03/21/2007 12:00AM

Meet opens with steady diet of short sprints


CALGARY, Alberta - The 2007 Alberta Thoroughbred season begins on Friday evening at Stampede Park with a program of nine half-mile races, which will be the standard distance for the opening two weekends at the 50-day meet.

The March 23 opener is the earliest in the track's history. Despite losing some training time because of inclement weather, trainers responded well to the opening card by entering 75 horses.

The meet highlight is the 77th running of the $125,000 Alberta Derby on June 16, the next-to-last day of the meet.

The 14-race stakes schedule, with total purses of $800,000 plus an additional $100,000 in Alberta-bred bonus money, begins April 14 with a pair of six-furlong Sales Stakes.

Russ Armstrong, in his second year as racing secretary, was able to fill more than 1,100 stalls on the backstretch. Last spring, the average number of starters per race dropped slightly and Armstrong is aiming to reverse that trend.

The big news in the riding colony is the arrival of Pedro Alvarado, the leading rider at Hastings last year. Alvarado is no stranger here. He rode Halo Steven to victory in the 2006 Alberta Derby last June. Halo Steven enjoyed a banner season in western Canada but collapsed and died at Santa Anita following a workout early this year.

Alvarado joins 2006 leading rider Quincy Welch and arch-rival Rickey Walcott - arguably the top three jockeys in western Canada.

Those three riders will be joined by a supporting cast that includes Stephan Heiler, Real Simard, Shannon Beauregard, Desmond Bryan, Dan Boudreau, Perry Winters, and Gary Stein from last season's top 10 jockey standings.

Friday's feature is a $32,000 optional claimer for 3-year-olds, which drew a field of five, including Smokem Ninetynine.

Smokem Ninetynine ran one of the quickest 3 1/2-furlong races last fall at Northlands Park, when he won his maiden by six lengths in 39.40 seconds under Stein, who retains the mount.

Smokem Ninetynine drew the outside post and will have to deal with speedsters Bling, who drew the rail with Beauregard, and Bear Soldier, who won his maiden at Woodbine last spring in his career debut.