05/24/2001 12:00AM

For the first time, it's Yavapai Downs!


For nearly 90 years, the seat of summer racing in Arizona was in Prescott, an hour and a half or so north of Phoenix and its 100-plus degree summer temperatures.

But there's a new home for the horses and horsemen, most of whom spend the rest of the year racing at Turf Paradise.

Yavapai Downs makes it debut Saturday, its $23 million facility replacing the aged Prescott Downs a few miles away.

What was a half-mile oval at Prescott is now a mile at Yavapai. The outdated, dilapidated Prescott grandstand is replaced by Yavapai's three stories, with clubhouse and grandstand, and a more modern look. Where Prescott's stable area held just a few hundred horses, Yavapai's houses around 1,000. A formerly sluggish purse structure now will average $50,000 a day, for a primarily Thoroughbred meeting.

Optimism has swelled: General manager Jim Grundy reported that all 1,000 box seats are sold out for the season, and Yavapai received 3,200 stall applications as horsemen who often venture elsewhere during the summer months are apparently targeting the new facility. With the influx of horses, Grundy said he's hoping to run nine races with full fields daily.

Some of the finishing touches are still being added to the new facility, no real surprise considering it usually takes two years to complete a project of this magnitude, and Yavapai was built in one.

Racing is held Saturday through Tuesday and closes on Labor Day, Sept. 3. The meet opens with a nine-race card that includes the $15,000 Inaugural Stakes at six furlongs for 3-year-olds and up, headed by Iza Redhead, Eagleton, and Stormy Ambition. The program also includes three Quarter Horse futurity trials.