04/05/2005 11:00PM

New 187-day season opens

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NORTH RANDALL, Ohio - The 2005 Ohio racing season hits full stride Friday when meets open at both Thistledown here and River Downs in Cincinnati. Beulah Park in Grove City, Ohio, continues its winter meet through May 7.

The 187-day Thistledown racing season once again will be split into four meetings - Summit, Thistledown, Randall, and Cranwood.

Thistledown will run 24 stakes with total purses of $1,315,000 this year. The schedule is highlighted by the 71st running of the Grade 2, $350,000 Ohio Derby on July 2. The 1 1/8-mile Ohio Derby traditionally had been run during the second or third week in June, but director of racing Bill Couch moved it to the later date in hopes it would help increase exposure.

"I made the change to avoid racing head up with Churchill Downs stakes," Couch said. "The race will be carried live on ESPN, and this would not have been possible had I kept the previous schedule."

Racing at Thistledown will be held on a five-day schedule, Thursday through Monday with Tuesdays and Wednesdays dark. Thistledown again will participate in the 7 & 7 alternating-race-format with River Downs and Beulah Park. For the opening month, Thistledown's cards will be intermingled on some days with simulcasts of the races at Beulah and on other days with the races at River Downs. On Mondays, Thistledown will conduct its own complete card.

After Beulah closes, The 7 & 7 will continue with Thistledown and River Downs through Sept. 5, when River closes. Thistledown will race alone until Sept. 29 when Beulah opens for its winter meet.

Couch expects a barn area filled with 1,400 horses by the middle of May. Rodney Faulkner, the leading owner here last year and the leading trainer in both 2003 and 2004, already has 35 horses stabled on the grounds. Faulkner won 82 races with 422 starters here last year. His father, Joe Faulkner, who won 51 races from 323 starters here in 2004, has 35 horses on the grounds.

Jerry Hollendorfer, second in the trainer standings with 72 wins last year, is here with 40 horses. Jeff Radosevich, who had his best year in 2004 when he saddled 70 winners, also has 40 horses on the grounds. Other top local trainers who will race at the meet are Gary Johnson, Andy Konkoly, Rodrigo Madrigal Sr., Miguel Feliciano, Joseph Shuman, and Irish Owens.

Huber Villa-Gomez is back to defend his leading-rider title. He won 152 races from 806 starts in 2004. Scott Spieth, who was second with 147 wins last year, also returns. Luis Gonzalez (132 wins last year) and Julio Felix (104) also are expected to return.

Post time is 1:15 p.m. Eastern daily.

At a glance: Thistledown

RACING SCHEDULE: 187 days; Friday through Dec. 23; dark Tuesdays and Wednesdays through August, then dark Sundays and Tuesdays until Dec. 23

POST TIME: 1:15 p.m. Eastern

HIGHLIGHTS: Grade 2, $350,000 Ohio Derby, July 2

ADMISSIONS: General, free

PARKING: General, free; preferred, $2

LOCATION: 21501 Emery Road, North Randall, Ohio

SIMULCASTING: Daily

PHONE: (216) 662-8600

INTERNET: www.thistledown.com