02/22/2008 1:00AM

Purses, spirits high as Will Rogers Downs opens

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Will Rogers Downs in Claremore, Okla., has improved its purse structure, stakes schedule, and wagering format for its 44-date mixed meet for Thoroughbreds and Quarter Horses that opens Saturday. The season will run through May 27.

Will Rogers operates 250 electronic gaming machines, and their success has helped the track boost purses from $107,000 a day last meet to $148,000 a day. Will Rogers is also introducing four Thoroughbred stakes this meet, and has added a pick eight to the wagering menu. The new bet will be on races 4-11, which are all for Thoroughbreds.

Purses for Thoroughbreds are budgeted at $110,000 a day, up from $80,000 a year ago. The increase has helped fill the track's backstretch to capacity, with 614 horses on the grounds. They represent an abundance of trainers, some of them coming from as far away as Washington to this track, which is located 30 miles northeast of Tulsa.

"I think we're going to have a great meet," said Kelly Cathey, track operations manager and racing secretary at Will Rogers. "We have better horses this year. Every year, we have upgraded stock here.

"We're really piquing the interest of people."

Joe Lucas and Kenny Nolen, who tied for leading trainer last year, are back with stables. New faces include trainers Dan Kenny, Carmelo Mendoza, and Randy Oberlander.

Among riders, Nena Matz is back to defend her title in a colony that also includes Alex Birzer and Justin Shepherd. Ricky Frazier is also named to ride.

The track will race on Saturdays, Mondays, and Tuesdays, a slight schedule change from last year designed to enhance simulcast business. The addition of Tuesdays has helped Will Rogers get its signal into 398 sites. Among the new ones are Fair Grounds and Louisiana Downs, Cathey said.

There are 11 stakes scheduled, with the four new stakes the first for Thoroughbreds since Will Rogers reopened for racing in 2006. There are a pair of $50,000 stakes at six furlongs on May 3, and a pair of $35,000 stakes for Oklahoma-breds on May 17.

Mystical Moonlight, who just missed in a $100,000 optional claiming race at Remington Park on Nov. 25, will start as a top contender in the featured eighth race Saturday. The 5 1/2-furlong allowance for fillies and mares has a purse of $25,000.

Golden Hare, the winningest horse in North America in 2007, will make his season debut Monday at Will Rogers. He will be shooting for his seventh straight win in a six-furlong allowance.