11/26/2009 12:00AM

New look, new tote for Sam Houston reopening

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Thoroughbred racing returns to Sam Houston Race Park for the first time in 18 months on Friday night, and those who have not been to the track since Hurricane Ike foiled the 2008-2009 season are in for a host of changes. From a new state-of-the-art tote board to a new grandstand roof and a new date for its biggest race, the Grade 3, $200,000 Connally Turf Cup, there is a fresh look to racing in Houston.

"I think people will see a lot of physical changes and hopefully view them as improvements to the facility," said Andrea Young, president of Sam Houston.

The most notable is the tote board, which will enable Sam Houston's maximum field size to increase from 12 to 14 starters, said Eric Johnston, vice president of racing for Sam Houston.

"We'll be running 14-horse fields where they fill, obviously," he said. "That will give us a couple of extra betting interests."

The LED video section of the tote board is 19 feet high by 38 feet wide, with advanced video capabilities, Young said. Sam Houston had to replace its old one after it was damaged by Hurricane Ike, which made landfall an hour south of the track in Galveston, Texas, on Sept. 13, 2008. The winds and heavy rains from the storm caused structural damage to the track's roof and to some of the barns and dormitories. Soon after, the decision was made to move a portion of Sam Houston's scheduled dates to Retama Park.

Since the storm, Sam Houston has made $10 million in improvements, with about 60 to 70 percent of that amount being dedicated to the new roof and tote board, Young said. The track also has new furniture and finishings and will institute a no smoking policy in the facility, with ample exterior facilities to accommodate smokers, said Young.

On the racing side of operations, Johnston said there are two benefits to moving the Connally Cup to Jan. 30. The 1 1/8-mile turf race had previously been runthe first weekend in April.

There are no other major turf races within a reasonable timeframe of the new Connally date, with the exception of the Sunshine Millions. In addition, its scheduling fits better with the new late March date for the Grade 2 Mervin Muniz at neighboring Fair Grounds.

The Connally is the richest race on the track's $1.2 million stakes docket, but it would rank second were a proposed $1.5-million race sponsored by Gallery Furniture to take place at the track Jan. 30. The 1 1/8-mile stakes, which is open to both males and females, will be a go only if Rachel Alexandra and Zenyatta commit, and although Zenyatta is expected to retire, Sam Houston is trying to make the yet-to-be-named race happen.

"We sent invitations to the connections the other day, and we'll follow up with those," said Johnston.

Gallery Furniture is also sponsoring another new stakes this meet, the $100,000 Distaff at 1 1/8 mile. It will be the lone open-company race on the Texas Champions Day card Dec. 5, which features eight stakes worth a combined $500,000.

Johnston received 1,700 requests for the track's 1,134 stalls this meet, with top trainers Steve Asmussen, Bret Calhoun, Danny Pish, and John Locke all having divisions on the grounds. Among riders, Eguard Tejera arrives off his fourth straight title at Retama.

Purses are budgeted at $100,000 daily.

Also for the new meet, Sam Houston has streamlined its admissions by increasing the cost of entrance from $4 to $6, but eliminating its previous $5 parking fee. The track also has a new voice in announcer Tom Harris.

Sam Houston will race 60 nights through April 3.