06/17/2009 12:00AM

Field size up at Thistledown


With racetracks across North America struggling to fill races - some even trimming their live racing calendars - Thistledown is bucking the trend with strong field-size statistics.

Through June 13, which includes the first 27 programs of the year, Thistledown is averaging 8.45 starters per race. Last year at this time the average was 7.44.

"That makes for an increase of 12 percent," said Thistledown vice president Brent Reitz. "Field size is very important to our business, because it impacts on wagering totals. Our improved field size has made for a very good increase in our export handle."

Thistledown director of racing Bill Couch credits his staff for the field-size increase.

"They have done an outstanding job," said Couch. "They know our horse colony and they encourage traineers to race their horses. Our racing surface also deserves credit. It's kind to horses."

There are several reasons why Thistledown continues to draw horses to its meetings. It is located between two tracks that have the advantage of offering much higher purses - Presque Isle in Pennsylvania and Mountaineer Park in West Virginia, both less than two-hour drives.

About eight years ago, when Thistledown could no longer competer with Mountaineer's purses, it changed its format and began catering to the bottom-level horses. It now has a miminum purse of $6,000 for $3,500 conditioned claimers.

When Presque Isle opened two years ago, with even higher purses than Mountaineer, there was a lot of interaction between the two tracks.

This year there are about six outfits that have split strings at Thistledown. Jamie Ness has 25 at each track. Jeff Radosevich has the same situation, as does Tim Hamm and Jevon Crumley.

All of these trainers have been winning races at Presque Isle and their lesser lights are dominating the races at Thistledown. Ness and Radosevich are tied for leading trainer honors with 13 each, and Crumley is just one winner behind.

Ness has started 19 horses at Thistledown and is winning races at a blistering 68 percent.

* Ernesto Oro has a nine-winner advantage over Weldon Cloninger Jr., 29-19, in the jockey race. David Cardoso is third with 17.

* Thistledown will be open until midnight four nights a week in July - Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, and Sunday - according to director of mutuels Bob Hickey. Among the signals will be Presque Isle, Mountaineer, the Meadowlands, and Evangeline Downs.