04/18/2013 1:39PM

Finger Lakes: plenty of new twists at 162-day meet

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A pair of new stakes, a series of races for lower-level claiming horses, and an ongoing expansion project that will bring more amenities to patrons are among the changes for 2013 as Finger Lakes opens its 51st season Saturday.

As part of its 15-race, $1.1 million stakes schedule, Finger Lakes has added two events for 2-year-old statebreds. The $50,000 Tin Cup Chalice for colts and geldings, named for the only horse to sweep the Big Apple Triple, in 2008, and the $50,000 Shesastonecoldfox for fillies will both be contested on Sept. 28. The feature that day is the track’s richest race, the $200,000 New York Breeders’ Futurity.

The western New York track’s other highlighted stakes is the $150,000 New York Derby, the second leg of the Big Apple Triple for New York-bred 3-year-olds, on July 20. Any horse who can sweep the $125,000 Mike Lee at seven furlongs on June 1 at Belmont Park, the 1  1/16-mile New York Derby, and the $150,000 Albany at 1 1/8 miles on Aug. 21 at Saratoga will earn a $250,000 bonus.

Finger Lakes is in the midst of a $12 million expansion project that is scheduled to be completed in November. The facility is adding 33,000 square feet for more slot machines, a 102-seat restaurant, and a 144-seat bar and lounge that will include a 16-foot high-definition projection screen and 22 televisions.

New racing secretary Bill Couch has brought an old gimmick from Cleveland to provide more options for trainers of lower-level claiming stock at the 162-day meet.

Couch, who spent 12 of the last 14 years as the racing secretary at Thistledown and two seasons at Gulfstream Park, has written four separate series of races for blue collar horses into the first condition book.

Couch said he plans to space out the series races so that they take place every 17 to 21 days. He is limited in the distances he can card for sprinters by state regulations and the configuration of the track to races between 4 1/2 and six furlongs. The distance series will feature races of gradually increasing length from one mile to two miles.

The twist that makes each series interesting for horsemen and handicappers is a rule that allows trainers to name their claiming price, but with a penalty attached. At Finger Lakes, the bottom will be $4,500. Older horses start at 116 pounds, with one additional pound assigned for each $500 rise in claiming price.

Other changes for 2013 include a slightly higher bottom claiming price of $4,500 and richer overnight purses in certain categories. For example, a first-level allowance that was worth $17,800 a year ago now goes for $21,000, an 18 percent raise. Maiden special weight races got a 9 percent boost from $22,000 to $24,000. Bottom-level claimers will run for a $9,000 purse, up from $8,000 in 2012.

All nine races on Saturday’s card will be contested at 4 1/2 furlongs. Among the starters in race 6, a starter allowance for fillies and mares who have run for a claiming price of $8,000 or less the past two seasons, includes 2012 Finger Lakes horse of the year Clean Jean.

As a 4-year-old last season, Clean Jean went 8 for 15 locally, including six wins after she was claimed for $4,000 by trainer Sal Iorio Jr. on behalf of Mark Valentine. She will be making her first start since November.

◗ Finger Lakes was re-accredited Thursday by the National Thoroughbred Racing Association Safety and Integrity Alliance. The re-accreditation followed a complete review of racing operations at the facility. Finger Lakes was first accredited in April 2011.