10/02/2006 12:00AM

Fresno expecting big crowd


Full barns and full fields could be the story of the 2006 Big Fresno Fair race meeting.

Director of racing Dan White, now in his fourth year on the job, says there are "around 745 horses" residing in the barn area. The number helps explain the strong draws for the first two days of the 11-day meeting, which begins Wednesday. Five Thoroughbred races drew 58 runners, and each race has a full field. Thursday's seven Thoroughbred races attracted 79 runners, and the shortest field had eight runners.

White said he hopes the full fields will help Fresno buck the trend of reduced handle at other fairs this summer. Ontrack wagering at the northern California fairs this summer has fallen 13.5 percent from a banner 2005, when $25,709,048 was wagered compared with $22,225,741 this year.

White has worked hard doing little things for both horsemen and fans to turn the two-week meeting into a special event daily.

"Last year, we sent thank-you letters and Christmas cards to every owner and trainer that entered a horse," he said. "We've kept in contact with them this year, letting them know we appreciate them and that we want them to come back. The response has been fantastic."

Backstretch improvements are continuing. Barns are being renovated, and upgrades have been made to the stalls and the stable cafe. For the second year in a row, the grandstand was repainted. More improvements, including planting grass and olive trees, have been made to make the infield more attractive. New coolers have been installed for the grandstand, and the ivy planted in the paddock gives it the feel of the Del Mar paddock.

Responding to fans, White has added an extra race to Friday cards.

"Things have come together. It's been great," White said. "This is the one event in Fresno everyone wants to be a part of."

The meeting offers two Thoroughbred stakes, the $50,000 Bulldog at one mile on closing day Oct. 15 and the $30,000 Harvest Festival for 2-year-olds at six furlongs on Oct. 12.

Five stakes are scheduled for non-Thoroughbreds, including a pair of season-ending championships for mules.