04/15/2005 12:00AM

Numbers reflect a quiet opener at Lone Star


GRAND PRAIRIE, Texas - The loudest roar from the crowd on opening night Thursday at Lone Star Park came shortly before the sixth race, when Expecting Sugar, who had gotten loose during the post parade, completed a rider-less circuit around the racetrack and galloped past the fans, trying to figure out what in the world was going on. The crowd greeted Expecting Sugar with an exuberant Texas whoop.

Besides the one runaway horse, opening night otherwise came off without a hitch - no surprise at this neatly groomed, cozy racetrack. The weather was cool and clear, and there might have been traces of momentum lingering from last fall's Breeders' Cup meet, but attendance and handle for the evening had to disappoint management. Only 8,603 fans showed up, down from 11,107 on opening night last spring, and down from 14,123 in 2002. There were outside pressures, however, like the final game in the home-opening series for the Texas Rangers, whose stadium is located minutes west of Lone Star. Also, this is the weekend of a major Nascar event in the Dallas-Ft. Worth metro area; close to 200,000 people will attend Sunday's race.

Handle also sank from 2004 levels. Ontrack handle fell from $847,788 to $747,597, a drop of more than $100,000, while out-of-state handle on the Lone Star Live card was off more than $433,000 from last year, down to $1,853,493 from $2,287,380.

Still, the fans, a decidedly younger-slanting crowd for this era of horse racing, seemed relaxed and happy. "There's excitement out there tonight," said Lone Star vice president and general manager Jeff Greco. "That's what got us where we are."

C.B. Marsters of nearby Hurst, Tex., sat on the apron studying his Racing Form at mid-card. While children cavorted around the open park area at the north end of the track, and young couples clustered in groups near the rail, Marsters tried to piece together a winning trifecta while remaining far removed from the prevailing Lone Star demographic.

"I'm 81," Marsters said. "I was born and raised on a horse. I just love horse racing, and that's why I'm here."

This is home, too, for trainer Steve Asmussen, who was in Kentucky on Thursday, but wasted no time getting his Lone Star meet started, with wins in two of the first three races, and three of the first five.

In the meet opener, the Premiere Stakes produced one of the few surprises on a favorite-filled program, with 7-year-old Rare Curse pulling a $32.60 upset over heavily favored Yessirgeneralsir. Yessirgeneralsir turned for home with the lead, but either grew weary or lost his focus in the final furlong and was passed on the wire by Rare Cure and jockey Cliff Berry.

"At the eighth pole, I knew we had them," said Berry, who rode Rare Cure for owner Larry Dyson and trainer Joe Petalino.

Agrivating General, who was trying for his third straight win in the Premiere, was stepped on leaving the gate and suffered an injured hoof, but ran on to finish third.