.

By Bertrando, Officer sold for $700,000 at the Barretts March Sale of 2-year-olds in-training earlier this year.

Baffert and Salman are seeking their second consecutive winner in the Graduation, having won last year with Arabian Light, who later won the Breeders' Futurity at Keeneland.

Later in the meeting, state-breds will start in the Real Good Deal Stakes for 3-year-old sprinters on Aug. 13; the Generous Portion Stakes for 2-year-old sprinting fillies on Aug. 29; the Solana Beach Handicap for females on turf on Sept. 2; and the I'm Smokin Stakes for 2-year-old sprinters on Sept.