10/30/2002 12:00AM

Great State Challenge tops agenda

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Sam Houston Race Park has finally landed a national event. The track, which made a pitch for the Breeders' Cup a few years ago, didn't get the Cup, but it has been chosen to host the inaugural National Thoroughbred Racing Association Great State Challenge during its 80-day meet that opens Friday night and runs through March 30.

"It's going to be great exposure for us in the city and on a national level," said Bob Bork, president of Sam Houston in Houston, Texas.

The Great State Challenge matches runners from different states in six divisional races, each worth $275,000. The event will be held on Dec. 7, on a card that also will feature four local stakes. The total purse distribution for the day will be $1.8 million that day, making it the richest day of racing in Texas.

For the Great State Challenge, which has a special post of 1 p.m., Sam Houston will offer a proposition bet, modeled after the NTRA All-Star Wager, which enables patrons to bet which state's horses will win the Challenge.

Also new to the wagering menu this meet is the pick four, which Sam Houston will introduce on Texas Champions Day, Nov. 16. As for the returning wagers, the track will again offer a reduced takeout of 12 percent on its rolling pick three.

Texas Champions Day, featuring eight stakes for Texas-breds and the $150,000 Sam Houston Texan Juvenile for open company, has been moved back three weeks this year in order to give the horses competing a chance to run in the Great State Challenge, too.

Purses for Texas Champions Day total $650,000. Other highlights of the 38-race, $2.2 million stakes schedule include the $100,000 Maxxam Gold Cup on Jan. 18 and the $200,000 Connally Breeders' Cup Turf on Feb. 15.

Purses this meet will average $120,000 a card, up from $111,000 last year. The average, which does not include purses in the Great State Challenge, has risen in part because of an increase in handle on simulcast races, Bork said.

Steve Asmussen, the nation's leading trainer in wins, is back to defend his title as winningest trainer at Sam Houston. His biggest challenge might come from recent Retama Park title winner Danny Pish.

Among jockeys, John Jacinto, who picked up his first meet riding title last year at Sam Houston, returns. Joining him are past Sam Houston riding title winners Don Simington and Glen Murphy.

Adding depth to the jockey colony is recent Retama riding champ Roman Chapa, and current Remington Park leader Cliff Berry, who will head to Sam Houston in December.

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