01/20/2005 12:00AM

New year brings new surface as meet gets under way

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Live racing returns to Laurel Park for the first time since last March on Saturday, when the newly rebuilt 1 1/8-mile main track will be unveiled to the public during a nine-race card highlighted by the What a Summer, a $50,000 stakes for filly and mare sprinters.

The new dirt surface, which opened for training on Jan. 9, has drawn favorable reviews from horsemen and riders.

"The track is great," said Mario Pino, Maryland's all-time leading rider. "It is big and has a good bounce to it. It reminds me of Colonial Downs because of the sweeping turns."

The main course has been elevated and increased in width from 75 to 95 feet. One-mile races will now be conducted around one turn.

Weather-related construction delays and unexpected problems with the track's foundation pushed back opening day several times. Originally, Laurel was expected to be ready for its traditional fall meet in October. But the meet's start was delayed until Nov. 4, then reset for Dec. 26, and finally targeted for Jan. 22.

Fans in attendance at Laurel, which is located midway between Baltimore and Washington D.C., will be greeted by a refurbished dining room, new color infield tote and video boards, and something known as the Horse Wizard, a group of nearly 40 machines designed to provide novices a slots-like experience while betting on live horse races from around the country.

Opening day will feature free admission, a free program, and a keychain to the first 5,000 fans.

"We are taking more of a guest-service approach to make visits to the track more pleasurable and entertaining," said Jim Gagliano, executive vice president of Maryland racing operations. "With its ideal location and now improved racing facilities, we look forward to a rebirth at Laurel Park."

A wicked one-two punch from Old Man Winter could give the new track an immediate test. The advance weather forecast calls for a mixture of sleet and snow on Saturday, followed by snow on Sunday, with the temperature both days expected to top out in the mid- to upper 20's.

The opening-day feature will pit nine fillies and mares racing six furlongs. Wallop, winner of the $75,000 New Year's Eve at Mountaineer in her last start, and Sensibly Chic, who beat Wallop by a length in winning the Stefanita at Pimlico two starts ago, own the best recent form against stakes competition.

Bronze Abe, a 6-year-old mare with 11 lifetime victories and $515,064 in earnings, makes her first start since November. Although she won four stakes in 2004, she ended her campaign by losing four in a row, including three as the favorite.

At a glance

RACING SCHEDULE: 62 days; Saturday through April 17; racing on Wednesday through Sunday. Special Monday card on Feb. 21.

POST TIME: 12:35 p.m. Eastern.

HIGHLIGHTS: Grade 2, $200,000 Barbara Fritchie Handicap for fillies and mares, Feb. 19; Grade 2, $200,000 General George Handicap, Feb. 21.

ADMISSIONS: $3, grandstand and clubhouse

PARKING: General free; preferred $2; valet $5; park and lock, $5

LOCATION: Route 198, Laurel, Md., midway between Baltimore and Washington. Four miles east of I-95 exit 33, two miles west of Baltimore-Washington Parkway (Rte. 295).

PHONE: (301) 725-0400

INTERNET: www.laurelpark.com