04/22/2009 11:00PM

New faces will help fill races at Delaware

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Last year, it wasn't unusual to see the entry box at Delaware Park remain open beyond 5 p.m. as the racing office struggled to put together a card, sometimes having to settle for as few as seven Thoroughbred races, many with five- or six-horse fields.

So it was particularly encouraging to new racing secretary Pat Pope that he was able to close entries for Saturday's opening-day program at 11:15 a.m. on Tuesday, filling nine races for Thoroughbreds and one for Arabians with a total of 92 horses.

"We have an average of nine horses per race and we filled 10 races," said Pope, whose 29 years in the business include long stints as the racing secretary at Louisiana Downs, Prairie Meadows, and Oaklawn Park. "I hope I can say the same thing when we get to the end of the meet in November. Our goal is to get the horses we have on the grounds to run here and get the races to go that I have written in the condition book for our horsemen."

In contrast, only 43 Thoroughbreds and six Arabians competed on last season's first card in April, an average of 5.4.

In a shortened season in which it will race 116 days, 20 fewer than last year, Delaware chose to preserve its overnight purse structure at roughly $200,000 a day. To do that, the track eliminated 12 stakes and reduced the purses of 10 other added-money events, resulting in a savings of about $4 million that is being diverted to overnight races.

While there will be just 20 stakes, headed by the Grade 2, $1 million Delaware Handicap and the Grade 2, $300,000 Delaware Oaks on July 18-19, there should be more quality horses available for the day-to-day programs Pope will put together, thanks to an infusion of several high-profile trainers.

Pope's reputation in the Midwest helped to lure Cody Autrey, Ron Moquett, Mike Stidham, and Ronny Werner to Delaware for the first time. All will have between 30 and 40 horses stabled on the grounds.

Autrey and Moquett will make their presence felt early with five horses apiece on Saturday's card.

Todd Pletcher, who barely ran any horses at Delaware the past couple of seasons, will have 40 stalls this year.

Pope estimates that there are already more than 1,000 horses on the grounds and expects that more will soon arrive from Gulfstream Park, Tampa Bay Downs, and Keeneland.

The influx of new trainers should make things more challenging for Scott Lake in his bid for a track-record eighth straight Delaware title.

Ramon Dominguez, the track's leading rider each of the past five seasons, has moved to New York. His absence throws the jockeys' race wide open among last year's runner-up, Joe Rocco Jr., along with Jeremy Rose, Anna Napravnik, and Rosemary Homeister. Clinton Potts, who returns after a couple of years riding in California, and Justin Shepherd, a Midwest-based jockey who rode regularly at Remington Park last fall, are two new faces who could be prominent.

The opening-day feature, the $75,000 Vincent Moscarelli Memorial at six furlongs, drew a field of 10 older sprinters and will be the lone stakes during the first six weeks of the meet.

The contenders include Malibu Kid, third in the Grade 2 General George Handicap at Laurel last time out; Rollers, second in the Grade 2 Mr. Prospector at Gulfstream in January; and Secretintelligence, who dueled for the lead until the final furlong of the Grade 3 Count Fleet Sprint Handicap at Oaklawn two weeks ago.