12/11/2003 1:00AM

Meet opens with new chute, pick four

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OLDSMAR, Fla. - Tampa Bay Downs has made a number of changes for its 94-day 2003-04 meeting, which begins Saturday. A new seven-furlong chute has been built, pick four wagering will be introduced, and patrons will have the opportunity to bet on poker as well as the horses.

In the past, horses had to make a hard left turn soon after the start of seven-furlong races to enter the backstretch, from a chute located on the clubhouse turn. The new chute will give horses and riders a straight run of more than a half-mile, and it will also allow fields of up to 12 in overnight races and 14 in stakes and handicaps at 6 1/2 and seven furlongs. Last year, Tampa was among the national leaders in field size, averaging 9.2 horses per race, and the new chute figures to raise that figure even higher.

Poker has been introduced in the new "Silks" card room. Several types of poker games will be available from noon to midnight on live racing days.

On the wagering front, a new pick four will begin on race 7 each day. The takeout on all two-horses exotic wagers - daily doubles, exactas, etc. - has been dropped from 25 to 22 percent.

As for the racing, the stakes program is headed by the Grade 3 Tampa Bay Derby, the Florida Oaks, and newly graded Grade 3 Hillsborough Handicap for fillies and mares on the turf on March 14. Most of the $50,000 stakes and handicaps from a year ago have been raised to $60,000, and the Sam Davis Stakes, the traditional prep for the Tampa Bay Derby has had its purse hiked from $50,000 to $100,000.

A record number of stall requests (over 3,000 for the 1,600 stalls) indicates that competition for the training title will be stiff. Don Rice, seven-time training title winner, leads a list of solid horsemen that includes several newcomers from Maryland, including Mike Zwiesler and Earl Begley. Javier Contreras will also be back in force this meet after racing most of his stock in Maryland the past two winters.

Among the jockeys, Joe Judice, Terry Houghton, and Derek Bell, leading riders from the past three seasons, are all back. Saturday marks the return of Houghton, who has not ridden since suffering a severe concussion in a spill at Great Lakes Downs on Aug. 25, 2002.

Also riding here this winter will be Jesus Castanon, Juan Umana, Luis Gonzalez, apprentice Emmanual Cosme, and Frederico Mata.

The $60,000 Inaugural Stakes for 2-year-olds tops Saturday's 11-race program. The Inaugural has drawn a strong field, including Floater, an undefeated Ohio-bred son of Salt Lake who will be shooting for his sixth straight win. Tim Girten trains Floater, who will be making his first start since winning the Best of Ohio Juvenile Stakes at Beulah Park on Oct. 4. Among top the challengers in the six-furlong Inaugural are several strong entrants from Calder.

First-race post for the opening day card is 12:25 p.m.

At a glance: Tampa Bay Downs

* RACING SCHEDULE: 94 days; Dec 13 through May 2, dark Mondays and Wednesdays except Jan. 5, 12, 26; March 22, 29; and April 5, 12,1 9. Dark December 18, 19, 25; March 25, 26; April 1, 2 , 9, 11, 15,1 6, 22, 23, 29, 30.

* POST TIME: 12:25 p.m. Eastern; noon post time March 14 and May 1; gates open at 11 a.m.

* HIGHLIGHTS: Grade 3, $250,000 Tampa Bay Derby, $150,000 Florida Oaks, and the Grade 3, $100,000 Hillsborough Stakes on March 14; $500,000 Florida Cup Day on April 4

* ADMISSIONS: Grandstand $2; Clubhouse $3

* SEATING: Clubhouse carrels and Sports Gallery $3

* PARKING: Free; preferred $2 and valet additional $2

* LOCATION: Just North of Hillsborough Avenue on Race Track Road, Tampa Fla.

* SIMULCASTING: Daily except Dec 24, Dec 25, and April 11

* PHONE: (813) 855-4401

* INTERNET: www.tampabaydowns.com