08/04/2003 12:00AM

Grass opportunities are here again

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SAN MATEO, Calif. - Forget the Ferris wheels, mules, and corn dogs.

The San Mateo County Fair race meet - also known as the Bay Meadows Fair - is really just a warm-up for the return of racing to one of northern California's major race sites.

For the major barns based here, it's simply a homecoming.

"Honestly, I'm a little tired of going to the fairs," trainer William E. Morey said. "I've gone every day, and I'm glad we're going back home."

Morey led the trainer standings at Stockton and is tied for first in the fair standings with Jerry Hollendorfer with 18 victories.

He stabled some horses at Santa Rosa for the just-concluded Sonoma County Fair meet, but said, "I've been waiting for the Bay Meadows Fair because I'm stabled there. You get tired moving horses, your help, and yourself up and down the road.

"I ran hard and had a great summer, but it's been a hard drive. It just kind of wears on you. It's sort of like down south, everyone can't wait till Del Mar and looks forward to the start. Then, after a while, they look forward to going home again. I'm happy to be running at Bay Meadows and settling in there."

O.J. Jauregui, Armando Lage's top assistant, said their barn also looks forward to the Bay Meadows Fair because it signals a return to a more normal operation.

"To us, it's the Bay Meadows meeting," Jauregui said. "We're back at home. You can be in a big barn again and have everyone be together.

"We're a big stable and have to send people where we run. When you're at the fairs, either Armando or I have to be there all day when we're running something.

"To us, this is the Bay Meadows meet. My opinion is I'd rather have a full-time meet during the summer. The fairs can be a lot of hassle, although places like Pleasanton and Santa Rosa you can have fun."

Wednesday's opening day at the fair won't have races for emerging breeds. Mules do not run here, and virtually all emerging-breed runners head to Ferndale and Sacramento from Santa Rosa.

The Bay Meadows Fair offers local horsemen their first chance to enter turf races since the end of the Bay Meadows spring meet. At least one turf race is expected to be carded each day of the 12-day meet, which runs through Aug. 18 with only Tuesday, Aug. 12, dark.

Wednesday's opening-day feature race matches eight 3-year-olds on the turf going one mile for a $25,000 claiming tag. None of the entrants has won on turf, but likely favorite Tomcolee has a pair of seconds in three tries over the surface and figures to sit close to the pace here.

While entries have lagged a bit in past years with cheaper fair horses heading to Ferndale and some of the better horses usually stabled at Del Mar, things may be better this year.

"I have some that I've been pointing to this meet," Morey said. "I think Jerry Hollendorfer may have more because he didn't go to Arlington this summer, and I think Lage and [Art] Sherman should have a lot, too."

Lage has entered 86 horses on the fair circuit, and he's likely to remain busy.

"We'll run a lot more horses there," Jauregui said. "Some don't ship well."

* Fans presenting a "Seabiscuit" movie ticket stub will receive free admission during the fair.