05/06/2009 11:00PM

Meet's highlight makes the grade

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Presque Isle Downs begins its 100-day meet Friday with a few major changes.

The $400,000 Masters, which will be run for only the third time this year, has been granted Grade 3 status. The premier event at the Erie, Pa., track, the Masters is a filly-mare sprint over Presque's Isle's Tapeta surface that is scheduled for Sept. 12. The Masters had been contested at six furlongs but will be lengthened to 6 1/2 furlongs this year.

"It has always been our goal to make it a prep for the Breeders' Cup Filly and Mare Sprint," racing secretary Dave Frizzell said. "I think with having it graded, the next step in the right direction is to lengthen it."

The Breeders' Cup Filly and Mare Sprint is contested at seven furlongs.

The Presque Isle Mile, the other premier event of the meet, has had its purse increased from $175,000 to $250,000. The purse includes $50,000 in Breeders' Cup supplements. The race was run July 4 last year but will be held Sept. 13 this year, the same weekend as the Masters.

The purse account at Presque Isle is fueled by 2,000 slot machines, including virtual black jack and three-card poker.

Presque Isle purses will again average $200,000 a day. A total of 18 stakes will be run, with a total value of $1.6 million. Three stakes for horses bred in Pennsylvania will be run June 20, and three stakes for horses bred and sired in Pennsylvania will be held Sept. 18.

There will be some new stables racing at Presque Isle this season. The leading trainer at Tampa Bay Downs, Jamie Ness, has stalls, as do Greg Foley, Ron Potts, and Jonathan Sheppard. Last year's leading trainer, Merrill Scherer, will return as well.

Presque Isle will have a new starter this meet as Ron Dill comes in from Tampa with most of his gate crew. Dill has been the starter at Tampa the past 10 years.

"We had snow two weeks ago here, so hopefully some of the new people from Tampa brought the weather with them," joked director of racing Debbie Howells.

The opening-day card drew 85 entrants in eight races, an increase of 28 horses from last year's eight-race card. Presque Isle has a 500-stall barn area and relies greatly on horses shipping in to race from tracks such as Mountaineer Park and Thistledown.

The Inaugural Stakes will be contested opening night. Eleven 3-year-old fillies will go postward in the six-furlong sprint. Southern Yankee has won 5 of 9 starts for trainer Oliva Iniria and comes off a 9 1/2-length win in the Hallowed Dreams at Evangeline Downs on April 11. Her ability to rate should be a big help to jockey Ricky Feliciano in the speed-laden field.