04/11/2007 11:00PM

Higher purses, bigger fields


Full fields, larger purses, and familiar faces will mark the return of Thoroughbred racing to western New York on Saturday when Finger Lakes launches its 46th season.

The opening-day card drew 110 horses, including 17 also-eligibles, for nine races, all at 4 1/2 furlongs.

Overnight purses, which averaged a mere $63,000 daily before the advent of slots in February 2004, will average $112,000 at the start of the new season, an increase of nearly 18 percent from opening day 2006.

In addition, to encourage competition early in the meet, horsemen will receive a 10 percent bonus through May 15.

The potent combination of trainer Chris Englehart and jockey John Davila Jr. could dominate once again.

Englehart, who broke his own single-season track record by saddling 141 winners in 2006, has won the last four training titles.

Davila, who became the first Finger Lakes rider to surpass the 200-win plateau since 2000 when he collected 201 victories last year, will be seeking his sixth consecutive jockey title.

Last year at Finger Lakes, Davila and Englehart teamed up to win 125 races, winning at a 28-percent clip.

On opening day, Davila and Englehart team up with Maryland import Unbridled Drive (race 5), the $8,000 claimer Sway of Passion (race 7), and horse for the course Miesque's Boy (race 9).

As usual, the meet highlights will be the $200,000 New York Breeders' Futurity, moved back from its traditional spot on Labor Day to Oct. 6, and the 35th running of the $150,000 New York Derby on July 14.

Saturday's featured eighth race, a $22,100 first-level allowance for New York-breds, drew a field of eight, with six of them coming off significant layoffs.

The top contenders look like Prince o' Pranks, a speedy 4-year-old owned and trained by Penn National-based Dave Geist; Two West, making his fourth start off the claim and first since December for high-percentage trainer Charlton Baker; and Nunzionic, a three-time winner from nine starts who has been flashing high speed against open claimers at Philadelphia Park.

The track has added 60 television monitors, refurbished its simulcast area and main concession stand, and will unveil a new graphics package for its simulcast video feed.