06/09/2002 11:00PM

Fair season opens with field-size issue

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STOCKTON, Calif. - Northern California's summer fair season opens Wednesday with the annual worries about the size of the horse population and how it will affect racing during two week stops in Stockton, Pleasanton, Vallejo, Santa Rosa, San Mateo, Ferndale, and Sacramento.

There were concerns last summer about the exodus of several major barns from northern California, but California Authority of Racing Fairs officials recruited a number of Arizona trainers this spring to race at the fairs.

Wednesday's opening day card at Stockton includes three overflow fields in Thoroughbred races as well as an overflow field in a mule race.

Another concern is that increased costs for workers' compensation may prevent some out-of-state trainers from coming to California for the summer.

Rates for some trainers went up in March. Many other trainers face rate increases on July 1, and no one is sure how that will affect racing.

Overall, the horse population in northern California is down, although Stockton racing secretary Bob Moreno said that fair's 800-stall barn area was full heading into Wednesday's opener. He did say that at least half of the stalls were filled by other breeds - Arabians, Appaloosas, Quarter Horses, and mules - that help fill fair cards.

The horse population at Golden Gate Fields is at an all-time low as owners and trainers cull some horses from their stable to cut costs.

Although there are three overflow races Wednesday at Stockton, the lowest claiming category, $3,200, which is often the easiest to fill, shows a decline from last year's opening day.

Last year, a $3,200 six-furlong sprint was split into two races of nine and 10. This year, 13 entered a six-furlong sprint for a $3,200 tag.

A one-mile race for a $3,200 tag that had 14 entrants last year has only six this year.

Chris Korby, the fair authority's executive director, is optimistic that races will fill this summer. "We're not taking anything for granted," he said. "We're looking forward to a good racing summer."

Korby said the authority has worked hard to recruit horses this year, once again making a "special effort in Arizona."

"Workers' comp is difficult for horsemen. It makes the decision to come more difficult," he said. "We have to work harder to make our racing program competitive.

"We've concentrated on racetrack safety and maintenance. Each year our surface is more consistent."

Off the track, the fair authority has reached an agreement with YouBet for internet wagering. The agreement is not exclusive, and negotiations continue with telephone wagering companies XpressBet and TVG.

AT A GLANCE

STOCKTON FAIR

RACE DATES: June 12-23

ADMISSIONS & PARKING: $8

POST TIMES: Wednesday, Thursday, Saturday, Sunday 12:45 p.m.; Friday 3:15 p.m.

ADDRESS: San Joaquin County Fair, 1658 S. Airport Way, Stockton