07/25/2004 11:00PM

Life is good at Santa Rosa

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SANTA ROSA, Calif. - The Sonoma County Fair, northern California's version of Del Mar, opens a 12-day run Wednesday.

Located 90 minutes north of the San Francisco Bay Area, the fair is far enough removed from the metropolitan region to develop a hometown, festive flavor.

It is located in a popular vacation area near the Pacific Coast, with the Russian River, wineries, and championship-caliber golf courses nearby.

Those attractions bring in owners, trainers, and high-quality horses, not to mention fans, who fill the grandstand every day of the meet.

"We don't feel inferior because we're a fair," said Jim Moore, who will be managing his 18th and final fair this year.

Santa Rosa offers perhaps the best fair racing in the state, and is currently constructing a turf course, which will be ready for operation next year. It also offers the only $100,000 stakes race on the state fair circuit - the Aug. 7 Joseph T. Grace Handicap.

"I do take satisfaction that Santa Rosa is recognized as a professional operation," Moore said. "We've been able to maintain that and build on our good reputation in the industry."

When Moore, a former horse owner, was named fair manager in 1987, he inherited a track that operated as a year-round training facility with what many horsemen considered the best surface in northern California. One of his toughest decisions was to close down the training operation in 1996.

"We were a victim of dwindling numbers," he said. "By the time we closed, we had only about 40 horses. It was a tough haul from here, particularly to Bay Meadows. We were disadvantaged that way because Pleasanton was more strategically located."

The Joseph Grace Handicap, which was first run in 2000, is one example of the track's success.

"Greg Brent, our racing secretary, suggested it was something we should do," Moore said of offering a $100,000 stakes. "Our feeling was we should provide opportunities, and we have horses that can compete at that level.

"We have [mutuel] handle to support it, and the fans love to see significant horses."

The reason for building a turf course is to improve the quality of racing at Santa Rosa, Moore said.

"Number one, Santa Rosa's a big racing town," he said. "People here support racing enthusiastically. If we do it, we want to do it right. Turf racing is part of the game, and you have to provide opportunity for everyone to run. We've always tried to provide opportunities for everybody.

"Turf adds class to racing. Aesthetically, it adds a lot. What we're doing won't just be a turf course, but we'll redo the entire infield and are adding a state-of-the-art irrigation system."

The meet will offer five Thoroughbred stakes, highlighted by the Grace at 1 1/16 miles for 3-year-olds and up. The other stakes are the Ernest Finley and the Elie Destruel, sprints for males and females, respectively; the Luther Burbank, a route for fillies and mares; and the James Lyttle, the only 3-year-old route stakes on the summer schedule.

A $25,000 claimer at one mile, with a field of six fillies and mares, highlights the 10-race opening day card.

At a glance:

Sonoma County Fair

* RACING SCHEDULE: 12 days - July 28-Aug 9. Dark Tuesday, Aug. 3

* POST TIME: 12:45 p.m. daily

* HIGHLIGHTS: Aug. 7 $100,000 Joseph T. Grace Handicap; July 31 $40,000-added Ernest Finley Handicap; Aug. 1 $40,000-added Luther Burbank Handicap; Aug. 6 $40,000-added James F. Lyttle Memorial Handicap; Aug. 8 $40,000-added Cavonnier Juvenile Stakes; Aug. 9 $40,000-added Elie Destruel Handicap

* ADMISSIONS: $7 adults, $2 children (7-12), racing included in fairgrounds admission; reserved seating $3

* PARKING: $8 preferred; $5 general

* LOCATION: 1350 Bennett Valley Rd.,

Santa Rosa, CA.

* PHONE: (707) 545-4200

* INTERNET: www.sonomacountyfair.com