02/12/2004 12:00AM

Meet to feature Leaping Plum Day


Grand Island, Neb. - Winter weather has been making headlines in central Nebraska the past two weekends, but mild temperatures up until that time kept horses in steady training for Saturday's opening of Fonner Park's 51st season of racing.

A total of 77 horses passed the entry box Thursday for Saturday's nine-race card. Doug Schoepf, the track's racing secretary, said the barn area should be filled to its capacity of approximately 1,250 horses when the last of trainers hampered by winter travel make their way into town over the weekend. When the weather has allowed, the daily work tabs have included more than 100 horses.

Although he hasn't yet made the work tab, the 13-year-old Leaping Plum will play a major role early in the season. Feb. 21 has been designated as Leaping Plum Day, when he is expected to make his 10th consecutive start in the Grasmick Handicap.

Trained by Joe Moss, Leaping Plum captured seven straight runnings of the Grasmick, from 1995 to 2001. His streak was snapped in 2002 but he returned with a vengeance last year to post his eighth Grasmick win. He was granted special permission by the State Racing Commission to race as a 13-year-old this year. Leaping Plum owns a career record of 29-9-12 from 65 starts and earnings of more than $370,000.

The 38-day Fonner season begins with a three-day Presidents Day weekend. The track then settles into a Friday-through-Sunday schedule through May 8. Post time is 1:30 p.m. Central on weekends and 2 p.m. on weekdays.

The $100,000 Bosselman/Gus Fonner Stakes again anchors a schedule of 16 stakes worth more than $400,000. The Bosselman/Gus Fonner will be run under allowance conditions rather than handicap weights this year. The 1 1/16-mile race will be run over Fonner's five-eighth-mile track on April 24.

Two defending champions, trainer David Anderson and jockey Perry Compton, return to defend their titles on the heels of record-smashing seasons last year. Anderson posted 55 victories at last year's meet to dominate the trainer standings, besting Marv Johnson's previous record of 50. Compton bettered his own mark of 85 wins with 91 last year and is a heavy favorite to claim his ninth riding title.

Regular trainers returning include Ricky Gustafson, Johnson, Steve Hall, Gene DeRoin, Gordon Hansen, Jim Compton, and Brian Roberts. They will be joined by newcomers Jim Meyaard, Robert Rubchinuk, and others.

Regulars joining Compton in the jockey colony are Don Frazier, Jerry Carkeek, Dan Beck, Armando Martinez, Alonzo Guajardo and Dennis Collins. Curtis Kimes, Jimmy Hunt, Billy Henson are new on the Fonner scene, while Jose Figueroa and Mark Luark will return this meet.

Steve Anderson, a Grand Island native, steps into the announcer's booth to replace Matt Hook, who is pursuing other opportunities in his home state of Michigan. Anderson owns a degree in broadcast journalism from the University of Nebraska and had previously called races here as a guest announcer. Anderson - who has been tutored by Terry Wallace, formerly of Ak-Sar-Ben and currently the Oaklawn Park track announcer - admits to some nerves as opening day nears.

The racing office has adopted a new policy with the elimination of scratch time. Horses are entered to run, and any scratches will be off the program, allowing for program numbers to be included in Daily Racing Form past performances. Wayne Anderson has been added to the staff as assistant racing secretary.

Southern Alert headlines the opening day feature, the $10,000 Bold Accent Handicap for fillies and mares. A track-record-setter for 4 1/2 furlongs at Prairie Meadows in her career debut in 2002, Southern Alert will be tested by another speedy sort in Hockadaisy Four.

At a glance: Fonner Park

RACING SCHEDULE: 38 days; Feb. 14 through May 8; dark Monday through Thursday except Feb. 16 and April 8; no racing April 11.

POST TIME: 2 p.m. Central weekdays; 3 p.m. beginning April 2; 1:30 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays.

HIGHLIGHTS: $100,000 Bosselman/Gus Fonner Stakes, April 24.

ADMISSIONS: General, $1.50; box seat, $2; Skyline Seat, $4; clubhouse seat, $5; turf club seat, $7.50. (Skyline, Clubhouse and Turf Club include admission).

SEATING: Free grandstand.

PARKING: General, free; preferred, $1.

LOCATION: 700 E. Stolley Park Road; Just east of South Locust in southern Grand Island.

SIMULCASTING: Daily except Tuesday.

PHONE: (308) 382-4515

INTERNET: www.fonnerpark.com