08/30/2006 11:00PM

Derby highlight of season

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Live Thoroughbred racing returns to Indiana on Saturday as Hoosier Park in Anderson opens for its 12th season. The 61-day meet runs through Nov. 25.

As always, the highlight of the season comes on the first weekend in October when the track offers the Indiana Oaks and Indiana Derby on successive nights. The $500,000-added Indiana Derby is in its third year as a Grade 2 race and will be run Oct. 7.

The only major change in the stakes schedule is that the $100,000 Michael G. Schaefer Mile Stakes has been moved up from its mid-November slot and will serve as a supporting stakes on the derby night program. The Grade 3, $400,000 Indiana Oaks starts the weekend festivities on Friday, Oct. 6.

Following the three-day opening weekend, which extends through the Labor Day holiday, racing settles into a Wednesday through Sunday format for the remainder of the season. Post time is 6:10 p.m. Eastern, as the state of Indiana began observing daylight savings time this spring. The only post time departure comes on the Thanksgiving Day card, which begins at 11:15 a.m.

Three-time defending training champion Ralph Martinez returns with a full barn of 60 horses. Martinez, starting his fourth season as a Hoosier Park regular, has dominated the standings in his short time here and is second on the track's all-time list with 171 victories. Gary Patrick, the all-time leader with 189 career wins here, is also back this season.

Barb McBride gave Martinez strong competition during last year's trainers' battle, but Martinez held on for a 40-37 lead during the 60-day season. Also back from last year are Lori Smock, Kim Hammond, and Eddie Essenpreis.

Rodney Prescott earned his first riding title here last year and is joined by Roberto Villafan, Tommy Pompell, J.J. Delgado, Inoscencio Diego, and Rafael Hernandez in a jockey colony that always runs deep.