08/09/2004 11:00PM

Pastoral fair ready to race

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FERNDALE, Calif. - For jockey Victor Miranda, few things are more enjoyable than competing in the Humboldt County Fair, which opens a 10-day run Thursday.

Racing in the picturesque Victorian village of Ferndale truly has a country fair atmosphere. Racing here hasn't changed that much since the first meeting held here in 1896.

Fair manager Stuart Titus looks forward to a good meeting, with improvements to the racing surface that make the track "the best for day one that we've ever had." With an increase in overnight purses, Titus expects larger fields, too.

The tiny half-mile track with unbanked turns produces plenty of thrills, as jockeys and horses unused to compact bullring racing sometimes have trouble trying to negotiate the turns.

Miranda, who has won more than 100 races at Ferndale, is one of the most adept riders at making the turns.

"I trained a lot on small racetracks," Miranda said. "You learn to get horses set for the turns. When you get them too tight into the turn, they fan out. Handling the turns is the main key at Ferndale."

Miranda enjoyed the best day of his career at Ferndale in 1996 when he won four races, including the C.J. Hindley Humboldt County Marathon aboard Prince Aglo, and set track records with each winner.

The Marathon on closing day, Aug. 22, is a 1 5/8-mile race that is one of the longest dirt stakes in the United States. Horses pass the finish line four times during the race.

With the retirement of Jim Burns, who has seven Ferndale riding championships, and the fact that Danny Boag is not riding, the Ferndale jockey title is up for grabs. The two had won the past seven jockey titles before Richard Sanchez captured the crown last year.

Sanchez will be back to compete with Miranda. Ryan Morris and Victor Navarro also figure in the battle to be the leading rider.

But as much as Miranda enjoys Ferndale, he is willing to spot his fellow riders one day of mounts this Saturday, when he returns to the Halleck Creek Riding Club in Nicasio, 45 minutes from Santa Rosa.

"We have 25 horses there, and we take developmentally disadvantaged children and adults on rides on Saturdays," he said. "You should see the joy they get riding a horse. It makes me realize how lucky I am."

In addition to the Marathon, four other Thoroughbred stakes are scheduled, as well as two stakes each for Arabians and mules.

Although he is retired, Burns will be at the fair and will co-host weekend handicapping seminars with track announcer John McGary.

Rider Dean Hall, who won more than 2,500 races in a career that began at Ferndale in 1960, will be saluted on opening day with a race named in his honor.