07/12/2010 12:00AM

Sacramento meet opens in earlier slot

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Horse racing's new Northern California racing schedule takes a fork in the road starting Wednesday when the California State Fair opens in Sacramento.

The state fair was traditionally held in late August, concluding on Labor Day weekend, but the dates were changed this year. With the fair open earlier this summer, the meet runs this year from Wednesday through July 25.

With Solano eliminated as a racing fair, the switch in dates for Sacramento blends perfectly with the rest of the fair meet schedule.

Last year's Sacramento meet saw gains in handle over the 2008 meet, and director of racing David Elliott hopes lessons learned last year will lead to another strong meet.

Last year, Sacramento cut back on allowance races, and increased purses for claiming races from the $3,200 level to the $16,000 level. As a result, entries were up over the previous year. Sacramento is using the same strategy this year.

"We were up in every area last year," said Elliott. "We're hopeful that can happen again."

The horse population is up over last year with 525 horses on the grounds, about 100 more than the 425 last year.

"I think we have the correct model here," said racing secretary Tom Doutrich.

The earlier slot also could help attract the better horses that skipped last year's meet to run at the subsequent Golden Gate Fields meet, which was conducted in the cooler weather of the Bay Area.

The state fair will offer only one stakes this year, the $75,000 California State Fair Fillies & Mares Sprint on Saturday. The stakes drew 16 nominees, and Doutrich hopes the $75,000 purse might lure a few entrants from Southern California.

The track is offering a $10,000 handicapping contest on Wednesday called the Northern California Handicapping Challenge. The free contest can be played at the track as well as at all Northern California satellite facilities. It offers $5,000 to the winner, $2,500 to second, $1,000 to third, $500 to fourth, and $100 for fifth through 14th.

The track will hand out $2 betting vouchers Wednesday good for the daily double on the fourth and fifth races.