01/18/2017 4:06PM

Sam Houston meet front-loaded with big races

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Sam Houston Race Park opens its 32-date meet Friday night with its biggest program of the year on the horizon. The Grade 3, $400,000 Houston Ladies Classic and the Grade 3, $250,000 Connally Turf Cup will anchor a card of five stakes Jan. 29. Racing at Sam Houston will continue through March 14.

The Houston Ladies Classic for fillies and mares at 1 1/16 miles is the richest Thoroughbred race in Texas. It will be run on a Sunday afternoon card in a departure from its traditional Saturday night slot. One of the reasons for the change is to avoid a conflict with the new Pegasus World Cup on Jan. 28 at Gulfstream Park.

“We always try to position ourselves in kind of good spots on the calendar so we can be more competitive,” said Andrea Young, president of Sam Houston. “We looked around the country, and there’s not a lot going on that Sunday. We’re the big race in town. We said this looks like an opportunity. We kind of want to see if we can grow the day a little bit more by moving it to a Sunday. Obviously, there’s a lot more wagering across the country during the afternoon on a Sunday than there is at 9 p.m. Central on a Saturday.”

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The Houston Ladies Classic card will be the lone Sunday program of the meet. Sam Houston will race on Friday and Saturday nights and on Monday and Tuesday afternoons. The track has moved up its post for the afternoon cards about an hour to noon.

The stakes schedule for Sam Houston is worth $2 million. The season traditionally opens with Texas Champions Weekend, when seven divisional stakes for statebreds are run, but those races have been postponed. Sam Houston has been closed to horses from Louisiana in light of the equine herpesvirus outbreak at Fair Grounds in New Orleans.

“We’re going to reschedule the Texas Champions stakes,” Young said Monday. “It may be difficult to do all seven races on the same weekend. We may have to space them out a little bit, but we will reschedule them.”

There are a number of Texas-bred stakes horses based in Louisiana.

Other highlights of the stakes schedule include the $100,000 Maxxam Gold Cup. The 1 1/8-mile race for 4-year-olds and up will anchor a card of four stakes Feb. 25.

Purses for the meet are projected to average $160,000 a program, said Young. Matt Crawford is the new racing secretary at Sam Houston.

“We’re excited about the energy Matt brings to the program,” Young said.

Hall of Fame trainer Steve Asmussen is among those with divisions at Sam Houston. He won the track’s trainer and owner titles last year. Karl Broberg, who led all North American-based trainers in wins in 2016, also will be active at Sam Houston. Among riders, Iram Diego returns after winning last year’s title.