09/29/2004 12:00AM

Meeting opens on the upswing

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PHOENIX - Summer vacation is over. It's back to work as Turf Paradise opens its doors for its 49th season here Friday with a 10-race card. The 166-day meet runs through May 22, 2005. Live racing will be conducted five days a week, primarily Friday through Tuesday, with full-card simulcasting seven days a week.

The meet features 44 stakes worth over $2 million, with the highlight Super Saturday on Feb. 12. Three stakes will be run that day: the $150,000 Turf Paradise Breeders' Cup Handicap, the $100,000 Turf Paradise Derby, and the $75,000 Arizona Oaks.

The $100,000 Phoenix Gold Cup will be renewed on March 19.

The track will also inaugurate the $50,000 Cotton Fitzsimmons Mile on Jan. 8, a one-mile turf race that honors the late coach and executive of the Phoenix Suns of the NBA.

Track owner Jerry Simms thinks there's plenty of cause for optimism as the track comes off a 2003-2004 season that saw solid gains in both handle and attendance.

"We are very excited about the prospects for this year, and one exciting thing is [Arizona] Business Journal listed us as the number three sports attraction in Arizona behind only the Arizona Diamondbacks and spring training," Simms said.

"We've expanded our OTB's to over 1,200 locations in eight countries. We have 60 sites in-state, soon to be over 65. And the response from horsemen has been super. We have over 2,200 stalls but had over 3,500 applications."

Among the opening weekend highlights is an appearance by Hall of Fame jockey Pat Day, who will have a number of rides on the Sunday card. Day, 51, won his first race at Prescott Downs in Arizona in 1973 and rode at Turf Paradise from 1973-1975.

Mick Ruis, handy winner of the riding title here last year, is back to defend after a successful run in Southern California. His competition includes Wilson Dieguez, Scott Stevens, and Steve Gomez.

Troy Bainum won last year's training title with 79 victories, clicking at 43 percent and ending up 13 wins clear of runner-up Don Mills.

Expected to run at the meet is Bainum's stable star Black Bart, who won the TVG Khaled Mile and Quicken Tree in Southern California after losing by a nose to Irish Warrior in last February's Turf Paradise Breeders' Cup. Bainum said he intends to run Black Bart in the Fitzimmons Mile and the Turf Paradise Breeders' Cup.

The opening-day program has two grass races, a result of the turf course being ready earlier in the meet than in the past. According to turf course superintendent Les Shannon, the course is safer, more even, has more bounce, and should be more durable.

The $21,000 Bienvenidos at one mile is the opening-day feature. Carded as the ninth race, the Bienvenidos is headed by very sharp Minnesota invader Adroitly Superb, Arizona hotshot Real Creek, California shipper No Toro, and two runners who have had considerable success here in the past, Top Hit and Icy Tobin.

At a glance: Turf Paradise

RACING SCHEDULE: 165 days; Friday through May 22, 2005; racing Fridays through Tuesdays; special Wednesday cards on Oct. 13, Nov. 3, Dec. 22, Jan. 19, and Feb. 23. Simulcast wagering 7 days a week.

POST TIME: 12:25 p.m. (Friday-Feb. 15, 2005); 1:10 p.m. (weekdays Feb. 18, 2005-May 20, 2005), 1:25 p.m. (weekends Feb. 19, 2005-May 22, 2005); special 9:55 a.m. post time Breeders' Cup Day (Oct. 30); 1 p.m. alternative race day (Mar. 12, 2005); 10:50 a.m. Kentucky Derby Day (May 7, 2005); 1 p.m. Preakness Day (May 21, 2005).

HIGHLIGHTS: $150,000 Turf Paradise BC Handicap, $100,000 Turf Paradise Derby and $75,000 Arizona Oaks, all Feb. 12; $100,000 Phoenix Gold Cup, Mar.19.

ADMISSIONS: Grandstand, $2 (free to senior citizens Mondays, Tuesdays); clubhouse, turf club, $4.

SEATING: Grandstand, picnic area, free; clubhouse, $5; player's club, $5; turf club, table $5 per person.

PARKING: General, free; valet, $3.

LOCATION: 18 miles north of downtown Phoenix, on Bell Rd. between 15th/19th Avenues, a mile East of the 1-17.

PHONE: (602) 942-1101

INTERNET: www.turfparadise.com