06/12/2006 12:00AM

Revived stakes a sign of fair's optimism

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STOCKTON, Calif. - Northern California's two-month summer caravan begins Wednesday when the San Joaquin County Fair opens the fair racing season.

There are six stops on the circuit, with visits to Pleasanton, Vallejo, Santa Rosa, San Mateo, and Ferndale scheduled before racing returns to Golden Gate Fields on Aug. 24. The Big Fresno Fair will conduct racing in October.

The big news at Stockton is the revival of the Swepida Stakes for the first time this decade. The 5 1/2-furlong, $40,000 overnight stakes is scheduled for June 24.

San Joaquin County Fair CEO Forrest White, who eliminated the stakes program at the fair in an effort to card lower-level races that might attract larger fields, said he believes the time is right to try to upgrade the quality of racing.

"Last year, we did well," he said. "Our community is growing, and we have to get that across both to horsemen and fans, so we decided, 'Let's start stakes up again.' "

Chris Korby, executive director of the California Authority of Racing Fairs, views the return of a stakes race to Stockton as a positive.

"We thought it was a good feature to add an old race and bring back some tradition," he said. "We went through some belt-tightening. We hope the program will expand and grow each year."

The race is an overnight stakes that can be canceled if not enough runners enter.

"We can't afford short-field races," White said.

Both he and Korby are confident that the horse population should lead to good-sized fields at Stockton and the rest of the fair circuit.

"We should fill out our barn area," White said of his fair's 650 stalls. "A lot of out-of-state horses have come in, and that's a good sign."

Korby said that CARF has raised the relocation fee for trainers shipping more than 600 miles to compete in the fairs from $200 to $300. In addition, the starter fee in Thoroughbred races has been raised from $100 to $150.

In addition to recruiting in Arizona as usual, CARF made a new push into Oregon as well as Idaho, Washington, and Utah.

"Last year 150 horses shipped in and made 450 starts," Korby said. "Bay Meadows joined in the recruitment process this year, and I feel it's benefited northern California."

Korby said the fairs will have a consistent purse level to encourage competition at all the fairs rather than simply the bigger ones.

White hopes Stockton will get off to a good start with Bay Meadows remaining dark Wednesday and Thursday this week. Stockton will have a later post on Friday to serve as a bridge for California bettors between the morning and early afternoon out-of-state import races and the evening races at Bay Meadows and Hollywood Park.

Korby said the fairs have continued to improve their backstretches in an ongoing program.

The fairs will have a new voice this year in Frank Miramahdi, who will call races at all the fairs except Santa Rosa and Bay Meadows.

* A funeral will be held at 11 a.m. Wednesday at the Sunset View Mortuary in El Cerrito for Tom Mulligan, 82, a member of the Golden Gate Fields operations department for 45 years after a professional baseball career that saw him play for three teams in the Pacific Coast League. Mulligan, who also worked at Bay Meadows, Del Mar, Santa Anita, and Hollywood Park and owned several horses, died last Thursday.

At a glance:

* RACING SCHEDULE: 10 days - June 14-25. Dark Monday and Tuesday

* POST TIME: 12:45 p.m.; 3:15 p.m. Fridays

* MAJOR RACES: $40,000 Sweepida Stakes June 24

* ADMISSIONS: $8 adult (included in fair admission)

* PARKING: $5 general; $7 preferred

* LOCATION: 658 S. Airport Way, Stockton, CA

* PHONE: (209) 466-5041

* INTERNET: www.sanjoaquinfair.com