11/21/2007 12:00AM

Newcomers give fresh look to meet

EmailFrom the stable area to the executive offices, Sam Houston Race Park has been infused with new blood for its 68-date Thoroughbred meet that opens Friday night.

Owner Jim McIngvale and trainers Dallas Keen and Bruce Jackson are among the fresh faces that have brought horses to town, while Andrea Young will be overseeing day-to-day operations for the track after being appointed its executive vice president and chief operating officer in March.

Despite the changes, there should be a familiar feel to the meet. Bob Bork, the general manager of Sam Houston since 1995, is still an integral part of the track, having been promoted to vice chairman.

As for major stakes, the Grade 3, $200,000 Connally Breeders' Cup Turf will again rank as the richest race of the season when it closes out the meet April 5. Other staples at the 13-year-old facility include the $475,000 Texas Champions Day program, which will be run Dec. 1. Track officials hope the $100,000 Maxxam Gold Cup - won last meet by the future Grade 1 winner Student Council - will get graded status before it is renewed Jan. 26.

"That's a target," said Eric Johnston, racing secretary at Sam Houston. "If Student Council can get up and win the Japan Cup [Dirt] this weekend, it would certainly be a feather in our cap."

Johnston had more than 1,700 applications for the 1,136 stalls at Sam Houston. He said Keen is back with a division after an absence, as is McIngvale, whose string of runners is to be managed by trainer Laura Wohlers. Jackson, who has some good turf horses, has a Sam Houston division for the first time, while other new players include trainers Ricky Gustafson and Tony Edison.

"There's about 15 to 20 percent new horses this meet," said Johnston.

Regulars returning with divisions include trainers Steve Asmussen and Bret Calhoun, as well as Danny Pish, the two-time defending training champ who captured his ninth straight Retama Park title last Saturday. Larry Taylor won the Sam Houston riding title last season and will lead a colony that includes Eguard Tejera, the leading rider at Retama, and Steve Bourque, a multiple title winner at Sam Houston.

Johnston said purses are budgeted at $115,000 a day, comparable to the meet in 2006-2007.

Young, a 29-year-old who served as president and chief operating officer of the WNBA's Houston Comets in 2006, ventured into horse racing because she said she sees "a lot of opportunity for new ideas, for new approaches, for out-of-the-box thinking, and the opportunity to make a difference.

"Most significantly this meet," she said, "we're executing some new abilities to ticket the venue, meaning you can purchase tickets in advance online, you can purchase them on the gate, you can use credit cards at the gate. Previously at the gates, your only option was a $4 admission, cash only."

The new ticketing policies will extend to dinner reservations and package deals. In another change, Sam Houston will race on New Year's Eve, a Monday, for the first time in many years.

"We're going to have a 10-minute fireworks display" following the races, said Young. "It will be a huge party."

In other executive changes, Shawn Hurwitz, vice chairman of the board of Sam Houston's parent company, Maxxam, has been named the track's president and chief executive officer. Earlier this year he said plans were to develop a new concert venue at Sam Houston, and the first phase of the project, which is located in the infield, was completed this summer. There will be two concerts held there opening weekend.