06/12/2007 12:00AM

Fair finally gets a chance to go it alone

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STOCKTON, Calif. - One of the most important racing seasons for the Northern California fairs, particularly the San Joaquin County Fair, starts Thursday, when the track will stage racing without a Bay Area venue in session.

For the first time since 1988, the racing calendar provides no summer overlap between major tracks and the fair circuit.

"It's very important for Stockton to establish itself without an overlap," said Chris Korby, executive director of the California Authority of Racing Fairs. "They need a chance to improve their environment by taking away the artificially induced competition for horses with major tracks."

The San Joaquin Fair manager, Forrest White, looks forward to what he calls a "very, very important" meeting.

"We've been overlapped for so long, it's almost hard not to think of us as overlapped," White said. "That started in 1988.

"We're back up with the other fairs now. This will give us a chance to show what we can do. If we can do well, I think it will carry over to the other fairs."

The California Horse Racing Board did cut one day from the meet, but White and Stockton's racing secretary, Bob Moreno, hope the lack of an overlap with Bay Meadows and Golden Gate Fields can lead to stronger cards through the entire two-week run.

Things got off well, with the Thursday and Friday entries averaging nine runners, not counting also-eligibles, in Thoroughbred races.

"Even when we had an overlap, the first couple days we've done well here," Moreno said. "We have horses on the also-eligible list that will come back in the next four to five days instead of splitting races. I think you'll probably see a little better type horse here during the meet as well."

An optional claimer filled for Friday, and the fair, which did away with stakes for several years before reinstating the Sweepida for 3-year-old fillies last year, is adding a second sprint stakes for 3-year-olds this year, named in honor of White.

Both stakes have $45,000 purses to ensure that the top three finishers will earn coveted black type.

The addition of a second stakes shows that White's realistic approach in the past, when he eliminated stakes, is paying off. The purse structure can handle the additional stakes, and Moreno found a good spot for a division that had no other stakes during the summer.

"We've always said we needed to live within our means," White said. "As we grow, we can do a little better."

Because the valley area is growing rapidly, White hopes that better racing will attract more fans, and that more fans will lead to better racing.

He said the fair is working hard to promote racing, including using giveaways.

"We have to put a lot of bodies out here, because our bettors are $50 to $100 per capita bettors, not $300 or so a day like the major tracks," White said. "We'd like to get 4,500 a day coming to the races."