03/11/2006 1:00AM

O'Brien aims to be top owner in the nation


The owner Louis O'Brien and his trainer, Ralph Martinez, have started nine horses so far in the year 2006, but the floodgates are about to open.

The entries begin flying when Fairmount Park, the home track for O'Brien and Martinez, opens its doors late in the winter. This year's racing season begins Tuesday, and Martinez was ready when entries were taken Friday. He put horses in seven of the 10 races, and though the trainer Steve Manley entered in eight races Tuesday, Martinez is all but certain to top Fairmount's trainer lists both in volume of starters and number of wins.

At the 2005 Fairmount meet, Martinez racked up 131 victories, 72 more than the runner-up, Manley, and every one of them for his sole owner, the locally based businessman O'Brien. And this year, the pair has a more urgent goal, namely to make O'Brien the leading owner in the country, at least in terms of wins. That spot has been ruled in recent years by Mike Gill, but Gill has vastly scaled back his operation, and O'Brien, second nationally in wins last year, is the natural heir apparent.

"He wants to try and get it together and make a run at leading owner this year," Martinez said by phone last week. "We need to get going."

Martinez himself has ranked sixth in wins in the national standings the last two years, winning a total of 402 races since 2004. Right now he has 80 in training with reserves at the farm, and O'Brien is just starting to claim and buy horses in force.

"We'd like to be up to 100 by the summer," said Martinez.

Fairmount Park's racing secretary, Bobby Pace, said there were ups and downs to having a fish as big as Martinez in a pond as small as Fairmount's.

"It can be hard sometimes," Pace acknowledged, but at the same time, in Martinez, Pace knows he has a guy who will run, run, and then run some more.

Martinez also operates strings in Indiana, at both Indiana Downs and Hoosier Park, depending on the time of year, but said he isn't tempted to jump to a more major venue, like Chicago.

"Not right now, I don't want to change anything," Martinez said. "O'Brien's good to me. Everything I need, he gets. I've seen plenty of people try to reach too high and then go out and get hurt. O'Brien, he's from here, and he likes to claim, he likes to run horses - and he likes to win."

Stiritz stocked with good 2-year-olds

Bill Stiritz is part owner of Fairmount, but full owner of quite a great number of Thoroughbreds, and though Stiritz and his colorful trainer Jimmy Zook parted company last fall, the Stiritz operation rumbles forward.

Stiritz's horses now are trained at Fairmount with Terry Gestes, who had served as Zook's assistant. The stable also has 10 stalls at Hawthorne, and the horses in Chicago run for trainer Ron Shenofsky, who said he met Gestes about three years ago. Gestes himself is based at Fairmount, but also works at Stiritz's farm, breaking the many young horses coming up through the operation. Stiritz still goes to sales, but is reputedly a keen student of pedigree, and has bred many of his up-and-coming youngsters on his own.

And there are plenty of them. Gestes has 22 2-year-olds this year; the better ones will see action in Chicago rather than at Fairmount, and the best could even wind up in Kentucky, where Stiritz has done some good in the past.

"Ron's pretty much got the running horses up in Chicago right now," Gestes said. "A lot of these 2-year-olds here with me, we broke them and turned them out, and we're just now getting a line on them."

The Stiritz-owned 3-year-old filly Keystone Gulch looked good winning an allowance race for Shenofsky at Hawthorne last week, and could make her next start in a stakes race at Prairie Meadows. But the horse Gestes hopes could really make a splash for Stiritz early this year is named Wildwood Pegasus, a colt by Fusaichi Pegasus.

"He sure has been doing pretty good," Gestes said. "He's probably a couple months away from running, and we may be looking more in the Keeneland, Churchill route with him."

Hernandez back to defend title

The Fairmount jockey colony should look much like it did last season, though there will be more wins to pass around in the absence of Ramsey Zimmerman, who has not ridden since his license was revoked last July because of a drug positive. Rafael Hernandez, who won the jockey title with 121 wins last year, is back for more in 2006, and will stay busy, at least, on opening day. Also expected to win their share of races, especially early in the season, are Emmanuel Cosme, Roberto Villafan, and Danush Sukie.

At a glance:

* RACING SCHEDULE: 90 days; Tuesday through Sept. 4; racing Tuesdays, Fridays, and Saturdays, opening day to May 13 and from Aug. 22 through Sept. 2; add Thursdays from May 18 to Aug. 17; Monday racing on May 29 and Sept. 4; dark Tuesday, May 30

* POST TIME: 1 p.m. Central Mondays and Tuesdays; 7:30 p.m. Thursday to Saturday; 12:30 on Kentucky Derby Day, May 6

* ADMISSIONS: $1.50 on Tuesdays, $2.50 all other days.

* PARKING: General, free; preferred, $2; valet, $3

* SPECIAL EVENTS: Friday Party in the Park, $10; Ultra Thursdays, $7, starting May 18: both include admission, live music, buffet, and drink specials; First Turn Fiesta on Saturdays beginning March 25, $5: drink specials and taco bar

* STREET ADDRESS: 9301 Collinsville Road, Collinsville, Ill. 62234

* PHONE: (618) 345-4300

* INTERNET: Fairmountpark.com