04/06/2004 12:00AM

Ohio's busiest part of season gets under way


NORTH RANDALL, Ohio - The Ohio racing season hits its stride this week when Thistledown opens on Thursday, River Downs starts racing Friday, and Beulah Park keeps running until May 1.

Once again, the 187-day Thistledown season will be split into four meetings - Summit, Thistle-down, Randall, and Cranwood. The Cleveland-area track plans to pick up where it left off last season, with the full fields and also-eligibles that produced one of the most successful Cranwood meets.

The 2004 season will feature 26 stakes with a total value of $1,510,000, with the centerpiece being the 70th running of the Grade 2 Ohio Derby at 1 1/8 miles on June 12. This year's purse has been raised to $350,000, a $50,000 increase.

The Best of Ohio Series, which rotates among the three Ohio Thoroughbred tracks, will be held at Thistledown on Oct. 9. It is composed of five stakes races for Ohio-bredswith total purses of $295,000.

Racing will be on a five-day schedule, Thursday through Monday, with Tuesdays and Wednesdays dark. Starting April 26, the Thistledown and River Downs cards will be mingled in the 7&7 format, with each track running seven races and offering exotic bets that involve both cards.

The opening-day feature at Thistledown will be a 5 1/2-furlong prep for the April 24 Angenora Stakes. The $17,800 allowance has drawn a field of eight Ohio-bred fillies and mares, including the Alan Sobol-trained entry of Baba Gonzo and Bolaro, both owned by Edward S. Marshall.

Baba Gonzo is a 3-year-old daughter of Elusive Quality out of the Meadowlake mare Meadowlake Mist. She ships up from Gulfstream Park, where she earned a second and a third from three allowance starts but finished eighth of nine in the Old Hat Stakes. She has early speed and is capable of wiring this field. Babo Gonzo will carry 113 pounds and will be ridden by Luis J. Martinez Jr.

Main opposition for Baba Gonzo should come from Orangeberry, trained by Albert Palacios, and Red Hot Helen, trained by Donn Rowe.

Before the first race on opening day, Thistledown will hold a special memorial ceremony for jockey Mike Rowland. Rowland died Feb. 7 at University Hospital In Cincinnati after suffering injuries in a spill at Turfway Park on Feb. 2.

Rowland came to Thistledown in 1984 and won a record 29 individual meeting titles and seven leading rider titles, awarded to the season's overall winningest jockey. He won 3,998 races during his 24-year career. Thistledown's Quick Step Handicap has been renamed the Michael Rowland Memorial, to be run May 8.

Post time is 1:15 p.m. Eastern daily. The first two races offer early daily-double wagering, and all races have exactas, trifectas, superfectas, and rolling pick threes. A late daily double is offered on the final two races.