02/18/2004 1:00AM

Oaks a Grade 2 again; New Castle now Rooney

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For the first time in more than 20 years, the Delaware Oaks has regained its status as a Grade 2 race.

The $500,000 Oaks, scheduled for July 17, was reintroduced to Delaware Park's stakes schedule in 1996 after being discontinued in 1983. The 1 1/16-mile Oaks was last run as a Grade 2 race in 1982. Island Fashion, who won last year's Oaks as a Grade 3, went on to win the Alabama at Saratoga and the La Brea at Santa Anita.

Other significant changes on Delaware's 2004 schedule of 30 stakes - worth a cumulative $4.1 million - are the introduction of the John W. Rooney Stakes and date changes for a pair of Grade 3 races, the Kent Breeders' Cup and the Leonard Richards.

The Rooney, formerly the New Castle Handicap, is named after John W. Rooney, who worked at the track as an executive for 44 years before his death this year. A 1 1/8-mile turf race for fillies and mares, it is worth $100,000 and will be run on June 5.

The $250,000 Richards, a 1 1/16-mile race on the main track for 3-year-olds, will replace the Kent as one of three stakes on the July 18 Delaware Handicap program. The Kent, a 1/8-mile turf race for 3-year-olds, has been moved to June 26.

The track's premier event, the Grade 2 Delaware Handicap, will again be worth $750,000.

Pending approval of the Delaware Racing Commission, the track will run 135 days from April 24 to Nov. 7.