07/31/2005 11:00PM

New turf course draws praise, handle


SANTA ROSA, Calif. - Halfway through the Sonoma County Fair meet, the new turf course has proven a hit with trainers, jockeys, and bettors.

The seven-eighth-mile track is lush and green. It is so quiet that you can barely hear the horses on it as they run down the stretch in front of the grandstand. It has played fairly, with horses winning on the front end, from a stalking position, and from off the pace, from the inside and the outside.

The only glitch came opening day, when the first turf race had to be delayed for roughly 10 minutes because the tractor pulling the starting gate couldn't be unhitched.

The course has hosted two races per day since the start of the meet last Wednesday, with the exception of Friday, when only one turf race was run. It has held up magnificently and may be used a bit more the second week, including five-furlong sprints and a 1 3/8-mile marathon.

That will be all right with the fans, who have wagered $399,571 per turf race, about 20 to 25 percent more than on dirt races. That figure is one reason the meet is showing a healthy 6 percent rise in ontrack handle.

The fans gave a standing ovation when the first turf race was run on opening day, and nearly 5,000 champagne glasses were raised in salute as the horses broke from the gate in Saturday's first turf stakes, the Luther Burbank Handicap.

The turns are fairly sharp but banked steeply, which helps the horses maintain their balance and momentum.

"I didn't find any fault with it," said jockey Barrington Harvey, who won the inaugural race. "It's very well built. I walked the course, and it's interesting to see how they built drainage into it."

Penny Ante pays off

Penny Ante proved superior in the Luther Burbank, repelling a charge from the odds-on Pickle at the top of the lane and opening up through the stretch to win the 1 1/16-mile race under Frank Alvarado.

Penny Ante was a recent $32,000 claim, and Pickle had won back-to-back Grade 3 stakes this spring.

"It was just our day today," said winning trainer Billy Morey. "We liked her consistency on turf and dirt, but it looks like she's better on the turf. I knew my filly was really fit. When Pickle was failing to get in contention down the backside, I thought we might have a chance."

On Sunday, Bonfante, trained by Santa Rosa resident Steve Specht, won the six-furlong Ernest Finley for his third straight stakes win.

The victory was particularly sweet for jockey Dennis Carr, who got the mount when Miguel Perez kept a commitment to ride My Creed in the $100,000 Mt. Rainier Breeders' Cup Handicap at Emerald Downs. My Creed finished last there.

Carr had actually worked Bonfante more often than Perez, said Specht.

"The horse has been haunting me," said Carr, who ran second to Bonfante aboard Flying Supercon in the Sam Whiting at Pleasanton. "He's a neat horse."

In the previous race, Carr was aboard Callfire, who broke down in the stretch and was euthanized.

He comforted the colt's distraught trainer, Aggie Ordonez, after the accident.

"She was devastated," Carr said. "He was kind of the barn pet. I almost went over the fence walking back to the jocks' room. She was walking behind me and some fan yelled out, 'I hope they kill that horse. It cost me a lot of money.' Why would somebody do that? They saw how bad we felt."

Fermin meets fans

Ingrid Fermin, the executive director of the California Horse Racing Board, was a guest at a seminar on Saturday, answering a variety of questions for fans.

"Medication is a huge issue for me," said Fermin, who called the matter her primary priority to ensure a level playing field for horses and fans. She said that while it is the trainer's responsibility to guarantee the condition of the horse, that medication rulings were "previously too lenient" on veterinarians and suggested changes would be forthcoming.

She said she considers it a "real possibility" that the land on which Hollywood Park and Bay Meadows sit could be developed in the future, and said the racing calendar might be revamped whether or not both tracks remain open.

* At Friday's handicapping seminar, track announcer Vic Stauffer and jockey agent Ray Harris had their annual charity showdown. Stauffer flashed to an early lead and kept hammering away race after race, earning $200 for the Glen Ellen Vocational Academy, northern California's only nonprofit horse rescue and rehabilitation center.