09/09/2002 11:00PM

Sam Houston purses to rise

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The inaugural National Thoroughbred Racing Association Great State Challenge on Dec. 7 will highlight the 80-day Thoroughbred meet at Sam Houston Race Park, opening Nov. 1 and running through March 30. Purses at the meeting will increase to $120,000 a day.

The Great State Challenge is a traveling, year-end championship for statebreds from around the country. There are six divisional races worth $275,000 each, with automatic berths in the races going to the eight highest dues-paying states in the NTRA: California, Florida, Illinois, Kentucky, Maryland, New Jersey, New York, and Texas.

Other states will be invited to compete in the races, with the goal being to attract 12 to 14 horses to each field. On the Great State undercard, there will be four other stakes, bringing total purses on the program to $1.8 million, the richest day of racing in Texas. Special post is 1 p.m. Central.

In regard to the Great State Challenge, Bob Bork, president of Sam Houston, said: "Our mission is to set the standard for the rest of the country."

The addition of the Great State Challenge to the stakes lineup will push Texas Champions Day, a traditional program of eight Texas-bred stakes and the $150,000 Sam Houston Juvenile, back to Nov. 16.

In other changes at the meet, purses will go up from an average of $110,000 a day last year to $120,000. The hike is the result of an increase in handle on incoming simulcasts, and because the track will race two fewer dates than last meet.

Along with the Great State Challenge, other key events on the 38-race stakes schedule worth $2.2 million are the $200,000 Connally Breeders' Cup Turf on Feb. 15 and the $100,000 Maxxam Gold Cup on Jan. 18.

Spring construction for Evangeline

Construction on a new Evangeline Downs, the Lafayette, La., track that must move to a nearby parish to operate slot machines, could begin next spring, said Allen Bares, an attorney and lobbyist representing the track.

Plans call for building a slots casino and grandstand simultaneously at the new site. Some of the revenue from the casino will be used to enhance purses at the old Evangeline, which must be moved to the new site within two years of the date the ownership receives a gaming license from Louisiana.

The track's application for a slots license is currently being processed by the Louisiana Gaming Control Board.

The new site is located 11 miles north of the existing Evangeline. The project cost is estimated to be about $80 to $90 million, said Bares.

French Riviera may be alone in front

It will be tough to find a rival who can go early with French Riviera in the featured 10th race at Louisiana Downs in Bossier City, La., on Thursday. She appears to be the controlling speed in the 6 1/2-furlong allowance for fillies and mares, a race that will serve as a springboard to the Grade 3, $150,000-added Raven Run for 3-year-old fillies at Keeneland on Oct. 9.

French Riviera returned from a 14-month layoff on Aug. 18 and cruised to a 10-length win over entry-level allowance foes at Louisiana Downs. It was the second career win in three starts for the filly, who is owned by Barnett Stables and trained by Larry Robideaux. She will be ridden by Kirk LeBlanc.

Stretch threats to French Riviera include older fillies Lake Charles, who just missed to return winner Fuse It in her last start Aug. 23, and Star Engagement.

Jock Championship moves to Sunland

The American Quarter Horse Association Jockey Championship, which has been held at Lone Star Park for its first two runnings, will move to Sunland Park in New Mexico for its third renewal on Dec. 29.

The four-race competition, which pits 10 of the nation's top Quarter Horse riders against each other for more than $20,000 in prize money, is patterned after the NTRA's All-Star Jockey Championship.

The participants in this year's competition have not yet been determined. A committee will choose eight of the riders, while a ninth will be elected through a fan poll. The final berth will go to the leading rider at Sunland.

The races making up the competition will be stakes ranging in distance from 350 to 870 yards, each worth $25,000. The event raises money for the Jockeys' Guild Disabled Riders Fund.

* Justin Shepherd, 16-year-old son of jockey David Shepherd and trainer Sherri Shepherd, won his first career race as an apprentice jockey Friday night at Remington Park when he guided Stormie Britches ($11) to a neck win for trainer Mark Sellers.