06/13/2004 11:00PM

Plenty of horses for opener

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SAN MATEO, Calif. - Northern California's annual whistle-stop tour of county fairs, which makes eight stops, begins Wednesday when the San Joaquin County Fair opens in Stockton.

Stops on the circuit, which include Thoroughbred, Arabian, Appaloosa, Quarter Horse and mule racing, are in Pleasanton, Vallejo, Santa Rosa, Ferndale, Sacramento, and Fresno, as well as a two-week stint at Bay Meadows for the San Mateo County Fair.

Stockton gets the circuit started Wednesday with 100 entrants on the 10-race card, which includes a Quarter Horse race, and ones for Arabians and mules. Ninety-four runners have signed up for Thursday's card.

The entries come despite an overlap with the final week of the Bay Meadows spring meet. Interestingly, Bay Meadows has one of its biggest Wednesday cards of the year, too, with 73 horses entered.

Stockton is coming off a good year in which it averaged 8.3 runners per race despite the one-week overlap. The success comes, in large part, from the recognition by Forrest White, the fair manager, and Bob Moreno, the racing secretary, of the importance of full fields.

As a result, the fair no longer offers Thoroughbred stakes races and concentrates instead on lower and mid-level claimers in an effort to provide better betting opportunities for fans.

"The last couple years, it has worked out," Moreno said.

"They've taken a realistic, pragmatic approach," said Chris Korby, executive director of the California Authority of Racing Fairs.

Stockton will not be the only fair that does not offer a stakes race this year. The Bay Meadows Fair has no stakes planned for Thoroughbreds or non-Thoroughbreds. Even the fair at Pleasanton has eliminated two 3-year-old stakes this year.

The fair authority has gone on a full-scale recruiting program in both Arizona and Oregon to attract trainers to the summer fair circuit. Changes in the workers' compensation law have helped make coming to California more attractive, as has a special relocation fee offered to help offset shipping charges.

Moreno says the horse population for Stockton is "a little lighter on the grounds" because 100 temporary stalls used last year are not available this year. But he said more horses are now stabled at Pleasanton and that he has found more horses from Arizona, as well as Thoroughbreds regularly stabled at Los Alamitos in Southern California have come north for the fair.

He said it is true for all breeds, with Quarter Horse races scheduled each of the meet's first two days after running only "four or five in the whole meet last year."

Korby looks forward to a strong year, pointing to continued backstretch improvements at the tracks, a new state-of-the-art equine ambulance that will be delivered to the circuit in July, and a workers' comp agreement that has already been reached with all of the non-Thoroughbred breed groups.

Starting in 2005, the fairs will also be able to offer turf racing with installation of a course at Santa Rosa. Construction of the course is underway with planting to begin immediately after this year's fair concludes.